Context, Challenge and Gratification

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I can't be the only one to mention this, but a good game does in no way require a story. Sorry Yahtzee, but it's true. Tetris doesn't have a story, nor does Angry Birds or Pac Man and yet all three of those games deliver both challenge and gratification. I bet I could bring up many more classic and modern games that are both popular and well-made that don't have or require a story.

I suppose you could argue that maybe Angry Birds and Pac Man have a story, and I'd concede the point, however their stories are so weak and inconsequential to the actual games as to be moot.

Story, or context, certainly can't hurt, but it's not essential to good gameplay. We can look outside of video games to see further proof of this. Some of the deepest and most complex games have no story either: poker, chess, go, etc. have zero in the realms of story. Lots of modern board and card games do without story as well or, again, have little more than a skeleton of story. Magic: The Gathering springs to mind. Sure, there's heaps of lore built into the game, but it has no real impact other than flavour. The beauty of MtG comes from the game mechanics and card interactions. Deck building games like Resident Evil or Dominion also don't require story elements, even if the RE deck building game is based on the characters and events of the video game. It's only a framework that allows a character to have artwork and abilities that are meaningful in the context that the people that are buying the card game are probably fans of the video game.

I realize that story can have a huge impact on how enjoyable a game is, but is by no means strictly necessary. Just look at MW or any other FPS game. The success and popularity of these games stems from their huge and rabid online multiplayer fan bases where there is no story. Capture the Flag or Deathmatch are not stories. They are game modes and I don't think that anyone has ever complained that the online multiplayer of Modern Warfare doesn't have a story.

Definitely a nice input on how to better qualify games. The whole 'Challenge, Context, and Gratification' model really doesn't define all of a game's fullest aspects (as there should still probably be some reflection on Graphics and Sound, but not a weighted majority on them), but it's definitely a step in the right direction. Yahtzee once again shows how, behind all of the Zero Punctuation trolling, he actually does know a lot about what he's talking about.

On the note of the whole spectrum, I'd like to say that one game series that manages to meet all three spectrums of this triumvirate equally is Touhou Project. YouTube it if you aren't familiar with it, and you'll kinda see where I'm going. Definitely a lot of challenge from the average up to the hardcore gamer, and there's a lot of satisfaction in getting through every level and trying to unlock the 'extra' stage and whatnot, and the environments and characters lend themselves into making a rather pleasant and enjoyable atmosphere.

Of course, though, it almost swings completely out on the 'context' part, as there's a lot behind the backstory of the games that is almost never really given in the actual games themselves. It's very satisfying if you know what's going on, but it's probably a lot more annoying that, to do that, you have to go on the Internet and look that up for yourself.

I like this scoring method. It provokes thought rather than replacing it.

I prefer the trichotomy of videogame interactivity:

Narrative, gameplay, setting.

These are the things that seperate gaming from other mediums and the perfect game will be one that is great in all 3 layers. I dont think any game has come close yet sadly. There are a few that have had great settings and gameplay, but they didn't have much narrative interactivity. The few games with great narrative interactivity usually have mediocre gameplay (heavy rain) or underdeveloped worlds (mass effect). I guess fallout/elder scrolls type games come closest, but I think Rockstar games are far superior in every way except they just lack much narrative interaction, and deliberately so.

People do not recognise the role setting plays in games enough. Level design is the vessel for gameplay and narrative and if it's shit (FFXIII) then the game feels lifeless and meaningless. You can see with Yahtzee's choices that context = story, gratification = gameplay & challenge = gameplay. So is he counting setting in with context? But it's a very different thing from story and he doesn't mention setting at all. Is he counting setting/level design as part of gameplay and story? Towns are story and dungeons are gameplay kinda makes sense but I think it makes more sense to seperate them. Setting is really what you remember about a game and it's really vital. You can't explore a world in a movie. You can experience a narrative in one and sports have gameplay. Setting is what makes gaming special. When I think of GTAIV I think Liberty City. I don't think of any story or gameplay moments straight away. FFXIII was made up of cutscenes, corridors and combat and you could always tell what one you were currently experiencing and those 3 things match up perfectly with the 3 interactive layers.

You can use the 3 layers to categorise the types of video games:

1. Toys without narrative and setting that only exists for gameplay. (e.g. sports games, puzzle games, multiplayer, maybe some 2d platformers)

2. Games with linear narrative and settings (e.g. valve). Some attempt at a story and setting but with only a few characters and locations. Basically movies with gameplay.

