Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Context, Challenge and Catharsis

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 17 Dec 2013 12:00
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A long time ago I proposed in this column a thing that I'm still determined to turn into an actual Thing: that the ways in which video games are appealing to users can be broken down into three categories: Context (by which I mean story), Challenge (by which I mean challenge) and Gratification (by which I mean everything that is fun on an immediate, primitive level with no apparent involvement from the other two). The milking-stool model. A good game should endeavor to make use of all three legs, but a particularly strong showing in some legs can make up for deficiency in others. It might be a wonky stool, but it'd still stand up.

Later I kicked myself when I realized that a far better word for what I meant by "Gratification" would be "Catharsis", which has both a clearer meaning and a C at the start. So now it's the three C's theory. And the example I've often given to illustrate the Catharsis leg of the stool is Dead Rising. Even without the benefit of context or challenge, it's just plain visceral fun to run around the sandbox smashing up tissue-paper zombies with colorful superweapons. In a cocktail dress.

The standard campaign of Dead Rising 3 seems to be designed to appeal particularly to Catharsis, to the point of sacrificing the other two - the traditional extremely strong challenge of previous games in the series is hugely kneecapped by the ease with which one can acquire combo weapons and vehicles. In keeping with the attitudes of next-gen triple-A games, you are invited to fuck around and create spectacles that might momentarily impress someone walking past your living room window, and the game is happy to remove whatever stages get between you and that as it can get away with.

So what, right? As long as it's really cathartic and over-the-top, it makes up for deficiencies elsewhere. That was my argument. But I noticed something, as I watched a friend demonstrate the best way he'd found to get big points very fast. He took a car battery attached to a sledgehammer and laid into crowds of night-time zombies, using special attacks whenever they became available, with a special book equipped that increased the durability of melee weapons. And he had two of these car battery hammer things, so he was laying into those mumbling sods for what felt like ten whole minutes, building ridiculous combo kills going into the several hundreds.

And inevitably, it got boring. Just as the overlong X-ray moves in Mortal Kombat go from startling to creepy to just plain tedious when you're watching the same ones bout after bout after bout, Dead Rising 3 just served up the zombies and the sledgehammer served them straight back. After a while it was more like watching someone work a production line.

Which made me go back and remember all the times the game had seemed a bit meh as I'd played, even while I was mincing up the walking dead with fiery dragon costumes. Something was getting in the way of the catharsis factor, which seemed odd, because there was so little else besides the catharsis factor. Perhaps, I realized, the three-leg model was due for a bit of revision. A qualification needs to be added: namely that catharsis needs to be working alongside something else to work.

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