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Let Trigons Be Trigons: On Killing Gameplay pt.4

Part 1Part 2. Part 3. At this point, you might be thinking that Adrian is so completely entrenched in his games-as-business trigon view that he's set on killing gameplay to get what he wants out of games. Though I feel that Adrian doesn't understand gameplay, he does seem to have a great attitude about learning, fostering discussion, and being open to feedback. This is good because he received a lot of feedback for his article. 


Images from The Game Over Tinies

Before writing his follow up article Adrian posted this addendum on the NeoGAF forums:


I do not want to make interactive movies or books or whatever. Games do borrow elements from other media (e.g. music) but they also offer things that no other art from can, like interactivity and sense of presence.

This quote is the result of Adrian trying to articulate meaning without a clear language. By killing gameplay, Adrian is arguing in support of interactive experiences valued for their stories and emotions. Though it may seem odd at first, Adrian is really arguing for interactive movies or books. The Walking Dead game is perhaps best described as an interactive comic. And Adrian is in support of this game as an example of where he wants games to go. I can tell that Adrian thinks that by killing gameplay he's promoting something that doesn't quite fit into the category of interactive movie/book. But other than virtual worlds or simulations, there aren't many existing terms to accurately describe what Adrian wants. "Interactive movie" fits well. 


But a lot of you here believe that there’s one more crucial element that defines what video games are, and that element is challenge that can result in player’s failure (don’t die, solve a puzzle, be faster than an enemy car, etc.).

Why? We all respect Sid Meier, right? His definition of a game is that it’s “a series of interesting decisions” (or “a series of interesting choices”).

No part of this definition says that a “challenge” is sine qua non of video games.


Actually, if Adrian looked more closely at how Sid Meier defined "interesting choices" like I have, he'd see that challenge is a part of his definition. The part about "no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive" speaks to rule based systems with a goal that creates a value scale with which we can evaluate actions. This is how options can be "better" than one another. The dynamics and other gameplay elements help keep things balanced in a way that makes the pros and cons of player options unequal. Without a goal, there's no challenge in the system. Without this challenge, anything the player does is evaluated on whatever value scale the player wants. When the player decides what's meaningful in an experience, there are no interesting choices, just player preference and opinion. 


Let me use Skyrim to explain my point of view. I have played it for well over a hundred hours. I have finished the main story, most of the sub-quests, explored most of the world, destroyed the Dark Brotherhood, etc. It was a fantastic experience.

But: I did it all on god mode. From start to finish. I’d like to pretend that I was role playing a necromancer cursed by gods with immortality, but the truth is I couldn’t be bothered with trial and error combat and the inventory/speed limits.

Now tell me this: was I, or was I not playing a video game?

In my opinion, I was. It was an interactive, immersive experience full of interesting decisions.

I say Adrian was not playing a video game. Rather, Adrian was role playing while exploring video game content. He removed the game part of the experience by changing the rules. And though Adrian may find his choices to be quite interesting, according to Sid's definition they are not. Removing the combat gameplay, however straightforward and simple, removes a layer of challenge and meanin from the experience. If we take Adrian's example further, we might say that wathing someone play through a game online is about the same as playing it. It's not. Even if you play along in your head, you're still not playing the video game. 

I also find it telling that Adrian said he "couldn't be bothered" with learning the systems and how to play the game part of Skyrim better. His negative attitude toward trial-and-error is basically a refusal to learn the game to enhance his experience. Instead of enduring the squeeze, however small, he just skipped the learning process. This not only makes him a poor judge of what's interesting or meaningful in Skyrim's combat (or other systems connect to the combat. e.g. the whole game) but it also means that Adrian put himself as the ultimate judge, gravitating toward content he already deemed worthy. It's hard to be a good judge when one isn't willing to listen and learn first. 


For example, my definition of a “gameplay” was that it’s something featuring “challenge”. I called the “challenge”-less gameplay as “interactivity”. So it was “gameplay” versus “interactivity”. Wrong. That’s definition clusterf***. Gameplay is gameplay, and whether it features challenge or not is a whole different story.

I still stand by the general idea that removing challenge can result in a more engaging, deeper, more memorable experience that we still should call a video game, but there’s more to the story than this.


