Imagine if you designed your games to be interesting, rather than fun. That might sound a little counter-intuitive; you might say, "if a game is fun, wouldn't that already make it interesting, in some respect"? That's true, but I'm talking about giving the player a drive to play the game outside of simply completing the goals you have set. The player also plays to experience and explore the game itself, to see what the world you have created has to offer.
This has far more retaining power than straight up fun, and is amazing (thanks to the huge synergy bonus) when combined with fun.
It's hard to get a grasp on the fuzzy concept of "interesting", so rather than try to define it, let's look at six great examples of games that are "interesting", and at how they used "interest" to drive and support the game.
Note: This article contains spoilers for the following games:
- The Stanley Parable (not free, but has a free demo; available on Windows and Mac)
- Frog Fractions (free online)
- Shadow of the Colossus (not free; available on PlayStation only)
- Corrypt (free; available on iOS, Windows, and Mac)
- Papers Please (not free; available on Windows, Mac, and Linux)
- Calm Time (free; available on Windows only)
If you haven't played them yet, I recommend you do so before reading on; they're all excellent experiences that deserve to be played through with fresh eyes—and they have plenty of lessons to teach any game designer.
The Stanely Parable, on paper, is not a "fun" game. You walk through hallways, you get talked at the whole time, and you get different endings based on whether you walk down one hallway or another. Then you play again and walk down the hallway you didn't walk down before. Sounds boring.
However, the designers used a powerful tool to keep the player interested in the game: player agency curiosity. It makes all the difference.
Player Agency Curiosity
This refers to the state where the player is engaged with the game by poking and prodding it—sometimes in hope of breaking the game, sometimes to see how it reacts, sometimes to find the limits or seams of the system, and so on.
When trying to harness this style of engagement, you must be able to predict what the player will try to do and what they are thinking. When they try to do something, your game must react to it, and these reactions must also provoke some sort of reaction from the player: fear, laughter, mystery, a clue, or even just a little Easter egg.
The Stanley Parable makes amazing use of this. The design tightly restricts the possible interactions for the player, and so the designers are able to predict what the player will do at any point. Because of this, they are able to be proactive in their reactions to player choices.
The best example of this is in the iconic two door room the player is presented with at the start of the game. The game tries to tell you the "story" of the game by saying "Stanley, when presented with two doors, walked through the left door." A player might say "Aha—nice try, game, but I won't let you control me!" and walk through the right door. However, the game recognizes this mindset and both acknowledges and responds to this by telling the player that they aren't following the proper story.
It's a small thing, but it makes the player want to see how far they can go: if I do this, what will happen? If I do that, is anything going to happen?
Frog Fractions is an educational game about fractions... sort of. It doesn't look like anything you haven't seen before. The gameplay is predictable; you know what you're getting as soon as you start playing it. You're a frog that needs to eat some bugs. Simple. But the game knows this, and it uses whatever assumptions you may have made about its gameplay against you in a brilliant way, through its unfolding gameplay.
This is the act of constantly introducing new concepts and mechanics into your game the farther into your game the player gets. Games that use this device generally start out boring or mundane or predictable, but they need to. This is because when the player is in that state of boredom, they will perk up to anything new, and anything unusual.
Once the player starts to see the game expanding, they begin to wonder what else it has to show them. They want to know where this rabbit hole of a game leads. And since the game starts out as mundane, stale, and boring, when more of the game is revealed it's a big juxtaposition against what they were playing previously. This allows mediocre gameplay to become so much more, because each new gameplay element is new, shiny, and interesting.
In Frog Fractions, this first instance of unfolding generally happens at the perfect moment. The gameplay mechanics seem to boil down to eat some bugs, catch some fruit, unlock new power-ups so you can be more efficient at the process. It's nothing new and is easy to understand (aside, perhaps, from the quirky humor the game has).
However, that idea of the player having a full grasp on what the game is is quickly turned on its head as soon as the player moves downward just a little too far and bam. There are infinitely many pieces of fruit underwater! This immediately tells the player, "this game isn't about upgrading; it isn't about what you thought it was." Through this, the game creates a new rush of interest because now the game is broken—or is it? What is this game trying to do? The player continues to play to answer these questions.
Shadow of the Colossus has a lot going on under the hood. Its a game about traversing over expansive lands that is home to the colossi (giant enemy beasts). The game doesn't have a lot of conflict; there are only 16 enemies in the whole game. For each enemy, you must do the same thing: travel to the colossus, figure out how to get on top of the beast, find its weak points, kill, repeat.
Now, while that is simple when written, the game and how it was pieced together makes it insanely compelling because of differences in kind.
Differences in Kind
This is a term I picked up from the lovely Extra Credits team. It refers to the concept of a game changing tones throughout, in order to break up similar gameplay, to make sure that the player doesn't get fatigued from the gameplay—to give them a break of sorts. It is also used to make certain aspects of the game more impactful. Action, for instance, is much more refreshing when you are able to take a small break instead of having a constant barrage of endless fights until the game ends.
Shadow of the Colossus uses differences in kind beautifully. Since each of the battles with the colossi are intense puzzle/action segments, the player would quickly become tired if they were constantly playing this segment of the game. To prevent this, the fights are separated by calming, meditative traveling segments. These allow for the player to take a break from the action while also creating a sense of anticipation, adding additional value to each of the fights.
