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Games that don’t give the player a framework within which they can feel responsible for outcomes

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Hello all! My first post here. Incredibly and intentionally minor spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Resident Evil 2 Remake ahead.

The three games I'm going to use to present my point are The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Resident Evil 2 remake. I've been playing all of these in recent months and it's forced me to ponder what I consider to be one of the greatest faux pas a video game can make – not giving the player a framework within which they feel responsible for outcomes.

It's my opinion that a good game should at it's very core consist of game play mechanics that make it theoretically possible for a skilled player to go from start to finish without performing any action for which they would be penalized, for example by taking damage, dying etc. That's not to say that the game should be easy (in fact a great deal of satisfaction can be had from very difficult games that adhere to this principle diligently) but it is to say that a game must be fair. Any penalty incurred should always be the result of a misstep or error on the players part, and above all it should feel like the players fault.

I'll start with a game that I feel executes this quite competently, The Witcher 3. One of the things I loved immediately about the combat system was that it was based on reaction, timing, and attention to detail, the player must observe multiple opponents at once, managing distance through dodging while watching for clues that a particular opponent is about to strike. Once an opponent does strike, it's the timing of the players response which determines whether the result is a simple block, a parry which leaves the opponent open to a counter-attack, or a failed defense in which the player takes some damage. Under this system combat is predictable, but in a good way. The player is given a framework within which to succeed, with the end result determined in the most part to the players skill. This actually has an effect on the leveling system that makes the game world feel so much more exciting, because not all enemies level with the player, meaning you will encounter opponents who severely outrank you, but you are free to engage them and with a good dose of concentration come out of the encounter on top – or be dispatched by a single blow leading on from a poorly timed defense – but that's up to you as the player.

Next I'd like to mention a game which, for the most part, treats the player reasonably (albeit with a selection of less than fair moments). MGSV is a game based mainly on the principle of pitting a well equipped and reasonably robust but severely outnumbered player against a large number of relatively weak enemies. The player is expected to use stealth tactics, situational awareness and sound marksmanship to succeed, and for about 95% of the game this formula absolutely shines. The lengthy duration of the missions combined with the constant threat of the player being discovered results in a tension that borders on uncomfortable, especially if attempting to achieve an 'S' rank, when towards the end of a mission a single wrong move can result in over an hours flawless stealth being completely in vain. Personally I love this dynamic, and because of it, rank MGSV as one of my two favorite games of all time. Unfortunately there is still the awkward matter of the remaining 5%.

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At a number of points in the game you are pitted against "The Skulls", biologically enhanced soldiers with superhuman abilities. Unlike the regular enemies you are used to encountering, the skulls have plentiful health, they can perform a teleport-esque jump to pursue you around the map, they are able to intercept and attach themselves to any vehicle you try and escape in and are generally a nuisance. Stealth can be an option for certain encounters but for most you are forced to engage them in some way. Due to the overpowered nature of their abilities, the player can't engage them in a manner that is complimented by the tools the game gives him or her, if you run they will catch you, if you take cover they will appear behind you, if you shoot they will return fire and hit you, possibly killing you, before you manage to dispatch even one (irritating in a game where the number of hits taken is a metric accounted for in your end of mission score). These sections can really feel like MGSV is wandering into a genre that it just is not, it is a stealth action game with third / first person shooter elements, but the gun play is not it's strongest part. These sections have parallels in the final boss battle, which I wont go into detail about, but again they are an example of a game not giving the player a framework within which they feel like they are responsible for the outcome.

Finally I'd like to talk about the recent Resident Evil 2 remake. I suppose in a similar way to MGSV, this game is not what it appears to be at first glance, it is a survival horror / puzzle game packaged as a third person shooter. Again like MGSV, the gun play is not the strongest part, and like MGSV the decision whether or not to kill an an enemy is often a considered one, the decision process is what is important, not the experience of shooting stuff. RE2 carries this off very well for the vast majority of it's game play, most enemies can either be dispatched or tactically avoided according to the whims of the player, with the greatest enjoyment coming from the mental calculations surrounding resource management, path finding and learning the layout of the game map, with the odd shameless kill purely for satisfaction when your ammo resources are abundant. However once again this is a game which at times strays just a little too far from it's intended genre, with the most heinous example being the second boss fight involving the crane.

You are in an enclosed space, playing as a character who's movement is intentionally subdued as it compliments the survival horror dynamic of the rest of the game, the bread and butter of it's game play. However you are now pitted against an enemy who's attacks reach further, and who moves faster and is more agile than any of the enemies that your characters movement speed and agility was designed around. Now I'm not saying it's impossible to avoid his attacks, but it certainly feels like it has more to do with luck than skill, and many of the blows you sustain feel like the game is punishing you as a result of it's poor design, rather than because you ran out of skill. When you do defeat him, it doesn't really feel like an achievement because you never felt like you were in control of the outcome anyway, but rather it feels like you brought a little bit of skill but benefited from a bit of luck too. Once again a game (or a section of one) that didn't give the player a framework within which they could feel responsible for the outcome.

Now I appreciate that a quick glance at YouTube will yield many examples of people who have finished these games without taking damage, dying etc. That's not the point, the point is that in the specific sections of the two examples I've given, many of the penalties received by the player feel cheap and unwarranted. It means the difference between feeling like even a loss has value, as you learned more about the game mechanics, and feeling like a loss is just an irritating hindrance to your progression in a game that lacks mechanics to master, often because it is flirting with a genre that is simply is not.

Finally I'd like to say that despite these criticisms these are 3 very good games with a couple of them to me seeming brilliant, Ironically it's the two I criticized that I prefer the most. I'd love to hear other peoples thoughts on this too!

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