On the one hand, Adrian admits that there is a language issue that we must wrestle with here. On the other, he claims that we should still call video games "video games" when we remove the challenge. As we saw with Ed's thoughts on the definition of games, some think it's really important to fight over labels and what they should mean. I'm much more concerned with establishing clear terms so we can better communicate what we mean. 

At this point Adrian believes that removing gameplay from games can result in "more" engaging, deeper, and memorable experiences. In a general sense, every other storytelling or artistic medium has proved that it's possible to create such experiences without gameplay. Some of these other mediums are even interactive, with their own rules and sense of "presence." It's clear that Adrian wants "more" from video games. And it the job of designers, like me, to balance giving Adrian what he thinks he wants against what he needs and what is essential to the medium. What Adrian claims to want may be impossible to create, or it may lead to odd products like Fez that seem to embrace game design yet turns away from the design principles that make it work. Regardless, the design challenge is worth taking seriously.


Adrian's follow up article Killing The Gameplay ... Postmortem is not a typical post mortem. Here's what I mean:


One thing is that I have decided not to add my own comments to any of the quotes, whether they were for or against my hypothesis. I think it would be unfair for me to have a say without the other side being able to respond.

When I first read this, I considered Adrian's postmortem to be unuseful for my critique. After all, Adrian isn't really the one talking here. Though I think it was a wasted opportunity for Adrian not to supply his thoughts and comments, there is still one way that he has left his impression on the page. I think there's key information we can gather about Adrian's thought process and point of view based on the statements that Adrian bolded in the quotes. I've separated these statement out below. 


Emotion – the word – is just misused. 

"video games” is a bad name that doesn’t really encompass all the things that the medium can provide.

Adrian understands that there is a language issue that's part of the underlying problem. This is good. 

I was impressed by how the fear doesn’t stem from the threat of seeing a Game Over screen and having to start again from your last checkpoint, but comes from the atmosphere the game creates.

Adrian gravitates toward the idea that the tension in Silent Hill isn't enhanced by the threat of loss, dying, and game overs. Certainly the eerie setting and creepy soundtrack are a big part of the game's atmosphere, but this atmosphere is still the backdrop to the interactive game experience. Playing Silent Hill in "god mode" wouldn't have the same effect. I feel like Adrian can prove this to himself just by playing a game in god mode and without. I think he knows there's a difference, which is why he has such a bias against learning or what he calls "trial and error." I don't blame him. Learning is hard. And if I didn't know that learning is worth the time and effort, I'd want to avoid it as well. 

Failure, for the right player, is powerful.

Both “gameplay” and “dying” are overrated, and are holding games back. 


Adrian seems to believe that failure, or gameplay, is mostly an issue of preference. That if some gamers simply don't like failing, they can get an equivalent meaningful experience out of games by foregoing the challenge and playing in god mode. It's obvious that because learning is such an important part of video games, concepts like trial-and-error, repetition, and failure are important natural results of players engaging with gameplay. 

Would you say that learning and self improvement are "overrated?" Seems like a preposterous statement to make. Would you say that applying oneself to play a musical instrument and having to start from the beginning of a song to get it right is "overrated?" Probably not. I think that because Adrian views games primarily as conduits of story and emotion, that he completely misunderstands and overlooks the value of gameplay. 


The cognition involved in traditional gameplay is surely very different from the cognition involved in processing emotional experiences.

What we have right now in gaming is a bunch of people using tools developed for delivery systems like books and movies, which depend on the “consumer’s” passivity to work and trying to shoehorn them into a medium that requires active engagement. 

Here it seems that Adrian struggles to find reason for why he feels so strongly about non-gameplay interactive experiences and why he is so adverse to gameplay. Could it be that our cognitive processes are different when we play games versus when we feel deep emotions? Perhaps. But even so, I don't think this would be enough evidence in support of Adrian's ideas. I think it's telling that Adrian bolded the second section above. Adrian recognizes the inherent juxtaposition within the complex medium of video games, and he seems to side with the idea that this fusing of unlike experiences is unnatural  or forced ("shoehorn").


Action isn’t good for building emotion, but I think it can set the stage for certain kinds of emotion, both before and after the challenge occurs.

The Walking Dead needs puzzles to space out the hard-hitting moments every once in a while

Making elements such as narrative, worldbuilding, exploration and discovery into engaging facets of gameplay creates a wider range of experience for the player without relying on a constant stream of combat or other purely “gameplay”... encounters. 

