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Replayability and Rescuing the Joy of Games

Introduction

I think I’ve misused the word replayability my entire life. It dawned on me just recently when I was playing Tomb Raider – you know, the new one that is rather similar in every way to the Uncharted series – and the thought struck me: “I want to replay the Uncharted series.”

And that’s when I realized I didn’t understand replayability at all. Here’s why: Uncharted, if you don’t count the multiplayer which I’ve never touched, isn’t a series anyone would consider high in replayability.

And yet here I was, wanting to replay a game without replayability. What the hell does this word mean?

That brief blip of a nothing – that nagging thought that I’ve misunderstood something at the foundation of game design and discussion – continued unabated. It crawled up inside me and whispered, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you see what’s right in front of your face? Everything you believe about video games – about art itself – depends on this.”

So I set out to understand what replayability means now, what it should mean, and how it can change the way we look at video games forever. My search started with Reddit.

What Replayability Means Now

Go to Reddit and type in “Replayability.” What you’ll find is post after post with people asking one very simple question. Is this game worth my money? Sure, it might be couched in other phrases, but if you dig deep enough to the heart of the matter all we really want to know is: What value am I getting for my hard earned cash?

But if you search review websites, you’ll find a different metric. Replayability there means, “What extra features does it have? Is there multiplayer and co-op?” Basically, can you continue to play it for an extended period of time? Sid Meier’s Civilization V? Sure. Bioshock Infinite? Not so much.

These two views of replayability have much in common, but they are not the same. One is wholly subjective, as value for money really comes down to what a specific consumer is looking for in a product. The other straddles the line between subjectivity and objectivity. We want metrics that work for everyone – so video games media has accommodated us by creating a pseudo-objective measure of replayability.

Both meanings are valid, but I think them dangerous for two key reasons. First, they thrive in the immediate: How long will this game last me now? Second, it has harmful repercussions on how games are designed.

Threat of Immediacy

From a consumer standpoint, our concept of replayability is harmful because it teaches us that the value of something rests in its worth to us now. C.S. Lewis once said, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” The same is true of all art.

We experience things differently over time, which is why the value of a video game can’t be fully measured in what it means to us now. We’ve all replayed games with different responses. For me, Chrono Trigger means something different every time I play it, but I don’t play it over and over again week in and out. If I’m lucky, the itch comes every four or five years, but it always comes, and those characters take on new life.

Why? Because I’ve changed. I don’t look at the world the same way my 12 year-old self did. My response to Lucca’s mother losing her legs is different now than it once was because I understand loss and the way it affects our future.

But if we expect a game to have replayability immediately, that often means it must be padded with superfluous side missions – things that will, inevitably, make us less likely to play it at a future date. Which leads to the next danger.

Threat of Design

From a developer standpoint, our concept of replayability hurts the way our games are created. It’s troubling when developers like Ubisoft say they are moving to wholly open-world games because that necessarily limits the sort of things to come from those studios.

Game development is a series of trade-offs. Time and money are precious resources, and to invest heavily in one area means other things must go. The reality is, we can’t have everything. If we want more fetch quests in Far Cry 4, that means money and time have to be shifted away from writing a plot that has a satisfying ending or creating more than one radio station for those blasted jeeps.

When it comes down to it, we must ask what we value more? Am I willing to trade those 5 hours of shard-gathering missions in Dragon Age Inquistion for 20 minutes of character development? My answer dictates where I put our money, and my money dictates what developers do.

What Replayability Should Mean

There is another, much simpler definition of replayability. It means simply to play again. As we re-read books, or re-watch movies, or re-listen to music, we can be content to re-play games. Give that Red Dead Redemption or Gears of War a second pass sometime after a few years.

And why do we come back to anything for a second or third pass? Because we liked it the first time. That doesn’t mean we should come back expecting things to be the same – they can never be the same – but it’s the differences that bring us back. I don’t re-read a book because I accidently forgot the plot. I re-read a book because I have changed, so the way I approach that plot and the lessons I glean from the characters will also change. The book will, without any metamorphosis of its own, become something new to me because I have become something new.

Why must games be different? My experience with them hasn’t been. I’ve replayed just about every game I loved from childhood till today – even re-bought games I still owned so I could experience them on different systems.

That’s what replayability should mean: enjoying again, but as if for the first time. And it filters into the very heart of what video games can be to us.

What it Means for Video Games

With all the talk of video games as art, I confess I don’t often act like it. Sometimes I’m just bored out of my mind, have far too much time on my hands, and I need something to occupy it.

But if video games really are art, they should alter us. Like a beautiful song or a movie that we come back to, video games shouldn’t be judged on how much they’ll fill an empty space in our schedules.

Characters we love, a setting we can feel, and mechanics that challenge our minds are more important than completion time, even if the experience only lasts ten or twelve hours. We are dealing with something deeper and more lasting than time. We are dealing with emotion.

Stories and the emotions we tie to them permeate everything we do. T.S. Eliot once said that words are imbued with ages of meaning – that history itself is contained in the very words we choose and the images we associate with them. If that is so, and I think it is, that means every witty one-liner Nathan Drake spews out, if it is true to character, if it is true to life, has weight that carries beyond that one-liner.

Characters have power. Settings have power. Experiences have power. And video games are simply conduits of that power – conduits that connect with us in different, sometimes more intimate ways than books or movies or music can ever do. Because video games envelop us. Video games replace us and become us and imbibe us. We drink them in and leave changed people.

That’s what replayability is about: meeting an old friend, but as if for the first time. You stare at each other, studying the wrinkles and the wisdom, and see just how much life has changed you, and how much you’ve changed each other.

And that’s the best sixty dollars I’ve ever spent.

 

“Making you a better geek, one post at a time!”

 

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About the Author: Taylor Bair writes about the intersection between the games we love and the lives we live. When he isn’t working on websites and marketing projects, he’s freelance writing or tinkering with his blog, Business of Indie, with a hot cup of chai tea in one hand and a computer in the other. Makes typing exceedingly difficult, let me tell you. You can follow him on twitter @wtaylorbair, as well as check out his website.

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