Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Context, Challenge and Gratification

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 13 Dec 2011 12:00
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I used to think that at the most basic level every game had to consist of two distinct but essential elements - gameplay and story. Without one of those you either might as well be a film or might as well be a piece of dangling string for a cat to play with. Only with a balance of both do we reach gaming's true potential as a creative medium, emotional involvement in a story and visceral pursuit of betterment propping each other up shoulder-to-shoulder.

But recently I've had cause to update this imaginary model of mine from a two-man arm-in-arm arrangement to a more sort of three-man ring-a-rosie affair. "Gameplay" was too broad a concept, I realized. How does one differentiate, say, getting all 150 Pokemon (or however many there are now) from smacking passers-by to death with a giant floppy dildo? People can't possibly be finding the same kind of enjoyment in both those activities. So here's my updated recipe for a big fluffy video game cake: the three categories into which all a game's features fall are Context, Challenge and Gratification.

If this were XKCD this would probably be the point where I draw a big triangle with the three points labelled as such, then place crosses on the triangle indicating where certain specific games and game experiences lie. But this isn't XKCD so you're just going to have to imagine it.

Challenge shouldn't need too much explanation; it's the simple matter of beating the high score, killing your way through the entire horde, or getting 100% completion in Pokemon for the sake of getting 100% alone, you crazy, crazy bugger. It's on the extreme end of the Challenge category that you find most retro and arcade games, the sort of thing that only nudges the realms of Context with the lightest of touches, such as 'aliens are invading, shoot them'.

Context is where story comes into it. Context is where you engage the player's sympathies with the protagonists by establishing who they are and why they're doing it, encouraging the player to push forward with the game to see what happens to them next and see plot arcs get resolved. Pure context gives us things like the Japanese-style visual novel or occasionally something weird and arty like Silent Hill Shattered Memories. But don't consider context to be solely about cutscenes and dialogue; context can also apply to aesthetics. It can be something as simple as making the enemy look like a scaley growly monster with a pointy face, so you know it must be purged from existence. All games have a degree of visual context except Pong. And maybe Bad Company 2 since I can't see through the dust clouds.

Gratification is that magical land that lies outside the two kingdoms above. It's the aspect of a game that speaks directly to the animal part of your brain. It's about the pure visceral fun one has entirely outside of both context and challenge. This, friends, is where you have your Saints Row 3 big floppy dildo passer-by combat. There's no challenge 'cos passers-by don't fight back and like many things in the game there's certainly no context for it, but by golly is it fun. This is also the category where you'll find my lengthy sessions of Spider-Man 2 spent web-swinging randomly around the city, with no intention to enter any missions or further the story. The purest possible level of Gratification would probably be that one bubble wrap game you can get on iOS.

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