Minigames, the Bane of Immersion

A minigame which is inside a bigger game, although an interesting meta, matryoshka like concept, is also a concept that is almost exclusively done by inept game developers unable to integrate the minigame inside their “large” “main” game with finesse. What I’m saying is that minigames should never be present in a serious game world, where a capable game tends to do as much as possible to integrate and immerse the player in the game world, minigames have the exact opposite effect.

Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 12.14.34 PMI’m not talking here about minigames like the picklocking mechanism of Skyrim which was quite well done actually, or the ability to go on street races in GTA3 San Andreas. Those are not minigames, those are parts of the main game, immersive gameplay additions which make sense and are contextual to the rest of the game.

While many times the point in serious new reality/world video games is to assure the player that the world is real and it exists, minigames rip out all that immersion with the grace of a gazelle that has been dead for 2 months. They are in fact, only a cheap gimmick, something that makes you go “huh” or a mediocre “cool”. Is that how you want your game to be perceived?

flat fell seam tutorial title copy
As I’ve stated earlier, every game, even real life games, is filled with something that could be called minigames, mini-goals that you can get better at, and if you do, you increase your overall progress in the game. But when it is obviously another game, with another type of aesthetics, a completely different and sometimes contradicting gameplay approach, or placed in a noncontextual, unbelievable way in the game, it counts as a failure towards the overall game. It drags the major game down along with the superficiality of the minigame itself. Now the minigame could be quite well done actually. With solid gameplay and be quit fun, but if it is not integrated seamlessly into the rest of the game, it would better belong as a separate game. Seamless would be the key word here. Seams are immersion braking.  Aesthetic seams (visual glitches, a look into the empty void, clipping), Audio Seams (sound artifacts present in samples, non-contextual reverb, inappropriate levels) and most importantly for this article, Gameplay Seams. One of the gameplay seams are minigames.

Video Clip

Video Game Clipping, the Minigames of Visual Immersion Suicide

The point what I’m trying to fling across with this article is that every time the player notices and is conscious that there is a minigame inside the main game, all the effort put into immersion into the main game previously accumulated, is immediately chucked out of the window into the pile of trash outside.

Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 12.07.07 PM

The player shouldn’t realize he is just “playing a game”, but rather, he should feel as if he is living a separate life there, or if possible, the only one that exist. The more believable that is, the more immersive the game world becomes and the game is more successful. In-game terminology should also reflect this notion. Quit menus, save games etc, should be renamed into “Leave this word” or “Remember this experience”, something that has been done by some games, namely Planescape Torment, but hasn’t quite caught on enough. Removing video settings from being accessed from inside the game, is also a positive step into this direction. An outside menu could do that job just as well.

The player should never be reminded that in fact he is a player, just playing a game, and minigames do exactly that. Making it a broad goal of never containing minigames is a commendable and practical thing to do, when striving for immersive, living and complex game worlds and player experiences. The less the player notices he is playing a game, the better the experience.


How hard games make you a hard man

Or woman.

As a freakish fallout to this game trend of ultimate hedonism, wondrous examples of counter struggle appear, with its own bands of fanatically faithful followers. Examples like Dwarf Fortress, DayZ, The First Two S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games X series and the Misery mod for Call of Pripyat… These are the weird ones, the ones that go against the wave, with another wave made out of blood, or tiny cute ASCII blood.

blood copy

Marketing a hard game is something publishers are not really accustomed to, I mean who in their right mind is a masochist in this world of infinite pleasure and instant doughnut lava cakes? Why would people flee from the punishing monotony of their daily lives, to get some more punishment in a different medium? You need ironclad game developer balls to build something that isn’t instantly attractive or requires an “acquired taste” for it to start working its magic. So hard games keep to the fringes, for now.


 Mods are usually on the front lines since their budget (which is usually zero), isn’t very restraining towards the content of the game. Some developers like Dwarf Fortress’s “Toady” Tarn Adams eschew the graphics all together, while crafting the ultimate roller coaster learning curve together with one of the most intricate games ever devised. The Misery mod of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. dries out all the flora, rips the mercy out of the game and makes you scrounge for food in the worst, morally uncomfortable ways possible. If there were puppies in the Misery mod, they’d all have AIDS and a propensity to bite animal lovers.
Success in hard games is rare, but oh so rewarding. A hard game is an experience that the brain interprets less like a pleasurable stroll through the meadow and more like I’ve lived through hell and back. That specific kind of interpretation is what true game experiences are, they stick with you throughout life, and you apply those experiences in real life when need be. Games that break through the barrier of real life, that make you remember your experience there, without actually having to touch a computer. Games that feel like you’ve been living there for a small percent of your life, and you’ve siphoned the experience, the culture, you’ve been to another alternate universe and it is a part of your experience like that one time you got stuck with your family on a mountain trip, no gasoline, no phones, and you had to learn to adapt to the new environment, make that your new temporary home.

Welcome to the Polish Zone, the 30HA, czyli projekt S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Socho

These are experienced Stalkers we are talking about, and they leave no room for badly improvised situations: Emissions are announced by a portable audio system, maps and compasses are readily used, canned food is primary food source, they’ve even devised closed breathing system replicas for the SEVA suit aficionados. Exoskeletons are also something that you might run into if you happen to run into this Polish version of the Zone.

