My New Hat Tells a Story

Visual feedback in video games has always been a big deal to me. I love seeing that new sword reflected on my character, or seeing what a new area that looks utterly unique, or even just pulling off a difficult and flashy move. While I’m certainly not a stickler for graphics, I’ve always liked some visual feedback to chart my progress in a game. I assumed this was common, but a conversation with a friend has me rethinking why people prefer some games to others.

The idea of valuing visual feedback in games is one that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, but it never seemed an interesting enough topic. What really brought it to the fore was a conversation I had with some friends about the recent release Evolve. The game has gotten some flack from gamers regarding its 60+ dollars of DLC at launch, but fans have responded that, as the content is purely cosmetic items, it’s not a big deal. This sentiment was echoed by those friends, who had spent the previous two nights playing Evolve as much as possible.

I am of two minds on that, myself. My gut reaction is to dislike that much DLC on day one from a $60 USD game. The realities of game design means that it was not necessarily content cut from the disk to be sold as DLC, but it’s hard not to feel as if, without the option of DLC, they would have included some of this in the original release. But it is just skins- no game modes, characters, or gameplay-modifying content was withheld. This is a model a lot of the best free to play games have adopted- sell aesthetic items, but keep all gameplay included in the core package. It might be a little harder to swallow when you already paid full price to buy the core game, but it’s pretty innocuous.

Myself, though, I come from a different background than my friends. They enjoy online multiplayer games, and feel most at home when a game of skill lets them flex their competitive side. My comfort zone has always been in story-driven games, especially RPGs. If my character has a different appearance than it started with, I associate that with growth. I love seeing a character start in rags, fighting off rats with a stick, and eventually see them fighting dragons in full plate some hours down the line. If I have a particularly cool hat on my character, I usually remember the story behind how I got that hat, and it builds a narrative in my head. It enriches the character I’m building- I remember fighting for the money to buy my first copper sword in every Dragon Quest game, I remember running Syrcus Tower for weeks to get my Dragoon’s armor in Final Fantasy XIV, and I remember the sidequests required to get most of the costumes in Tales of Symphonia. The Tales series in particular has a very rough relationship with DLC and releasing unfinished games in recent years, but that’s another post altogether.

My friends saw this differently. They are more focused on the mechanics of a game- a mechanically sound and balanced game shows that progression through the skill of the player, not through the game giving you a bauble or filling up a bar. To quote one of them:

“The way I see skins is a way to stand out. I do not, at all, associate visual feedback with progression, save for people who play certain characters A LOT, and thus want to make that character special. It’s an optional thing. It’s not something given to you by the game because you accomplished something.”

This took a bit to sink in. It’s completely at odds with how I enjoy a game! I need theme, I need those pats on the back, and I need story, even if it’s one I build over the course of play. Eventually I realized that this core difference showed itself time and again in our game preferences.

The same group often plays board games together. There are a lot that we all enjoy, like the Pathfinder Card Game, Arkham Horror, King of Tokyo, and countless others. The outsides of the venn diagram were always the most interesting, however. I definitely enjoyed Dead of Winter more than they did, and their love of worker placement games was not shared on my end. I came to the realization that this is, more or less, the same problem. I love telling a story, and seeing the theme work into a game, while they enjoy solid and balanced mechanics.

I didn’t realize this was the difference until one of them pointed something out- I don’t like worker placement games, but I love Eclipse, which despite being a 4X game shares plenty of mechanical similarities to a worker placement game. But Eclipse has that cool character sheet you fill up! You can customize your ships, and take on the role of an interesting alien race! It’s nothing like those boring worker placement games, that take place on farms or make you the mayor of a town!

Well, mechanically they are similar, but the theme is miles away. It’s the same reason Dominion isn’t my favorite deck building game, or why I can kind of enjoy a game of Lords of Waterdeep. They view a game the same way one would view a sport- a test of skill, intended to be mastered over time. I view it more like a book or a movie, a way to experience something new and watch something that changes over time.

The cool thing about games is that despite two completely different viewpoints, we are never left wanting for things to do together. Cooperative games are universal for us, and we always enjoy a fun round of Smash Brothers or Mario Kart. Even if we enjoy them for different reasons, we can still enjoy them together.

Even though I’m right.

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