 I find it odd that Adrian and others think so little of action. Sure, the Hollywood-macho-martial-arts style action is particularly well-worn these days, but the action itself still conveys a lot of ideas and meaning; and from meaning comes emotion. In the similar abstract way that dance of all kinds conveys ideas and expresses, a fight scene does the same. Dancing and fighting really aren't so different. Furthermore, action is a general word to describe force and motion that exist in the world outside of our minds. If you think of people as being forces, and drama as ideals colliding into each other it's easy to see action as a driver of expression.

So no, action is good for building emotions. Video games and movies may be obsessed with gun based action, but this still speaks to the fact that even this kind of violent action expresses ideas and evokes emotions in its fans. Saying that action "sets the stage" is a sideways way of talking about the importance of action. It's better if we try not to remove how we are affected by experiences from their concrete sources; e.g. action. Action doesn't set the stage for emotion, it is the sage of life and we're just emoting in response. 



The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights. Muhammad Ali



In my mind, I frequently consider how I might design games to help satisfy gamers like Adrian or Thompson. I pay attention to the things that turn them off to gameplay and learning, and I try to design the kinds of experiences and emotions they're looking for. I do this within gameplay systems knowing just how effective they can be in addition to knowing all of the drawbacks of gameplay. Maybe it's because I've been playing games since I was 3 years old that I don't think of video games as being particularly special; they don't hold any kind of unrealistic promise for me above other mediums.

I think it's important not to try and argue against gamers like Adrian. Letting Adrian be himself, gameplay killer and all, can only help our industry grow stronger as long as he continues to maintain his open mind. Whether you want to see more games try new things or not, undestand that design is about embracing the limits of our ideas when we try to express them in a medium. And when the smallest broken part can throw off the entire machine, it's simply unwise to suggest killing gameplay before we understand how integral and meaningful it really is. 

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Reader Comments (7)

I completely get where you're coming from. Apparently, you are thinking exactly like me except you were doing this for years beforehand. Bravo, good sir!

I find it the hardest task to convince people that, yes, challenge and difficulty actually contribute to the experience; they don't lessen it. I find this as one of the unique characteristics of video games which we can't foster in any other medium (yet) without fundamentally changing it. I just wish people wouldn't say that they've "grown up" from "gameplay" - it's immediately condescending, to be sure, and doesn't quite help the conversation. Hence my reticence to give Adrian the benefit of the doubt. If the essential parts make the medium, then they're worth fighting for and confronting other about, I think.

I also think there's room for crafting multiple difficulty settings and not necessarily restricting the game to certain players (excepting God Modes, probably). Each setting gives a player a new experience based on the lessons learned beforehand (I think PlatinumGames does this exceptionally well). As you used the Silent Hill example, so I use the Bioshock example. Set it on the hardest difficulty level and turn off Vita-Chambers, and you've changed the experience from a leisurely walkthrough a narrative-based game to a survival-based FPS game requiring heaps of skill to finish.

Perhaps I'm more a purist in this respect, but I see difficulty as uncompromising and necessary at a high level (i.e., lots of failure). It makes the feedback clear and instantaneous - am I doing well, and did I succeed? To cite a recent example: El Shaddai does not give the player clear indications on their progress, whether they're doing a good job, and provides so many safety nets that it is impossible to die. Yet, in another part of the game (side missions), you die permanently and are sent back to the title screen. It's inconsistent to say the least. If the game can't convey that aspect, than it's quite problematic.

If a person is not willing to learn, is that the fault of the designer or the player? People were complaining about Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance's lack of exhaustive tutorials based on expectation from other AAA titles (as we would so call them). The game does teach you naturally how to work well and encounter the squeeze, yet what if a player does not reach that point? I don't quite have a good answer to that, but as "gameplay" works its way out of the gaming vernacular, I fear we have a big problem on our hands.

I suppose I'm rambling at this point, so I'll leave it at that. Great articles, and looking forward to delving into this giant backlog of reading!

March 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZachery Oliver

@ Zachery

"I find it the hardest task to convince people that, yes, challenge and difficulty actually contribute to the experience; they don't lessen it"

True, but this is probably better put as challenge affects the whole as it can help or hinder any of a game's parts. When done poorly gameplay/challenge can detract. When done well, it definitely enhances.