They have their own versions of artifacts scattered throughout the world, and radiation warning signs is something that this Polish Zone does contain, so it is clearly evident that this Zone is a living breathing area and the Stalkers are its inhabitants. They tend to create original scenarios and quests instead of just copying them from the original games. Their inspiration initially comes from the book Roadside Picknic, later from the movie Stalker form Andrei Tarkovski and most recently from the PC game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. This is what they have to say about the Books, Movie and Game series:

“”Roadside Picnic” has and always will be the point of reference. It is where everything started, and it is the unreachable ideal of a man’s journey through life. The movie is the quintessence of solitude and desolation, of trying to put together the shattered puzzle of life. The game is the crowning of both, set in the post-apocalypse universe of a world about to devour itself”

When I asked about a broad description of what they do, I received a poetic and very inspired reply back: “We try to capture the fleeting spirit of the Zone, getting as deep to Her twisted roots as we can… …The world is evolving, floating seemingly aimless in the black abyss of the Sarcophagus, and so are we… ”

They also have interesting plans for the future, so I wholeheartedly advise any STALKER addicts to like their Facebook page and keep an eye on anything they post there:

BIG games are BORING games, how BIG games make dull experiences

Today’s trend, and the trend of the last 5 years, is to make MASSIVE games. The bigger, the better. Developers bragged about their games being 5 kilometers and with seamless loading of new areas. I’m naturally referring to FPS games, 3D person and driving games.

It seems that, as the game worlds got bigger, they got emptier. They had less graphical content per square kilometer, less gameplay content per square kilometer and looked bland/badly procedural. Like watching the whole set of seasons of Law and Order a few times over. The numbers do sound impressive but are the gamers happier? Or much more importantly, are the games more immersive, interesting and offer a fuller experience than their colleagues on diet?

I would rather argue that modern games that are smaller, are usually better. Developers that aren’t pushed to advertise in kilometers, how “good” their game is, usually end up making better, fuller experience games. Now this is a very broad statement, and there is naturally a myriad of counter-examples. A bit older example wasThe Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, but even there, you can see the start of this trend. You could walk for miles and not encounter anything, nor experience an important ambience or scenery. Daggerfall is actually a terrible example here because it was actually quite a good game that held on to some principles that AAA game developers need to relearn even today. Bethesda itself should look back towards Daggerfall and Morrowind for some pointers as to how to de-crappify Skyrim along with Oblivion.

To get back to my initial argument, BIG games are BORING games indeed. Think of how developers focus on programming a smooth experience, fantastic graphics without slowdowns while loading massive worlds, while the story writers and gameplay innovation is given a back seat ride, or even a ride in the trunk of the car. Bigger games also don’t cause familiarity with the terrain and areas, they are just places to be exploited and the player moves on, they don’t have that impact that you can carry with you as a personal intimate experience. And why should they? When bigger areas are mostly more bland and shallow.

Games need to guide or even force the player to familiarize themselves with the specific atmosphere/environment of people, objects, terrain so well, that playing a specific game should leave the player remembering his experience years after he hasn’t even thought of the game. Detailed knowledge of the culture, the specific area, the people, should be implemented as gameplay elements, and rewarded when successful.

That impact has diminished in recent times, we can barely relate to areas even if we’ve been there many times over. There is no interaction with the specific area, it’s just an empty scene of cardboard props, meaningless, lacking substance. Striving to build BIG is the culprit, among other things.

What smaller games can do, is focus on their advantage over their bigger counterparts, engage with elements of the playing field. Make props important, integrate them into the whole of the gameplay. Make the environment believable, as if it has actually evolved over time, and you are entering a culture, not actors and Truman Show scenes. Imagine a tiny, limited area of gameplay, with a major focus on culture immersion, people skills, subtle things that a strong familiarity with that specific gaming area would immensely promote. Creating virtual culture that is interconnected, contextual, sensible is actually quite hard, but also quite rewarding, and in a way, games of such calibre leave a visible mark on players lives. When culture, atmosphere and gameplay are intertwined well, the player could literally spend hours on end, just enjoying observation of interaction of NPC’s, or observing causal relationships that develop when you influence the game subtly or just enjoying being there, as a part of that alternative virtual culture. Alternative to IRL that is.

EDIT: Was advised to put some examples of good and bad games that aid my argument.

Bad massive games: Lost Cause, Skyrim, Prototype, Oblivion…

Good tinier games: Deus Ex, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, Thief series

HUD Minimaps is what is ruining modern games

That, among other things.
HUD Minimaps floating at the end of your screen just takes away attention from the environment, and graciously delivers it to that ugly pacman-ish minimap. Do we need the player mainly focusing on primitive and simple graphics that serve no purpose other than to make the game easier, or do we want the player completely focused and immersed in the environment our game proudly creates?

If I wanted to play a minimap game, I would be playing games from 30 years ago. And those games are still more immersive in their own specific world, exactly because they offer a directway of playing the game. The “meta” game of minimaps diverts attention away from the game.

My previous post here gives attention to the fact that games are usually filled with other games, minigames that branch out of each other and influence one another, but a successful game is a game that guides the players attention, through the minigames, towards the main presence in the game. Minimaps do the exact opposite. Immersion means bringing the necessity of attention to the actual game and theimmediate presence in the games environments. Getting lost and learning how to navigate throughout the world is one of the most rewarding experiences in games of the recent past. It also is a very good trait to learn, today I rarely get lost in very new and confusing environments because of games that needed direct attention.