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Wiper

Games vs (Combat) Mechanics

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There's a discussion brewing in the How Videogames Changed the World thread in the Film & TV folder which seems better suited to here, so I thought I'd create a topic for it.

In the thread, Silent Runner mused about how great Metroid Prime could be free of combat. This was scoffed at, and I (with my typical tact and knack for understatement) offered my support to the argument that Metroid Prime might, perhaps, have benefited from less combat and more focus on exploration and puzzles. Which got me waffling on about something that I think is a fairly obvious issue with our view of exactly what games are, and how they should work: the idea that games need to be crammed full of mechanics (née 'gameplay'), and that combat is somehow the prime form of these; that a game can't be an adventure, can't be packed full of drama, if it doesn't also fill itself with combat of some kind.

Obviously there are plenty of games that prove the contrary (nearly every point and click adventure, for example, and games like Knytt and Journey and Dear Esther...) but they are readily decried as not being 'real' games. As, indeed, happened in the thread above.

More than this, games which aspire to something a bit different often seem to be hobbled by the need to include vast swathes of combat lest the game be seen not to have enough 'gameplay' - see Bioshock Infinite's constant stream of combat arenas, the mass-murder jarring against its narrative aims; Mirror's Edge offering players the option not to enjoy the thrill of the chase, and instead pick up a gun and play it as a godawful shooter instead; or, indeed, Metroid Prime's respawning-enemy-filled areas which turn the backtracking into a frustrating chore.

Personally, I think this obsession with filling games with combat, no matter what else the game can bring to the table, is often counter-productive. But maybe the developers of the games I've listed are right - maybe 'gamers' just don't like games which aren't filled with combat mechanics. Maybe nobody would have like Metroid Prime if it had fewer enemies, or no respawning. Maybe without the endless combat arenas Bioshock Infinite would have been dull as dishwater.

But even beyond this, is the emphasis on skill-based mechanics in general that essential? Are games like Dear Esther and Journey and To The Moon and Noby Noby Boy automatically worthless because of their complete lack of challenge? Is a game without a fail-state, a game where exploration/discovery/experimentation/narrative progression is the sole drive utterly pointless? I, obviously enough, don't think so. I like to have games which challenge me, certainly, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy games that don't. It also doesn't stop me thinking that there are games that would be improved by the removal of their challenging elements, when those elements are, on their own merits, lacklustre. But clearly there are those who disagree with that.

What do you think? Are designers really hobbled by a sense that they 'must' include combat? More broadly, is it right that game are expected to have skill-based mechanics in them as a default state, or is it right that games that fail to include such features are regularly decried as not being games?

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To encapsulate my stuff from that thread in a single post:

Walking around (i.e. traversal of a 3D space) is gameplay. In fact, it's such a core aspect of so many games, I'm amazed anyone thinks it isn't. Movement through a 3D space is one of the things that games do best, and always have, you can draw a line of succession right from the discovery of rocket jumping and bunny hopping in Quake to the traversal based sandbox subgenre we have today.

Driving cars or flying planes in GTA, Parkour in assassins creed or watch dogs, grappling in Spiderman or Just Cause, or platforming in Mario. Navigating them involves planning a route in your head, and avoiding obstacles - be that other cars and buildings in GTA or finding a quick way of getting across the city in Assassins Creed without running up against every wall, hitting every enemy patrol and crossing streets without dropping down to street level and then climbing up the other side.

I can only assume gamers think it isn't gameplay is because such movement has become second nature to them that it's completely unexamined. That we make such choices instinctively due to our experience, doesn't mean they don't exist. Stick a twin stick controller in the hands of someone who's never played a game and ask them to do any of the above and see how they fare!

I fully think a game of traversal, exploration and environmental interaction/puzzle solving could hold up as a fantastic mechanics-driven game - that's 95% of Minecraft, Mirrors Edge, and 100% of Portal or Kerbal Space Program already, for example, all of which are heartily recommended.

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I'd love to see a 'free roam' mechanic in some if these games in the same way some car games do (Driver comes to mind).

