One thing from the 90s that we no longer see on the back of video game boxes - something that I can't help but miss because of how endearing it was - is a feature list of moves a character can do. I bet most of you have noticed it at least once. It goes something like this: "Captain Dumdum can jump, duck, swim, roll, spin, flex his muscular asscheeks and write strongly worded emails." You don't see that anymore. There's no money in it. All the marketing today goes towards how impressive the worlds look, and often how big they are. If there is a list of features, it usually mentions multiplayer modes, campaign length and social features.
In all honesty, I can live without having seeing the 90s way of doing this making a return. But it does interest me looking back because, aside from being charming, it's also indicative of something that has existed before and long since those days. An element some games lack and others revel in. A secret spice which to some people can define the entire experience.
In this 2012 interview with Ted Price of Insomniac Games, Ted talks about the development of Spyro the Dragon, as well as the game's various influences. The most interesting part of the interview happens about 5 minutes in, as he talks about Super Mario 64, a game that influenced nearly everything. He specifically mentions how it jumped out to the team that the game was fun to play even in absense of any sort of challenge or clear objective, which was strange considering that 'completing the objective' is traditionally the part that's supposed to be entertaining in a video game. Yet it turned out that Mario was so much fun to control that the game was enjoyable long before you'd start looking for stars. So of course, Insomniac followed that very same philosophy. To quote the video: "...what ended up happening was the game was fun before we even put in enemies". According to Ted, the Insomniac's Chief Creative Officer Brian Hastings described this element of the game with the term 'toy factor'.
Ever since I first saw that interview, thoughts about those words have rested in the back of my head, evolving over time as I've started to realise how clever this concept is. If you take the game part out of a real life game, you're usually left with a toy. - a ball, a set of chess pieces, anything like that. Something that lacks the satisfaction of conquering a challenge, but which is still fun to play with by itself. The way I define it is that if you were to remove the objective of a video game and end up with something that's still entertaining, then I'd say that the game has toy factor. It's not a term I've come across anywhere else before, not even when actively looking for it, so I assume it's not really recognised as 'a thing' among non-Insomniac developers.
Still, the idea of toy factor explains so much more about my own personal preferences in video games than anything else I can think of. This is because I've come to understand how much of an impact it usually has on my overall enjoyment, as well as how much this differs from person to person.
A lot of very old games don't have it. Games from before my time especially. Early games didn't have a lot of opportunities for it because of technical limitations, so pretty much all of them worked by Pong logic - You've got a goal you need to work towards and a small set of tools to help you get there. Everything you could do in those games would exist to help you make it through or get the highest score, and the entertainment value came from the reward of finally overcoming the challenge presented to you. It worked then, and it continues to work today, but I don't personally find it ideal for many different types of games anymore. Adding that extra level of playfulness became very popular in the 90s, so that's what I ended up getting used to.
It's hard for me not to think of Capcom when thinking about toy factor, because that is a company behind the creation of games which both severely lack it and have it in spades. Their earlier stuff had very strict design, and has continued this trend even when it flies in the face of what's otherwise popular.
For platformers, we got Mega Man: A game about a little robot guy who can run, jump and fire his weapon. If you're lucky, you can have a slide or a wall jump too - but not without also having to clear tons of obstacles that force you to master those abilities. Because Mega Man is hard as shit, and it's completely serious about its challenges, which in my mind completely betrays the series' cutesy style. Even the fun looking weapons are usually pretty unintuitive, are limited in use, and basically only exist to create this weird boss-weakness domino effect. Having grown up with stuff like Mario, Rayman, Sonic and Ratchet & Clank, all games that are more lenient in their difficulty and have way more toy factor (except Rayman 1, I mean hooooly fuck the nightmares), trying MM for the first time felt like a very precise elbow strike to the sensitive parts. As much as I appreciate their existence and legacy, I need to be in a very good mood to play those games.
What about their fighting games? Street Fighter may have started the whole genre and remained popular, but it is not even remotely symbolic of what I associate with the genre - because I am a baby, as we have established. Everyone under 30 is a dumb child, and us dumb children mostly grew up with Tekken, a game where every character has a 100 moves, many of which are totally unnecessary and only exist because someone thought they'd be fun to add. That someone was correct, and this approach was the main reason I began to care about fighting games in the first place. I never made an effort to actually figuring out the systems until way later. I'd just have fun mashing buttons against other kids and beating up dummies in practice modes. Other 3D fighters like Dead or Alive hold a similar appeal to me. Street Fighter has a fun style and memorable characters, but it's completely serious all the time with its extremely limited moves that all serve a very specific purpose and take much better timing to pull off. It's not even close to offering the same kind of experience. It's the difference between playing with action figures and playing rock, paper, scissors.