Differences in kind, when used properly, can also create different "lenses" through which to view the game itself. In Shadow of the Colossus, you view the game through both the lenses of action and calm. It's a hard feeling to describe, but a game that can be viewed through multiple lenses feels fuller, like more of a complete world. Games that have one lens tend to be games that feel more traditionally game-like.
While it's no bad thing to not have differences in kind, just know that it is a tool in your arsenal that won't (in most cases) diminish, only create additional value.
Corrypt is a weird game. It starts out normal enough: it's a down-to-earth Sokoban box game. Nothing special about that. But once you get far enough, you obtain magic. However, this magic actually ends up breaking the game, in some ways making it unplayable. This gives the player repercussions for agency.
Repercussions for Agency
What made this game absolutely brilliant for me was how it used a simple mechanic to expand the game in ways I didn't even know were possible before playing. You can use magic in order to permanently freeze a tile; when you go to any other room that tile will stay as what it was when you froze it.
This made me personally care about the repercussions of what I decided to do as a player. That is extremely important: the player themselves is invested in the decisions they make, but not through a binary "kill him or save him" situation where the outcome changes one ending to a different ending. No—this game made me stop and think, "if I freeze this tile what will happen? Is this smart? What rooms are going to be impossible to solve because of this?"
While having the decisions themselves be important to the player is significant, nothing is more essential than having those decisions impact the gameplay itself. In this game, the player's choices can change the layout of every room from then on. However, the effects doesn't always have to be as prominent. For example, in that hypothetical "kill him or save him" scenario, perhaps the player's character could be mentally scarred if they were to choose to kill, which in turn could make their accuracy go down, giving the choice a meaningful gameplay repercussion. If the player chose to save him, he could become a merchant that sells you some valuable items. These repercussions are simple, but far more meaningful to a player than a selection of two cut scenes.
In Papers, Please, you play as a border control worker who spends their days checking passports for authenticity. That is the game. It would have probably been completely mundane as well, if the developer hadn't put such care into making sure the game was constantly evolving, thus requiring perpetual mastery of the system from the player.
Perpetual Mastery of the System
This is when a game constantly changes how it is played. What makes this different from unfolding gameplay is that the genre and style of the game never changes. The actual changes are small—little additions to already established mechanics that make the player use what they've learned and apply it to different situations. Although they have mastered the actual mechanic itself, by being used in different situations the application of that mastered knowledge will change.
This isn't a new concept. Nearly any decent game uses this concept: Mario, Dark Souls, and The Last of Us are all good examples. However, this isn't something that every developer grasps. Artificial difficulty by way of increasing numbers does not create perpetual mastery; in these cases, the player has mastered the system but just has to continue executing what they have learned. This quickly becomes boring, and is a large part of why many games fail.
In Papers, Please the game requires perpetual mastery by changing how documents work. There's different paperwork for different countries, different occupations, and so on. As soon as the player has a grasp on the most recent twist on the mechanic, something new is thrown in. On top of that, there are a few special characters thrown in to make sure that the player never falls into a routine and can easily "game" the game.
Calm Time is a horror game with a unique twist. It isn't scary, in a normal sense. It's slow paced, twisted, and methodical. It places the player into the shoes of what would normally be the object of fear: a killer who has gathered their victims under the pretense of a dinner party. Throughout the game, you must kill each guest one by one, as they plead for their lives and run to live maybe just a second longer. It's a great example of forced perspective storytelling.
Forced Perspective Storytelling
This concept refers to when the game forces you, as the player, to tell the story of the game through the mechanics. This means that the mechanics and the player's use of them places the player in a certain mindset. Their goals align with the character's goals.
In Calm Time this becomes unsettling—not because of the actions of the character, but because of the goals of the player. The player's goal is to kill all the guests they have invited to their home. As the game goes on, it might become fun, tedious, or just a mindless action to complete the game. But through this we also come to completely embody the mindset of the character. The character becomes a mirror onto ourselves. He is clearly insane because he find this act of murder fun, tedious, or just a mindless action.
This is different to roleplaying, since instead of us choosing our actions based on the character we want to be, our character is defined by the actions we take and our reasons for taking said actions.
Fun Without Purpose
There are plenty of games that feel like they should be fun on paper, but aren't when actually played. We see this a lot in clones, which end up copying the "fun" gameplay, without much else of what made the original interesting. The game has the same ideas, but the execution falls flat. Why is that?
It's because these games mostly copy the games on a mechanical level, but they fail to understand how those mechanics were used in the games to make them compelling to play.
If you are going to try to remake a game, you must not only recreate the mechanics, you must also recreate the design. Games do not exist as a jumble of mechanics thrown together to make a game. Design is what gives the mechanics meaning, gives the player purpose, and creates the reason for the player to play your game.
Games can be fun, don't get me wrong, but it is important to remember that that's not all games can be. Games can be compelling in other ways, through use of intelligent design. Games can be interesting without having to overstimulate the player with explosions and the like.
There are many ways to go about this; I have only listed but a fraction of what is possible in games. Don't restrict yourself by thinking, "people won't play my game if it isn't fun." If your game is interesting, people will enjoy it.
- Preview image from Frog Fractions