"I also think there's room for crafting multiple difficulty settings and not necessarily restricting the game to certain players I use the Bioshock example. Set it on the hardest difficulty level and turn off Vita-Chambers, and you've changed the experience from a leisurely walkthrough a narrative-based game to a survival-based FPS game requiring heaps of skill to finish."

Yeah. When meaning comes from learning systems and executing on your game specific skills, this is great. However, this also means that players are limited to the meaning they get based on their skills and how the game teaches. Sometimes, multiple difficulty modes/options are the best way to help players learn. At the same time, some difficulty design focuses too much on nuance which game work against the meaning conveyed through the challenge. Obviously, it's easy to imaging making a given game challenge more challenging; just shake the screen, play a loud noise, mix up the controls, etc. And though players may be able to overcome these annoyances, the experience/meaning of doing so would likely be not very good.

For more on nuance see:

"Perhaps I'm more a purist in this respect, but I see difficulty as uncompromising and necessary at a high level (i.e., lots of failure). It makes the feedback clear and instantaneous - am I doing well, and did I succeed?"

Well, I wouldn't say that the feedback becomes clear overall. Yes it's clear whether or not you have what it takes to win. But it just depends on many other factors whether the feedback cleanly conveys information at higher difficulty levels in a game. But you bring up a good point, talking about difficulty is tricky because of concepts like skill floors, skill ceilings, and optional challenges.

"If a person is not willing to learn, is that the fault of the designer or the player? ... I don't quite have a good answer to that, but as "gameplay" works its way out of the gaming vernacular, I fear we have a big problem on our hands."

If a student is unwilling to learn/practice piano, then the experience stops. So much about what makes games great and fun is how players motivate themselves to learn and embrace challenge intrinsically. Take away this intrinsic motivation, and you have just another chore on your hands. There's only so much a designer can do. And I don't really believe in tricking players. I think if we can honestly convey what games are and why they're good, we don't need to try to circumvent players defenses.

I fear we have a big problem on our hands too.

Thanks for your comment and sharing your thoughts.

It's nice reading your comments following up to your main post - the experience of your writing is enhanced by interactivity as well, it seems! ;)

Sidestepping the question of whether Adrian's Skyrim experience was a "game" or not, how was it not "a series of interesting decisions"? I didn't see you arguing the point at all, and the article you linked to seemed to support Adrian's comparison more than to refute it. Could you clarify?

Maybe Skyrim isn't the best example. But did you read the postmortem of The Walking Dead in the latest issue of Game Developer magazine? There Telltale Games very clearly describes how they structured the game around branching story choices that were meant to be interesting decisions explicitly without typing into particular gameplay systems (like a good/evil alignment system, for example). I can't see how you would argue that this is not an example of "a series of interesting decisions".

I don't have any need to use "a series of interesting decisions" as a definition of "gameplay" - I don't think it is - but it seems like there is some validity in "a series of interesting decisions" making for a compelling interactive experience, game or not, which Adrian convincingly stated and you seemed to gloss over without actually refuting.

Care to elaborate? :)

March 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho



Interesting choice is the term for a type of choice you can make in a game or game like system. It is not a matter of opinion. Rather, we can calculate and measure the degree of how interesting chioces are.

The difference between the choices Adrian made in Skyrim and real interesting chioces is his Skyrim experience is missing the rules that create the value scale that are a part of the system itself. As far as combat goes, if you can't die or get hurt then there really isnt' any threat. The difficulty of execution and the threat of dying are important qualities that differentiate combat choices. You can pretty much just pick a weapon and do whatever you want and still come out on top. This kind of experience irons out all the differences between combat choices (I know the game has weak combat anyway but the idea still applies). This makes all the options equally attractive from a functional standpoint. And this goes against the very definition Sid provided.

There are perhaps other systems in skyrim that aren't affected by playing in god mode. I'm not too familiar with all the content in the game.

If I ask you to make a choice between apples and organes, you may have a preference, but that does not make my offer an interesting choice. If there's no goal to make one option better than the other in some objective way, then your choice would just be a random choice or a choice of mere preference.

Then there's the idea about making an informed decision. Picking the apple or the orange and not knowing that the apple also comes with a gift of 1000 dollars and picking the organe plants a tree in your name means you would be able to make an informed decisions about your fruit choice. You didn't really weigh out the options and consequences. In this scenario you can't make an "intereting choice" as a strategic decision to achieve some goal where there is no single option or obvious path to victory.

