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Instant Replay: Good games are always good.

I wrote this awhile ago and thought that it would be worth posting before the end of the month anyway, even if it's not quite refined enough or some such. anyhow

verb |rēˈplā; ˈrē-| [ trans. ]
1 play back (a recording on tape, video, or film) : he could stop the tape and replay it whenever he wished.
• figurative repeat (something, esp. an event or sequence of events) : she replayed in her mind every detail of the night before.
2 play (a match or contest) again to decide a winner after the original encounter ended in a draw or contentious result.
noun |ˈrēˌplā|
1 the playing again of a section of a recording, esp. so as to be able to watch an incident more closely : clouds can be studied in speeded-up replay | the umpire studied TV replays.
• figurative an occurrence that closely follows the pattern of a previous event : a replay of last summer's civil disturbance.
2 a replayed match.

Game life is a pretty big deal to video gamers these days. Considering that games have been getting more expensive, we all want to feel like the eighty dollars we spend on a purchase is worthwhile; as consumers, we have come to expect it. With the average $80 game clocking in at about 12 hours from start to finish, this means we pay, on average, 6.666... dollars an hour. To some, this is hardly ideal. To developers and publishers, it is advantageous to be able to vouch for the lifespan of your game; A longer game means a sweeter deal, and a sweeter deal means better sales. To this end, there are a number of tactics we see often in games that offer us an extension: incentive to keep us playing after the credits have rolled: Unlockable content, the infamous 'Achievements,' branching paths, multiple endings, New Game+, or simply just a lot of stuff to do. The problem is, though, that these methods are limited; they can only extend a game's life to a point. I contend that this does not and cannot constitute replayability. While there are some game mechanics that can potentially provide endless incentive to come back, in the end, we come back to the games we love because we love them. A game is only truly replayable when it wholly envelops us; when we know we've found something special. A well-made and truly replayable game transcends simply being a game, and becomes a whole world, a place we feel magnetized to, inclined to revisit again and again. The most effective path to infinite replayability is simply good, honest design.

Allow me to explain.

Let's quickly look at a couple of games and the incentives they offer the player for replay. Front Mission 3 is a game that offers us branching paths: One simple choice at the beginning offers us two whole campaigns, at least 20 hours apiece, granted you don't speed your way through the dense and involving plot. Silent Hill (and its successors) offers us multiple endings, based on a few key actions throughout the game. There are five in this case, one of which is only accessible after getting a specific ending on a previous playthrough. Chrono Trigger offers us New Game+, the chance to start a new, fresh playthrough with all of our levels and equipment from our previous game intact. Oh, and there's also 11 more endings to see. Metal Gear Solid offers us two different endings, as well as an assortment of unlockables, rewarded to players who finish the game under certain requirements. Lastly, Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion simply offers us a metric ton of things to do and stuff to get, and, like all X360 games, there are achievements to achieve for gamerscore and bragging rights.

So there's definitely stuff for us to do after we're done; this brings up a couple questions. For instance, if we haven't seen everything a game has to offer, are we actually done with the game? A great deal of the gamer community feels burning in their hearts 'The Gamer's Duty,' to play a game to its fullest: to see everything there is to see and unlock everything there is to unlock. The game isn't complete until it's 100% complete, thus the inflated hour count we are likely to see on the back of the game box. If that holds, then, there really is no incentive to replay the game after all is said and done. Furthermore, does it not seem kind of arrogant to assume that every player is willing to play all the way through your silly game again just for a new costume or a fancy item or another ending? Or to assume that looking for needles in your haystack of a game is something that we are inclined to enjoy? After painstakingly wading through a massive game like Oblivion, in which we are sent flower picking as punishment for messing with the Mages' Guild, don't you think that we might get tired of it? In Twilight Princess, a game that effortlessly convinces us that pressing A over and over is an experience, we are compelled to scurry about, collecting five pieces of heart instead of four, in a cruel effort to feign an extra ten hours of game. These life-extending features are so often like a friendly drug dealer; you'll happily chase him about, but on his terms, not your own.

Granted, there do exist game mechanics that potentially offer us unlimited incentive to return. As Orcist described in his article, a level select mechanic can mathematically offer us an absurd number of ways to play a game, simply by virtue of allowing the freedom to choose. All Mega Man or Gunstar Heroes had to do was let you pick where you're going next, and suddenly there are tens of thousands of possibilities for the experience. A score counter can offer the player endless incentive to return to a game. Quantifying the player's performance in this way turns any game into an elaborate puzzle, a test of wits. A score counter allows a game to clearly announce itself as a game, which is exactly what it is; games that are played in the spirit of competition, or a personal measure of knowledge and skill, provide not only infinite incentive to return to a game, but also provide incentive for community and shared experience. Pursuing that line of thought, competitive and cooperative multiplayer and community can dramatically extend a game's life; Street Fighter II is still competitively popular after more than a decade, and a game like Ikaruga becomes practically a whole new experience when you play with a friend.