Mega Man and Street Fighter are both games that have very few elements that allow you to make the experience feel like your own, and neither have really managed to grab me like their competition has. So how come Resident Evil, the scary horror series clearly meant for older audiences, is the one to break this pattern? I know that these franchises are handled by different people, and I know that being from the same company shouldn't mean they can't be different, but games like RE4 and 5 don't even feel like they're from the same planet. They are full of silly little moves and features that are completely unnecessary, but (again) all of which adds so much. You can stun enemies to kick them in the face or suplex them. You can lure them into traps. You can throw eggs. In the realm of horror games, it's definitely the Mario/Tekken to Silent Hill's Mega Man/Street Fighter - and as to be expected, that means I've come to like it more.
Fittingly, my favourite Capcom game is also one of the most toy factor-rich games I've ever played. God Hand is an extremely silly game that's overflowing with moves that are only there for the sake of variety, to the point where there's an entire roulette of them. The game would've been alright if it had been like Street Fighter, with one move to cover every function. It could have worked fine - but the addition of the roulette and the custom combos makes it fantastic! It makes the intense challenge of it more fun when I can choose a new strategy almost every time I fail, as opposed to the old fashioned way of just having to do it again, only better than before. That's why I stuck with it all the way to the end.
Several games are elevated by having toy factor, and I'd argue that entire genres are vastly improved by it too. Stealth games come to mind. I like to pretend that I play these games because of the thrill of infiltrating a stronghold and the tension of having to remain hidden while moving forward. The reality is that I just enjoy creating my own physical comedy. In Metal Gear, I'll distract a guard with filthy magazines, hold him up and slam him into the ground. In Mark of the Ninja, I'll hang a guard in a tree to make another guard poop his pants in fear. In Hitman, I'll dress up as a chef and get one with a can of spaghetti sauce. In Splinter Cell, I'll distract one with a mariachi music and get him with a stun gun. To me, stealth games live and die on what they let me do, rather than how they challenge my ability to hide behind a wall or crawl slowly through the shadows.
In a similar fashion, best stealth tools to me are rarely the ones that makes sneaking and killing most efficient. They are the ones that let me alter the world in ways I find amusing - which usually means fucking with the guards. It either comes down to knocking them out in amusing ways or altering their behaviour in ways that set them up for failure. I've spent a lot of time in Metal Gear Solid 3 trying to see how much I could do with the guards - completely forgetting my objective in the process. What makes these games work so well is that they usually encourage this kind of creativity by making the standard solutions almost useless in many cases (at least the first time around), so that working your way to the objective and making your own fun goes hand in hand. I feel like this explains why stealth games have a strong following despite how slow paced they can be.
Rockstar Games are arguably the kings and queens of toy factor. I can't think of any games before their Grand Theft Auto series that people could play for hours without ever making any sort of progress in the story. I know I have played several of these games, but I never bothered to finish any of them until GTA V, which was when the missions became interesting enough - and my attention span long enough - for me to bother going through the story. It was fun, but all of my favourite memories are from what I did during the down time.
Stunt driving, crashing pool parties, trying to escape the police (with little success). That's what I'm really here for. I love using Franklins ability to slow down time while driving to make some sick jumps. I love planting C4 on golf carts and driving them into stores. I love the cheat that gives you explosive punches. While I might have gotten sick of open world games over the years, I probably wouldn't mind so much if they were all like this - if they were all sandbox games, rather than traditional games with more open space to traverse.
Some other games get it right too, though, and they usually have their own unique fun to offer. In the Saints Row series, it's everything from picking up garbage cans to smack people with, to fighting aliens with superpowers. In Prototype, you get the privilege of being able to pile drive some rando from the tallest building and copy his/her appearance in order to blend in. You can also tear off a missile launcher from a tank and fire it at a helicopter or at the adoring crowd.
While I certainly don't want or expect every game to be a sandbox, I'd be lying to myself if I were to say that having some degree of toy factor doesn't usually help me enjoy a video game. It's not always a necessary addition, and I do often need my share of straightforward tasks to keep the experience grounded, but most genres - especially ones in which you have full control of a character - definitely benefit from it. My love for this element also explains why my favourite game to this day is one in which you're literally a kid who's saving the world by playing with toys.
Fun movement, varied gadgets, plenty of combat moves - stuff like this all helps adding toy factor to games. Whether or not it's something that's already well known and documented in "the biz", I'm happy to finally have a simple way to explain why I like certain games over others. Toy factor is a wonderful thing, and it's something that has kept me playing games for a long time.