Observations on gaming and engagement

Image by Flickr user Jase Curtis (CC)
Image by Flickr user Jase Curtis (CC)

The following article originally appeared on Geek Force Network, July 26, 2013.

After a long stretch of dealing with summertime obligations, I recently found myself with a little extra time to get back to gaming. Along with the occasional dash of Little Big Planet, I’m slowly playing through Dragon Age II and Metroid Prime. (I’m about a third of the way through Metroid Prime and I’m nearing the end of the second act in Dragon Age II.) It’s been interesting hopping from the medieval-esque realm of DA2, which is considered a fine if not perfect game for the current generation, to the interplanetary opera of Metroid Prime, which has been called one of the best games of the previous generation. But beyond the mere look and feel of each game, these games offer much different levels of involvement, and I’m surprised at how attached I’m becoming to MP and how detached I’m becoming from DA2. It’s not that I dislike DA2 by any means — we’re getting along quite happily; but I’m finding that I’m not as engaged with it as I thought I would be.

“Engagement” is a frequently overused and misused term these days. You usually hear it in relation to the service and cultural sectors – how teachers must “engage” their students, how museums try to “engage” their communities, how cities should “engage” their citizens. Over the past couple years this word has been applied to video games as developers search for new ways to “engage” players. One of the most common ways has been to create compelling stories, which sometimes works out well (Red Dead Redemption, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us), and sometimes works out poorly (a few Final Fantasy games come to mind). Both Dragon Age II and Metroid Prime have fine stories; and while MP revels in it’s simplicity, DA2 suffers in its convolutedness.

Now, I generally don’t follow video game stories all that well to begin with, but Dragon Age: Origins, I understood just fine. Your Grey Warden-based goals were clear, and the endgame wasn’t shrouded in mystery. In DA2, the goals jump all over the place as your character progresses through months and years. Now maybe I’ve missed something in my haste to get through the lengthy main story, but the story of Hawke (the main character) just isn’t very cohesive. And while I wouldn’t exactly call the Metroid series cohesive in story, those games have the unique ability to tell stories with action, not with a million cut scenes full of exposition. Metroid Prime is a great example of this. The story is told in short snippets that are discovered as discovery happens. It’s a brilliant way to present a narrative without narration. And it makes the game so much more compelling to play. MP is simply more engaging because it not throwing plot (useful or useless) at me every few minutes.

MP’s storytelling-through-action also sets it apart from DA2 in another significant way: the level design. I’m sorry to say it, but DA2 might be the most lazily-designed game I’ve ever played. I couldn’t be more uninterested in exploring the same underground caverns/warehouse/seaside path/mansion under different pretenses. I understand that reusing level designs in a game isn’t an uncommon practice, but it’s almost absurd how many of the same environments appear over and over and over again in DA2. And if there’s one sure way to generally disengage me from a game it’s with that constant thought of “wasn’t I just here in this same cavern/on this same path/fighting the same group of enemies…?”  Meanwhile, in Metroid Prime, there’s hardly any scene repetition. Each area has its own unique look and feel, even if you’re just exploring different sections of the same ship. And instead of thinking “ugh, this AGAIN,” I’m thinking, “well what do I do now?” And I try to figure it out. And your actions bring up immediate information, not text to be placed in a forgotten codex or yet another side quest.

Having been so enveloped in games of the current generation, I had forgotten how wonderfully simple and engaging a one-generation-removed adventure game like Metroid Prime could be. My “comparison” here is meant only as observation; I’m having a fine time with DA2 despite its drawbacks. But has storytelling and design in games suffered in recent years as a result of “engagement?” My other game, Little Big Planet, would certainly seem to render this question false; and it’s much more comparable to Metroid Prime (in a sense) than Dragon Age II. But games like LBP are exception, not the rule, these days (as far as mainstream title go, that is). And “engagement” is relative after all. It combines many internal, external, and personal factors that aren’t always measurable.

Or, in reality, maybe I just think that if Dragon Age II had been designed better, it would be more engaging. I still have a ways to go with the game, so maybe I’ll change my tune in a couple months. And maybe MP will eventually bore me to death. I don’t know. Like I said, engagement is a tricky thing to both qualify and quantify. Of course, maybe I should quit with all the analysis and just play.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. duckofindeed says:

    I, too, love the way Metroid games can tell a story without a zillion cut scenes. I kind of miss that. I used to play lots of platformers where you got to spend most of your time playing the game, and then I got into RPGs, and I seemed to spend half the game watching long, boring cut scenes. I’m kind of tired of RPGs because of that. At least you can skip cut scenes nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      Agreed, that is a nice feature. Though I try to stick through cut scenes when I’m really interested in the story. It’s interesting now playing Chrono Trigger against more modern RPGs, because that game is proof that you can integrate story into gameplay without cutscenes. Things have changed so much in that regard over the past 20 years. Are there modern RPGs like that now? Hmmm…that might be worth investigating.


  2. I agree, and Dragon Age Origins vs. DA2 are great examples! I would say that engagement is one of the reasons so many open world games lose me… yet there are some (Skyrim, Witcher 3) that keep me engrossed in their stories or the ones I’m creating through straightforward storytelling. That’s really important to me. Unfortunately some games lose that in an attempt to do too much, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      In DA2, I really found myself just going from quest to quest without any clear reason why, outside of the big, overarching mission of the game. While I like the freedom that many open world games offer, when that freedom turns to aimlessness, it’s a problem.But like you say, when the story is *really* there, or a game gives you the chance to craft your own story, that’s a different matter. And when a game presents a nice balance between exciting gameplay AND an engrossing story, well…there’s your winner! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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