For every amazing game that’s released, a handful of merely good ones come out. Sometimes they aren’t even good. Sometimes they’re mediocre or, in certain circumstances, outright bad, at least if the general consensus is to be believed. While any number of factors can be attributed to a game’s overall quality, one giant criticism I see pop up time and again is that a game is repetitive. I think this is something of a misnomer, though. See, the thing is that games are an inherently repetitive medium. Instead, I think that the more appropriate phrasing would be that the game doesn’t reward players appropriately for their time spent.
Think about a really great game. Maybe your favorite one. You got it in your head? For me, my favorite game is Majora’s Mask. There are a whole variety of reasons I love it so much, but chief among them is how it marries its traditional Zelda gameplay with one unique mechanic and its storytelling, and how that all comes together to create a wildly unique, beautiful example of video game storytelling. The art design is fantastic (though the original version admittedly has dated graphics), and each area tells a different story of the world that engages the player immediately.
There are five main areas in the game: Clock Town, Woodfall, Snowhead, Great Bay, and Ikana Canyon. In each of the latter four, there is a dungeon that holds the Macguffin you need to progress the story. Before that, though, there are several tasks you need to complete just to get in to the dungeon. In Woodfall, you need to infiltrate the Deku Palace in order to find out some information about the missing Deku Princess. To do this, you must sneak around some guards, but only after taking a picture that makes the Boat Man give you a free lift through the poisoned swamp.
The other three areas play out much the same way. First you arrive in the area, then you explore a bit, then you talk with locals to get hints on how to progress, then you figure out the environmental puzzle that gives you the item and song you need to continue. Then you can finally open the way to the dungeon proper, wherein there are several more challenges presented to the player in the form of combat and puzzles, then you fight the boss. Rinse and repeat.
The thing is, though, that it’s a fantastic game. And this formula can be applied to most of the games in the Zelda series. Boiled down to the simplest components, each one is a series of tasks that must be completed in order to progress. Some are optional, and some aren’t. That sounds boring as hell, right? Repetitive, even. Zelda is an internationally beloved series, though, so there’s more to it than that.
It’s the way the games are designed to be fantastical recreations of our own world. It’s the stories, which tell classic good vs. evil tales with real heart. It’s the exploration that gives the player a sense of satisfaction with a tangible reward. It’s the dungeons, which present brain teasers and combat challenges in equal measure. And, like any well designed game, there’s a steady difficulty curve in each one.
Let’s discuss difficulty curves using Hotline Miami. It’s an extremely simple game; move around, kill enemies, don’t get yourself killed. When I first played the game, I died over and over again on the very first level, which only presents five enemies to the player, two on the first floor and three on the second. I felt like a fool. My deaths reached double digits on just the first level. The second one throws more enemies at you with a slightly bigger level layout. The third goes even bigger with a few more enemies. By the end, you’re taking on buildings full of bad guys, dodging their attacks while killing as many of them as possible. Some levels near the end have body counts nearing 100.
Fast forward to now. I got every single achievement in the game a few years back, and that includes the one that requires the player to string together combo of 12 or more kills, and to get an A+ rank on every level. While I was going for all of these achievements, I threw caution to the wind and started dancing around the levels, popping in and out of cover while killing my enemies and just barely avoiding a one hit death. It was exhilarating to the point that there were times I would forget to breathe until I had beaten a level. The challenge made it immensely satisfying to get every single achievement.
Another reason it was rewarding is because I never forgot my performance the first time playing the game. I went from a player that struggled with the first level, to one that was able to beat an entire level without dying and rack up combos well past the 12 mark. The initial playthrough teaches you via the sometimes-harsh punishment of death how to “properly” play the game if you’re score chasing.
According to Steam, I’ve played nearly 30 hours of Hotline Miami. Mind you, my first playthrough took about 5, and subsequent ones took even less than that, and with mechanics as simple as “click on enemies to kill them while moving not to be killed.” They are so simple that in a lesser game, I would have quickly grown bored. The game rewarded me with higher scores for my perseverance.
In my experience, this is the key to making a good game focused on mechanics. Build gameplay around one or maybe a few more ideas, and focus on developing the game in a way that the player feels they have mastered those skills. Challenge them with boss fights that act as a test of everything they’ve learned up to that point, and make the final boss a testament to that learning. Of course, something that helps prevent repetition is the good pacing of both the game and the rewards it gives. Hotline Miami is, as mentioned above, rather short, but in that run time you unlock a whole host of unique masks that give you various abilities, which helps mix things up on your initial playthrough.