3. Games with either openworlds or interactive narratives (e.g. rockstar/bethesda). Dozens of characters and locations and more than a single plot thread. Feels a lot more alive than type 2 with social locations rather than corridors/dungeons. Pretty much a unique experience to gaming but comparable to tv series in scope.

Type 3 are really the masterpieces that developers should strive for though type 1 and 2 are absolutely good types of games as well. They're not perfectly discrete groups but it's hard to think of games that would be really half way in between and not strongly weighted towards one type. Heavy Rain doesn't have an openworld but it's certainly type 3 because of the number of characters, locations and narrative choices. Just cause 2 is certainly type 2 because although it has an openworld, it's just there for gameplay and there's basically no story or characters in the game.

Thanks for the Halo Reach shoutout, Mr. Yahtzee. Sure it wasn't the best game, but that final scene was just amazing. One thing that sticks out to me somehow is the objective it gives you, though. Previously the little warnings that pop up had been things like "Take the Herp-Derp to the Derpystein," or "activate the McPlot Device." You know, typical videogame hand holding. But on the last mission, you only get one thing: "Survive." That was very poignant for some reason, it really tied together the Context aspect of it. Even more so knowing that it was impossible.

But back on topic: yes you really don't need a good story to make a fun game, as proven by every internet flash game ever. But the ones that have context, that give you a motivation for your actions, are the ones that stick in your head for a long, long time.

(...I wanna go play Reach now)

[EDIT: Oh crap, I just realized I bumped this pretty hard. I just read the article and had to comment. Disregard the previous, please.]

Odd. Very odd.
As to apologise for the post I am about to write:
TL;DR and sorry for bumping.

I know I'm a few weeks late, but I'm not a regular reader (so I didn't read this when it was posted) and I read:-
"You remember my context-challenge-gratification triangle theory of game design, right?"

Well a few days ago, I had one of those 3 am brainwave things where you have to get up and put them down on paper, lest you forget the brilliant thought (As you would reckon at 3 am.)
So I drew this triangle thing, and here we are.
In my triangle, I originally put the big word FUN in the centre, and drew a triangle around it.
At each corner I place the words, but mine were different, sort of. I had CHALLENGE, STORY and ADVENTURE. It was pretty much the same thing as what Yahtzee was talking about (I think) only with more problems when I actually tried to plot games on it.

See, how my chart worked was each game was closer to a point depending on what part was done better in it, for example, Just Cause 2 was right on the point of adventure, with the huge sandbox where you can look up at a mountain and think, "I am going to climb that" and it will be so. Cave story is another example, where I thought it lay closest to story, the second closest adventure, and not completely dead for, but quite far from challenge. I defeated the Doctor because I wanted to see the ending, not because I wanted to defeat the Doctor.

Now those games did what they did well, but when I tried to plot some other games, they didn't seem to fit. Portal was one, Amnesia another, and so on. (Don't ask me why they didn't fit, again, I don't remember much about 3 am.) And bad games took the cake. I didn't actually plot any, but where would I put them? If a game failed on all three of these points, would I put it in the middle, in the fun zone? Would I put it outside the triangle?

Yeah, everything stopped making sense after that. 3.30 is bed time.

The idea Yahtzee had fills in the sleep deprived blanks I made and hadn't actually looked into fixing myself. In particular, replacing adventure with gratification and to a lesser extent replacing "FUN" with "How good the game is."

I haven't actually tried to plot any games on his chart, but this concept makes more sense than mine, and I could try reading the 50 odd comments of people who actually tried this, but hey... Who actually reads comments?
Also, I was reading xkcd comments before I came here. Did you know there are now a thousand of them? There are now a thousand of them.

These 3 categories are an excellent framework for understanding why Max Payne was one of the greatest games ever made.

No, no, wrong. For gratification, context is indispensable. For players seeking to be gratified, gameplay takes a distant back seat to visuals and sound; for example, it makes a huge difference if gunshots are silent or loud. But for players seeking to be challenged, context is just an impediment; they will accept anything that strengthens that challenge, and reject anything else. Tetris is a good example of this. So one is forever pushing reality away, the other forever desperately dragging it in; they outright diminish each other.

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