Unfortunately, even these methods are constrained, mostly by virtue of being incompatible with certain genres of gaming. In a heavily narrative and primarily single player genre like the RPG or adventure game, where do these mechanics fit in? Linearity is generally beneficial to good storytelling, a score system is mostly inconsequential outside of the puzzle or action game, and multiplayer can often be an afterthought to a primarily single-player experience.

So, where do we go from here?

Why do we come back to the games we love?

I love Bare Knuckle 3. Since the day I first played its North American incarnation, I continue to come back to this game, again and again. To me, it represents the absolute pinnacle of a genre; It's easy to learn, hard to master. It's fast, aggressive and challenging. It's a hardcore techno-punk rock crime-boss furious whirlwind of vigilante street justice. Okay, sure, it's got multiple endings, branching paths, multiple characters, multiplayer, a scoreboard, secret characters, the whole nine yards. I have seen the entire game, over and over, and I've done everything there is to do, and I keep coming back, because I get 'The Feeling' from it. It's more than the sum of its parts - every aspect of the game, from the heavy beats and barely sensible plot to the cyborg scientists and boxing kangaroos, is giving its whole self over to a feeling of unbridaled intensity. The game knows what it wants out of you and pursues that feeling relentlessly. The result is (surprise!) an unbelievably intense and exciting ride through a city where everyone is out to get you. Though the North American release suffered from a few poor localization decisions, Bare Knuckle 3 is infinitely replayable because it's so well designed and executed that it feels exactly as it should, which isn't easy to come by anymore.

I love Zone of the Enders 2. Though it's not a particularly popular game, perhaps due to its substandard predecessor, ZOE2 is a game I have yet to tire of. The main single player game is only about 8 hours long; it has its fair share of stuff to find and things to unlock, as well. That's not what makes this game replayable. I keep coming back to it because I get 'The Feeling' from it. Again, it's more than the sum of its parts: The subtle mixture of polygonal and cel-shaded graphics, the deep oranges, blues and turquoises that make up the landscape, The natural and zen-like control, the ludicrous speed of combat, the mech designs, the brilliantly cohesive setting (there's even a plot device to explain why you never leave your mech,) and even the rather lax difficulty - every game element contributes to forming a rich, cohesive world, wherein you are in complete control of the (second) most deadly piece of machinery in the entire solar system. And when you're dashing every which way at ludicrous speeds, effortlessly tossing your opponents into each other, clashing wrist blades, swinging huge girders about, hurling massive volleys of lasers, and watching the smoke from your foe's remains wisp off the body of your mech as you emerge from the chaos, all the while feeling in total control; you can't help but feel like you're right there. And the feeling is such that I cannot help but revisit it, such is the cohesion and focus of design demonstrated here. ZOE2 is replayable because every design element serves the whole: the result is a experience that makes sense and ages well, making it compelling for us to revisit.

I'm sorry, I can't help myself: Earthbound is, without a doubt, my favorite game of all time, and perhaps the best example of what I'm trying to convey in this rather large and unwieldy essay. Earthbound is a brilliantly shining example of what happens when someone very genuinely wants to make people happy. There's just so much joy and care put in to every part of this game. Even though it's just a run-of-the-mill RPG, with no particularly outstanding gameplay elements to speak of, everything about the presentation of this game is so sopping wet with care and personality that it's obvious: the people who designed this game care a great deal about you, and (surprise!!!) want you to play their game, from start to finish. Earthbound is a dragon quest clone that wants to be your friend. Earthbound is a video game that wants you to play it. Playing Earthbound is like having a conversation with your inner child. It succeeds because it's so clearly a game that someone cared about very much, and you can see it reflected in every nook and cranny that there is to explore; when you appreciate the game, it appreciates you right back. Earthbound is, in the end, just a Dragon Quest clone, but it's infinitely replayable because it's always glad to see you. Earthbound is replayable because it is designed with honesty, care, intention, and heart, and is just so damned charming that you feel obligated to pay it a visit every so often.

Though it's very understandable that the lifespan of a game is a concern to gamers and developers alike, when we start caring about how many hours a game is worth more than we care about the quality of said experience, we can lose sight of the things that can make a game timeless. While such extras can extend a game's lifespan, there is always a limit; and sometimes, these extras can detract from the purity of the experience itself. Even though there are game mechanics that undoubtedly add to replayability, good, cohesive, sensible, focused design of a game experience, is the most effective path to replayability. A unique, quality experience that resonates with the player is almost assuredly an experience worth revisiting.
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About protomarkone of us since 11:19 PM on 04.06.2008

I'm pretty lazy, so i'll fill this out in a day or two
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