Other, slightly more complicated games implement upgrade systems to help the player develop their character. Bayonetta is a game that boils down to beating the crap out of enemies and looking damn good while you do it. But there is a huge list of unlockables that give Bayonetta new moves an weapons that give the player the agency to choose how to develop her as a fighter. And By the end, when you’re dancing around using all of the moves at your disposal, and you think back to how limited she was in the beginning, it makes the player feel like they’ve come a long way.
Sometimes the best reward is the challenge itself. In my recent article on New Super Mario Bros Wii, I mentioned how finding the 3 hidden star coins in each level unlocks challenging bonus levels. Games don’t get much simpler than the Mario franchise, with each one boiling down to simply running from one end of the screen to the other. Their appeal lies in the obstacles they put in the player’s path, and getting the hidden Star Coins is often even more challenging. Your reward is the game’s ultimate test in the form of eight levels that are among the toughest in the series.
The thing about Mario, though, is that each game is designed so that moving around is inherently satisfying. He feels good to control, which means it’s enjoyable to play as him whether you’re hopping lazily through world 1-1 or dodging screen filling banzai bills in one of NSMBW’s hidden levels. Like Hotline Miami, the mechanics are satisfying to learn, and seeing yourself overcome every new challenge the developers throw at you is what makes it so fun.
Resident Evil 4 is one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to stifling off repetition through new challenges. The main story is constantly putting Leon in new, challenging situations, and knows how to break up the intense action set pieces (like the mine cart under the castle) with slower, quieter sequences where the player can catch their breath and explore the environment to stock up on ammo. Even ignoring the game’s addictive upgrade system and fantastic bosses, the way the story is designed means the player never knows exactly what to expect next.
There are other ways to reward the player’s time, though. There’s a game called Sagebrush that is a part of the increasingly popular walking simulator genre. In the game, you explore an abandoned commune and get pieces of story doled out through environmental exploration. I won’t really discuss what the game is about because it’s a great way to spend an hour or two, but without those intriguing story bits, the game would be just walking around for an hour before the credits roll, which sounds boring. But the story that gives you context to your character’s actions is its own reward for players that stick with it until the end.
I recently played through the original Jak and Daxter game and found it to be a mixed bag overall. While I would say I enjoyed my time with it, I did get a feeling of repetition start to set in by the end of its relatively short run time. And I think for me, it’s because the game was more focused on collecting items than challenging the player. Any time my progress was blocked, it was because of a frustrating vehicle segment, or a weird timed run to a reward. Controlling Jak himself didn’t feel as inherently satisfying as controlling Mario, who has his own exploitable and master-able physics for players to explore. As such, I felt like I was completing a literal to-do list rather than progressing through the game, and the story wasn’t strong enough to carry the gameplay.
I mentioned in our most recent We’re Just Playing article that something about the way the newest God of War game is paced is struggling to engage me. I haven’t picked it back up since clearing out the first visit to Alfheim, where you fight the Dark Elves. And I think that’s because everything outside of combat didn’t interest me personally. I wasn’t forming a connection to Kratos or his son, which meant that the drawn out journey story wasn’t grabbing me, and the “puzzles,” such as they were, failed to engage me in the way a dungeon in Zelda does. In Alfheim, a big part of progress was using light crystals to form bridges. The thing was that none of the puzzles are more complicated or taxing than “find a crystal and carry it slowly to its pedestal.” Whenever I wasn’t in combat, I was completing a puzzle that wasn’t challenging in any way, which made them feel token, and as a result, I felt that sense of repetition setting in (I hope Johnny Malloy, who named the game as one of his ten favorites of the past decade, can forgive me).
Let’s circle back around to Majora’s Mask. Not only does it have a nice difficulty curve that challenges players to put everything they’ve learned to use both inside and outside of dungeons, but it also rewards them with mini-stories about the world in the form of its side quests, which in turn yield rewards for the player. It’s a never ending cycle (pun fully intended) of learning, exploring, and overcoming that continues until the final boss falls. It incentivizes the player with gameplay challenge, rewarding upgrades, and story. It is one of many, many examples of how games overcome their inherently repetitive structures with new and interesting ways of engaging the player.
The next time you’re playing something that isn’t grabbing you, consider why. It’s very easy to say that it’s just repetitive, but if that’s the case, chances are that there is some fundamental flaw in the game elsewhere. The point of all of this is to say that if a game developer makes something that is inherently fun or engaging to play, they will be able to hide the repetition under the good parts of the game. If they fail to create a game that completely grabs the player’s attention, players will notice when certain elements keep popping back up over and over again. And when the only thing your game has is something that isn’t very enjoyable to begin with, well, there are more problems with it than just repetition.