Likewise, The Walking Dead may present choices that aren't as black and white as other games, but they don't give you a way to make an informed decision.

>> Hey main character tell me about your past!
>>And you have the choice of saying "yes" "no" "umm" or "mind your Zombie buisness!"

While it's fun to chose what to say, this is not an interesting choice. There are no clear rules at work here that allow players to weigh known consequences to navigate toward a clear rule defined win state. The Walking Dead is instead a series of dramatic choices.

And what's worse, some of the choices aren't really the choices you think you're making. In chapter 1, I hear you can't save one of the characters that gets into peril. So whether you choose to save him or not doesn't matter as far as who gets saved. There are consequences for choicing one or the other, but these aren't known ahead of time and they aren't presented in a system where options are quatifiably or objectively better than one another. You just play the game how you feel.

The whole reason Sid's term and my article is so useful is that we're not talking about feelings. We're talking about design; specifically the design that create deep gameplay systems. Yes, interesting choices is not the same as gameplay. THere's plenty of great games with linear, straightforward, and non-interesting choices gameplay. Furthermore, gameplay with lots of interplay isn't the only good type either.

You can't have interesting choices without some rule like/goal like part to the system you're interacting with. So it does matter if we're talking about a game or not.

Does that help?

That make sense, with your own manufactured definition of "interesting choices". However, if you are trying to draw upon Sid Meier's authority in order to impose your definition onto Adrian's argument in order to prove that he is wrong, I think you may be on a shaky foundation.

I'd read this before:

Me: Did you ever actually say that “games are a series of interesting decisions”?

Meier: I did say that once many, many years ago. I was giving a talk at GDC called “ten rules of game design” or “ten rules of gaming” and we had to come up with a definition of fun. What is fun? How do you define fun? And I came up with “a series of interesting decisions.” [SNIP]

It’s just weird…it was not meant to be an all inclusive, standing the test of time definition. We just looked at the word “series” and said that pacing is important in game. We looked at the word “interesting” and said “what makes decisions interesting?”

I think it's useful, but it's not a justification for co-opting the word "interesting" to mean something new and then inserting it back into Adrian's argument to destroy it. I think you have an insightful and valid point, given your definition of "interesting", but this in no way invalidates what Adrian is saying.

Sorry if I'm a bit snappy at the moment. :p

March 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho

@ Axcho

You seem to be completely off the point here, and I don't know why you aren't following the argument.

1. Sid Meier said some stuff
2. I took his quote and fleshed out the meaning of a coined term.
3. People quote Sid Meier (including Adrian) without thinking about how he coined the term. They just hear the world "interesting" and think they know what it means. They don't.

Further points.
1. It's not my manufactured definition. If you disagree with how I interpreted the Sid's quote in my other article series, then pull out specific quotes and go from there.
2. Sid Meier doesn't have authority. He coined a term that I think is useful.
3. It's OBVIOUS that interesting choices doesn't apply to all games. I've said this many times on this blog. I've also said it in these comments.

Bottom line, Adrian can't reference Sid Meier and continue to use the term "interesting choices" without us applying sid's term to what he says. Adrian is invalidated.

edit: I probably sounded more angry than I am. I'm mostly confused, and I'm trying to pinpoint the source of where we're not connecting. :-/

No problem - we'll work out the confusion. ;)

I'm glad you're not trying to use "authority" (Sid Meier's or anyone else's) to support an argument - like you, I don't find that a solid basis for much of anything.

"If you disagree with how I interpreted the Sid's quote in my other article series, then pull out specific quotes and go from there."

I disagree in principle with the idea that one could take any quote Q, in which terms are not defined, supply your own definitions D for these terms (however excellent and insightful these definitions may be), and then use the implications of D applied to Q in an argument to invalidate someone else's argument that also references Q but with a separate set of definitions D'. Q in the context of D cannot touch Q in the context of D' - there is no way to say anything about the latter on the basis of the former.

I find that the applying the idea of "a series of interesting choices" to interactive stories like The Walking Dead, with a colloquial definition of "interesting" (as Adrian seems to do) seems valid and useful to me.

I also find that applying the idea of "a series of interesting choices" to games (as you would define them), with your gameplay-focused definition of "interesting" seems valid and insightful. However, this in no way invalidates the usefulness of the former, and what I see as Adrian's position (in terms of choosing to describe certain experiences as "a series of interesting choices") still stands.

March 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho

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