Allow players to explore the levels free of enemies. Just as an extra option as a way to explore the space or to learn about the level design without the need to hack the game to pieces.

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Christ on a bike what a stupid and misleading title. Thanks Wiper for completely misrepresenting what I said. YOU were the one who erroneously focused in on combat mechanics and what's more misunderstood completely my point about them.

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or, indeed, Metroid Prime's respawning-enemy-filled areas which turn the backtracking into a frustrating chore.

No, not 'indeed' as Metroid Prime's combat is not a tacked-on element as with the example of Mirror's Edge but the core gameplay element alongside the traversal mechanics. It's core to the game.

If you don't like it, fine. That doesn't make it any less of a natural fit in in the game they created.

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Combat can be a core element of gameplay and still be a chore through lack of variety or use as padding to extend game length.

We were talking about Bioshock Infinite in the other thread, and that game is guilty of both - just throwing loads of enemies at you in encounters that are structured the same and also having you fight through areas multiple times through backtracking.

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Christ on a bike what a stupid and misleading title. Thanks Wiper for completely misrepresenting what I said. YOU were the one who erroneously focused in on combat mechanics and what's more misunderstood completely my point about them.

Smitty, did I mention you by name, even once? No. I didn't misrepresent what you said, because I didn't mention what you said (besides scoffing at Silent Runner's suggestion); not everything that's written about things which happen to involve you are actually targeted at you. The discussion that started in that thread span out of me going off on a tangent for sure, but it's that discussion I'm referring to here, not your original argument.

(I did mean to bracket the Combat part of the title, though, as that's not the sole aspect of the argument - I've fixed that now)

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Combat can be a core element of gameplay and still be a chore through lack of variety or use as padding to extend game length.

We were talking about Bioshock Infinite in the other thread, and that game is guilty of both - just throwing loads of enemies at you in encounters that are structured the same and also having you fight through areas multiple times through backtracking.

And as I said that's a problem with the combat, not purely a problem caused by the presence of the mechanic called combat.

I also said that the only problem I could see (not that i really agree) with MP's combat was respawning enemies and that too is a matter of implementation.

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killing* is fun.

driving* is fun.

moving around in a 3D-realised environment is fun.

killing and driving around is the best thing ever.

A game that features neither is boring.

ergo: Assassins Creed 4 is the best game ever.

* any "combative" situation, including sword fights

* any vehicle, including boats

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I think people are afraid of stripping combat from their games in case it feels a bit too much like a museum; walk here, press this button, walk there, press that button. If you can't gain some kind of meaningful dynamic challenge from gunplay, you'll either have to find something else to keep a player on their toes - scripted escape sequences, chase sequences, environmental or physics-based challenges - or make your game about exploring and looking around.

I guess Deus Ex was a step in the right direction; maybe it didn't execute the intended vision perfectly, but some of the scenarios showed promise. Why go in guns blazing when you can fiddle with the security and effectively make yourself invisible? Why put a gun to a story-centric character's head when you can try and talk him around? Why give a player dozens of guns when you can just give them dozens of toys instead and let them interact with the gameworld more meaningfully?

(at least until you reach one of Deus Ex: HR's bosses, I guess... :/ )

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Games don't have to have combat. Metroid Prime and other action adventures like Dark Souls are just very bad examples because the combat is part of the flow of your traversal of the game world. There's a real satisfaction to returning to an old area and knowing where you can use a charged blast to take out an enemy without slowing down, or even just blasting the hell out of everything with newly powered up weaponry. Or possibly you will learn when it's ok to just run past everything, using little jumps and flips to cut out fights altogether. You're not just experiencing the world, but interacting with it somehow.

Traversing a hostile environment is very different from wandering around a passive one. For instance, wandering around a hill town in Provence is nice, but it wouldn't be as nice if the locals were chasing you with farming implements.

However, none of what I'm saying about hostile environments necessitates combat. It's just not at all the same thing as just wandering around taking in the atmosphere.

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First thing that comes to mind is Tomb Raider. The original games (haven't played the new ones) had auto lock on combat which was pretty awful. You could easily remove that and I don't think it would have lessened the enjoyment for me. The real game was seeing how many hilarious ways Lara could be killed anyway.

or, indeed, Metroid Prime's respawning-enemy-filled areas which turn the backtracking into a frustrating chore.

