Lather, rinse, repetition in the game loop.

Papers Please

(I’m trying to get back into regular writing so forgive me in advance when I don’t manage to say something smart most nights.)

I was thinking last night, as I played NCAA 14 for the umpteenth time, about “reps” in games. I’ve also been thinking about this because I’m being exposed to that whole “core gameplay loop” business you read in standard game design textbooks and blog posts – the Holy Loop. That is, that games importantly consist of some (totally awesome) action you repeat over and over again. In NCAA 14 for me this is “play one play as a middle-linebacker for Alabama”. Over and over again. And I was thinking about how other games deal with this action-loop, and in particular how it gets made meaningful in different ways.

NCAA 14 makes it meaningful mostly by heavily varying the situation that plays out within a “snap” of football. Although you’re repetitively playing the same person with the same essential job (stop the offensive player from making progress), your specific responsibilities change, and the offensive player do different things. So there’s a lot of variation of your context of action (even though what you do is always “run around and make a tackle” ideally). Along with that, there’s a cumulative property associated with statistics – when you make a tackle or other play, it is remembered by the system. And on top of that there’s the (pretty weak, but present) narrative structure of the game – your career as a player for a particular team, with particular statistics, wins and losses, awards, and so on. All of this gives your “core loop” meaning and nuance. In fact, I’d say that sports game may often have the most complex loops in this regard because sport has evolved for a long time to provide exactly this kind of “complexity within simplicity”.

So what about Papers, Please (which I was originally going to write all of this about?). In a lot of ways that game is about the idea of a core loop of action that you do over and over again. Maybe that’s the most interesting thing about it in fact – it captures that usually flat emotional state we have of repetitive action in a game and places it in a context where it’s kind of scary and depressing, we become a person we don’t necessarily like, and we fit in very well. We check a passport, look at a face, and stamp. And repeat. And repeat. And so Papers, Please is kind of genius for using, almost, simplicity within simplicity, to make the job almost unbearable. In fact I think the game is at its most successful when it’s not throwing in the variations that are perhaps meant to give it more flavour (the little narratives, the spy-thriller stuff) – I think those elements distract from the wonderful examination of life in a game loop. And Papers, Please examined the cumulative nature of these loops too, particularly if you play the game “straight” – it’s crushing, it’s awful, it’s pointless, it’s games?

Finally, in this ragtag collection of words, what about Desert Golfing? The perhaps “effectively infinite” game of golf in an endless-feeling desert. I played that particular game into holes numbering in the 3000s. I lined up a shot, took it, and repeated. Thousands of times. Desert Golfing is totally minimalist obviously – the contexts of the game loop don’t really change in interesting ways once you get used to its world (and especially if you abandon the practice of setting a “high score” average in the first 1000 holes). Eventually there’s nothing interesting to see, either, you’re not amused by the next screen, you’re just moving on, one stroke at a time. It felt a bit like being a vampire. At the beginning it’s exciting – especially as you come to realise that it’s not going to just end. It stretches out before you full of possibilities – a rock, a cactus – and you swing with enthusiasm. Then there’s a period of zen-like efficiency. You’re not interested in material things, not even stroke counts, you do the work for its own sake. But then, like those classic literary and movie vampires, you grow weary of life and you just want to die. But you can’t, you can’t delete the game, you can’t stop putting. It’s quite a wonderful examination of what I suppose you could call the “end game” of these game loops. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a kind of Sisyphean hell.

I don’t have any big insight, but I do think these are intriguing ways of “dealing with” the concept of a core game loop, whether it’s the complexity of sport, the commentary of Papers, Please or the existentialism of Desert Golfing. There’s a lot going on in there. And you keep going on in there.

Those loops were made for playing, and that’s just what you’ll do.

10 October 2014
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