I’m not going to claim that the concept of self-expression in games is a new one. There’s always some new game coming out boasting its level of customization which allows players to express their personalities in new and exciting ways (via mohawks, badass tats, and/or tutus), or there’s Role-Playing games which let you express yourself through the choices you make in the game-narrative (via killing and/or talking to a dude). I’d like to talk about a different kind of expression: expression through gameplay.
I’m making a distinction here between expressing oneself through gameplay and expressing oneself through the player choices made in the game’s narrative. While it is satisfying to have agency within the story of a game, it represents a big investment in terms of creating that story since more of it has to be created to fulfill the player’s choices. However, allowing the player to express themselves through gameplay doesn’t require a great deal of gameplay content, just a few special considerations which, themselves, dovetail nicely with other gameplay concerns.
To illustrate what I mean by expressive gameplay, I’d like to take a moment to talk about Deus Ex. One of the tenets used in designing the levels of Deus Ex was that each obstacle had to have at least three solutions; perhaps you’d like to hack into the security system and sneak in? Or to stack up crates and crawl through a window, or to cause a distraction and run past security, or to brutally massacre everyone who foolishly allowed themselves to be hired by an evil corporation and strut inside, chuckling quietly to yourself, covered in their blood? Those are all viable options.
But which do you choose, and why? Deus Ex is perhaps an imperfect example in that you are developing certain skillsets for your character and these shoehorn you into a solution, or perhaps you are role-playing as the character and that dictates your decisions, but in the moment-to-moment action of the game every choice you make, every life you take, they belong to you. They are an expression of who you are– certainly not indicating that you’re a cold-blooded murderer or anything, but perhaps pointing towards your tendency to attack problems one-by-one, or to procrastinate on difficult tasks, or to murder people, in cold blood, frequently and efficiently and without remorse.
It’s satisfying to be able to play in a way that reflects who you are, or at least how you feel at the moment (murder-y). We obviously choose games on the basis of whether we tend to play strategically or tactically, aggressively or defensively, rapidly or methodically, drunk or sober, but within games we also choose a style based upon those same tendencies. And, depending upon how the game reacts to that style, it can either be affirming or frustrating.
This is one of the reasons why balance is so important to competitive games. It’s self-evident that most balance issues in most competitive games could be eliminated simply by each player choosing the exact same starting options. Obviously, this would defeat the point of having such options in the first place, but what’s less obvious is the nature of the frustration a player encounters on being told that their play-style isn’t valid. When you pick a character or weapon in a competitive game, that is a form of self-expression as well as a tactical decision, and it kind of sucks to be rejected after making a statement like that. Not all options need to be equally effective, but there should probably be at least one viable option in each broad category if you want to avoid frustrating players.
This raises questions about the nature of skill in a game. A player can be incredibly skilled at sniper-style gameplay, but if the game doesn’t support that well and the player can’t adapt to a different style then the player is not good at the game as it is. Of course, if a balance patch then goes ahead and makes long-range combat viable, the player could very abruptly become skilled at the game. With this in mind, the question over whether a player is doing well or poorly at a game using a certain play-style is because of his strength as a player or because of the game’s approach to balancing that play style is difficult to determine.
Balancing gameplay options is a huge priority in competitive gaming, but what about single-player and cooperative experiences? It can be frustrating having your favored play-style be ineffective in these games, but because these games have a greater focus on narrative it actually opens up some interesting options in terms of story. For instance, a few games, such as Deus Ex, allow you go through essentially violent games using non-violent means to make your way. This play-style is always more difficult, but it being more difficult is part of the appeal. In fact, if it were easier then that would probably make it less appealing. Such evocative but sub-optimal play is rarely popular in competitive games.
You need to know what players are going to try to do. If a play style looks like it should be viable, it’s frustrating to find out partway through the experience that no, it actually isn’t. If your long-range character class has a surprising amount of melee synergy you should consider either eliminating that synergy or making that a viable way to play the class, otherwise you’re sending mixed signals. If you’re going to provide pacifistic gameplay options, make sure your player can actually play as a pacifist. A friend of mine, playing through Jedi Outcast, methodically disarmed every storm trooper in the level before finding out at the end that the scripted sequence capping the level wouldn’t trigger unless he went back and methodically murdered every helpless guard he’d disarmed as they ran from him, screaming in terror. While I suppose this is heroic in a classical sense (I can just imagine this jedi collecting storm trooper foreskins to present to the space king to win the hand of his space daughter) it’s not really the kind of heroic scenario I tend to associate with the Star Wars franchise.
So how can you build a game experience that allows your players to express themselves? Understanding the balance of your game is essential. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if one play-style is under-powered in a single-player game, but you should definitely be aware that it is and make a conscious choice to either keep it that way to support the narrative or to retool the balance to bring it into line. In competitive games you will probably need to achieve as close a balance as possible, with potential exceptions for obviously sub-optimal choices some players might like to choose as a handicap.
I’ve touched on this before, but affirmation is a powerful emotion which games can offer in a way which few other media can. Taking input and then responding to it in a meaningful way is one of the foundations of games, and one of the primary channels available to us for emotional resonance. It might not seem like it at first, but gameplay balance is a design choice that can carry significant emotional weight.
And, yeah, life isn’t fair: but if your game isn’t fair you’d better have a damn good reason why not.