I don't agree about MP's combat being a chore. Very quickly your upgrades as well as your movement abilities allow you to blow past these respawned enemies (or even ignore them). They are also useful in providing health and ammo and sometimes environmental puzzles. The scanning is also a non-combative form of gameplay and storytelling.

Both games do have Samus and Lara decimating the local wildlife though.

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Totally agree with the first couple of posts.

I've said before that in a well realised game world, I can be quite happy just to be allowed to explore. Problem is, this usually means you need more complex interaction with the environment, which is fiddly compared to the most basic form of interaction, shooting. That's really no more complex than placing a cursor over a thing and then clicking.

Thing is, this is where exploration and combat come together in a way, they have similar limitations. Movement.

You know what I mean, we've all had it.....that moment when you're trying to get from a to b, or hurriedly trying to maneuvre in combat, and suddenly find that you cant navigate a particular space, that looks navigable, in what is otherwise a fairly open environment. We rarely ever have invisible walls anymore but this is just as incongruous.

Take Far Cry 3 for example. Compared to most first-person games, even open world ones, this allows you to use much more of the game space than is usual, both because of the map design and the movement mechanics. Most of the map is open, rather than channeled corridors as in it's predecessor, and for the most part you can get up pretty steep hills. It's more forgiving in this regards, certainly. But then again I had a moment just now where I tried to get an impromptu flank on an enemy by hopping through a window. Couldn't. Felt a bit odd.

Another example would be gta5. As well as all the physicsy stuff, this also impressed me by allowing you to clamber up anything deemed to be the appropriate height and steepness, so long as it had a slight ledge to it. As such, you can actually scramble up steep cliffs in much the same way as in real life. I spent ages on chiliad doing exactly that. It doesnt sound much but it does wonders for immersion, and also means you can move more freely and intelligently, which opens up options. I dunno how the coding works, but I expect it any other game elements of the environment have to be specifically flagged as 'allow climbing animation'. GTA5 seems to just let the engine decide.

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[slightly wanky post alert] I think it's down to the fact that games are still arguably a very 'young' medium, to a degree it's still seen as a toy-like thing and we haven't really got many games brave enough to not include shooting because historically, the biggest sellers have been shooty mans games. Unfortunately, it's in a slightly catch 22 situation, if you liken the industry to movies (I know it isn't but keep it simple) and someone tries to make an out and out 'comedy' game, it would be a huge financial risk if it doesn't work but you will forever keep the focus incredibly narrow, or as has thankfully happened, you can make indie type smaller games which could fill that niche and find an audience.

I'm sure if you pitched Minecraft, Journey To The Moon and Dear Esther to any devs in the PS2 gen, you'd have been laughed out the room. I'm quietly hoping that somewhere along the way, you'll be able to get Coen brothers type devs which can put out a more 'mainstream' game to get the numbers in and then they can go off and do something fun. Hopefully Kickstarter and the likes can also continue this sort of left field stuff.

I still really miss point n clicks (although they are having a slight resurgence) and slower paced games like that, or even as has been mentioned, Tomb Raiding of old. Occasional annoying wolf or whatever (which still shouldn't have been in there really IMHO) in between puzzling. Look at the two Portals, bloody brilliant and no killing.

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Take out respawning enemies and Metroid Prime is going to be even more boring. So what then? Replace them all with environmental hazards? Or take out back-tracking altogether and make it an entirely linear experience? Who knows, you might end up building something which could totally be a good game in its own right, but it probably wouldn't be a Metroid game by that point, which would completely defeat the object of calling it a Metroid game in the first place, surely?

Besides, we couldn't marvel at what an amazing job Retro Studios made of not just translating Metroid into 3D, but with a first-person perspective to boot. Frankly, I think people forget what an astonishing achievement that truly is. Anyway, I agree with you on Mirror's Edge; it's not like it had any preconceived notions to live up to, other than what the bods at EA projected onto their audience. Most of the substance of that game came from time trials anyway, and speed runs mostly avoid combat where possible.

