A peculiar magic exists the first time I play a video game. I don’t know what’s coming next, and when I learn something new — whether it’s how to roll into cover using a new controller set-up or how to defeat a particularly challenging boss — I feel a spark of triumph.
The second time I play a video game, it’s still fun, but some of its magic has worn away. I feel impatient during some of the longer cutscenes, especially when they reward me for doing something that was once difficult but now, the second time around, feels easy and way too quick.
As an RPG fan, I adore games with strong stories. On my first playthrough of an RPG, I am completely tuned into the story; it’s what gets me through the game, especially as my combat techniques are lacking as I learn them. But on the second playthrough, something’s changed. Sometimes more than one final outcome is possible, but even so, most of the dialogue and quests are the same during every playthrough. I still enjoy the tale and characters, but it just feels a little tiny bit lacking.
The same is not as true of films. I can watch a favorite movie again and still enjoy it wholeheartedly. Of course, the first viewing is more exciting because I don’t know how it will end, but really, it’s always felt to me that a video game has much less replay value than a movie.
I had a hard time putting my finger on what magic was lost on second playthroughs until I read Raph Koster’s absorbing article “Narrative is Not a Game Mechanic,” which I highly recommend you check out. In it, Koster states that video games are about solving puzzles. When we figure out how to solve a puzzle in a game — and by puzzle, I mean any activity that progresses the game, such as clicking correctly so the playable character climbs onto a roof or jumps into a hay pile — the game rewards us with feedback. In cinematic RPGs, this is very often a cutscene, or at least a bit of cinematics.
Take a sequence in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. We have to light a signal fire to signal the Templars to retreat. That requires us to find the correct tower. As we search for that tower, we must move through the district without getting killed — and depending on how successful we were at our latest assassination, a lot of guards might be after us. When we finally make it up the tower and light that signal fire, the “camera” zooms out and shows our assassin standing on a ledge overlooking the city. This type of panoramic view is common as a reward in Assassin’s Creed games. It’s a minor bit of cinematics, but it’s feedback, and it does feel rewarding. It lets us know we’re on the right track.
Think of the last boss fight you beat in an RPG. Did the game reward you by letting you stop clicking for a cutscene… something like your ship racing away from the base before the base explodes behind you? We need such feedback to recognize that we are playing the game correctly, that we’re progressing and we’ve done something right.
But Koster points out a problem with feedback in cinematic video games: the feedback is way too “big” for the problem or puzzle. With the AC: R example, the feedback is relatively small in relation to the big problem you just solved — a fine thing. But in many video games — particularly narrative-heavy RPGs — lengthy cinematic cutscenes reward you for solving very basic puzzles, such as merely figuring out which button to click to perform a basic action.
The quick time event is similar. In the midst of a cinematic sequence, the game prompts you to hit a button to take an action, then rewards you with more cinematics. In other words, the gameplay in that sequence is very minimal. Sometimes quick time events can be creative and memorable, but they lack intensity during a second playthrough.
Of course, the first time you play a game, all of those rewarding cutscenes look and feel fantastic. The cinematics in many games these days are gorgeous, after all. But the second time you play the game, the feedback has no impact. How can you be rewarded for “learning” something you already know how to do?
A LostGarden article on game mechanics takes this further into RPG territory, as it states that our brains reward us for cueing into NPCs’ expressions for the first time:
This virtual person in a cut scene is no one they will ever meet. But our brains were not evolved to deal with such things. As apes, the tale of an arched eyebrow by a potential mate from our little tribe always meant something very, very important. So our brain rewards us with a little jolt of pleasure for noticing such an “obviously” beneficial tidbit.
The second time around, reading NPCs faces and even listening to their dialogue clues will not provide the spark we need to reward our actions. It’s all much less exciting then, because the learning aspect is gone.
So what’s left for a second playthrough? It has to be very focused on the action — the puzzle-solving, the questing. If that’s too basic, we have little left to enjoy, and everything is a rehash of the first playthrough. This makes interesting combat, different character classes or novel ways of solving puzzles vital to RPG replay value.
To encourage players to keep playing in lieu of action-based replay value, some RPGs rely on DLCs. Sometimes they’re money-makers for the company, but much of the time they’re given away for free. I like DLCs and multiplayer modes, so I see nothing wrong with having them — but relying on them is another story.
A better way to encourage replay is to add variety to the game mechanics. (It may be less profitable than releasing a purchasable DLC, but then again, cinematics are the expensive part of a video game, so emphasizing gameplay may be more cost-effective. Correct me if I’m wrong there.) After all, mechanics are what attract people to games in the first place. If a game didn’t have action and interactivity — or maybe I should say button-clicking — it would be a movie.
It’s funny because I always thought a story-heavy RPG would have loads more replay value than a dungeon-crawling fest. And it does when you’re able to complete missions differently, romance another character or choose a novel outcome — but the story alone is not enough. (A dungeon-crawler might not have replay value either, if it’s all level-grinding.)
On my second playthroughs, I find myself gravitating towards playing a different character class — a common thing, I guess. And now I see there’s a reason for that: I’m not just spicing up the story the second time around, I’m giving myself new tactics to learn, challenging my brain so that those gorgeous cutscenes still feel rewarding, even if I’ve seen them all before. Because really, a video game is very much about learning and enjoying the rewards of a job well done.