Haven't played Bioshock Infinite, but if it's anything like the first game, I'll hate it. Levine is a better storyteller than game designer, thus large chunks of that game left me completely cold. Bioshock 2 was good though!

More generally, I think it's dangerous to conflate skill-based games with combat, if only because there are plenty of examples of skill-based games where combat is either greatly diminished (or completely absent from) the final product.

NiGHTS into Dreams

Crazy Taxi

Burning Rangers

Super Monkey Ball

Most driving games

I'm sure there's more, but I'm a Sega nerd, so these naturally float to the top. So if designers do feel constrained, it's probably not for lack of trying, and if I had to guess, I'd say it's cultural.

*snip* long rant about America's cultural hegemony *snip*

So the problem with Dear Esther isn't a lack of challenge, but rather a lack of agency that benefits neither the narrative or the player. I played through it once and came to two conclusions: 1) I'd wasted 30 minutes of my life, and 2) If I'd watched someone else play it on Youtube, I still would have wasted 30 minutes of my life. I'm not saying the principle of using the medium of games for storytelling isn't sound, but in this case the execution was diabolical, and it surprises me that people treat Dear Esther as some sort of sacred cow. It's almost as if we're exalting the game simply for providing a fixed point of debate, rather than on its own merits.

Levine could make a better Dear Esther.

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More generally, I think it's dangerous to conflate skill-based games with combat, if only because there are plenty of examples of skill-based games where combat is either greatly diminished (or completely absent from) the final product.

NiGHTS into Dreams

Crazy Taxi

Burning Rangers

Super Monkey Ball

Most driving games

I wasn't trying to conflate the two; rather make two separate observations - that games that lack a skill-based element are often criticised for it (or accused of not being games), and that the element that seems to be the most liable to be bolted onto a game that doesn't need it is combat. I'm quite the SEGA fanboy myself (and currently going back through the glorious Jet Set Radio, which is a perfect example of a skill-based non-combat game), and it's the fact that many of my favourite games do have little-to-no combat that made me particularly wonder about those games where combat seems to have been put in (or included to such a degree) that it seems to clash with the other elements of the game; like Mirror's Edge, like Bioshock Infinite.

I should also mention that Metroid Prime would never have been a game that leapt into my head as an example of this: I only included it because it was what led to the discussion starting in the first place. It was brought up as an example of a game that could have benefited from a lack of combat; said suggestion was promptly poo-pooed, along with a comment that "It's pretty disturbing to me that 'gamers' are agitating to see gameplay removed from games". That got me thinking about both of the issues above, and lo, we end up here.

The most terrifying gaming experience I ever had was playing that little girl in Siren. It was the fact that you couldn't fight back that made it so terrifying.

Amnesia benefits from this too. Powerlessness is, er, powerful.

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Zettai Zetsumei Toshi was another brilliant example of a game where survival against violence relied on ingenuity rather than violence.

Nowadays even violent games like Walking Dead have no traditional combat mechanics in them at all, instead relying on placing you in a situation out of your control and having you fumble or use your wits to see you through and live with the consequences.

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Warframe, as a series of escapes from spaceships that are set to autodestruct, rather than third-person pso-light.

take away the map, add a timer, and add smoke.

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I'd love to see a 'free roam' mechanic in some if these games in the same way some car games do (Driver comes to mind).

Allow players to explore the levels free of enemies. Just as an extra option as a way to explore the space or to learn about the level design without the need to hack the game to pieces.

Yeah as long as there is actual substance within the place you can explore and not just samey items and no interactive elements resulting in a long run around an empty but eye candy looking environment. This problem I had with Dead Island when I spent 11 hours walking round the first map before doing the first key mission. It put me off knowing that there was little to do anywhere, forcing me to do the missions it gives you in the main story. Even those were samey too. Go somewhere pick up a, b and c, come back rinse and repeat.

Fallout is an example of exceptional in getting this right. You walk somewhere and uncover and entire group of people and side story elements which can even be long term effecting without having to visit at all if need be.

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