Depth in video games: one experience, many souls - editorial

Depth in video games: one experience, many souls - editorial

Depth in video games

Talking about depth in the context of the videogame product means dealing with one of the most abused and inflated concepts of critical analysis. What do we really mean when we say a video game is "deep"? Well, if the subject of the debate is not narrative, we are usually talking about some obscure quality related to the fabric of the gameplay.

"The gameplay is profound". How many times does it happen to affirm or read sentences of this kind without pausing to reflect on what this depth actually represents and, above all, what kind of impact does it have on the eventual success of a production?

To make the matter even more complicated is the fact that the construction of actually deep game mechanics is not always a direct consequence of the work of the developers. There is no need to "chase" the depth of the gameplay, because sometimes the layering of the mechanics is something that occurs regardless of the intentions of the game designers themselves.

Think for example of Super Smash Bros. Melee from HAL Laboratories, produced by Masahiro Sakurai and released in 2001 on Nintendo GameCube. Melee, as it is called by the very large export community, was not a video game born with the intention of becoming the most technical fighting game ever made, and rather it originated from the desire to shape a party game suitable for the palate of players of all ages. .

Melee has gone from party game to the most followed fighting game in the world. It has been the enthusiasts, over the years, who have unveiled and studied hundreds of information relating to frame-data and unexpected interactions between the mechanics, to the point of raising the curtain on an extraordinary competitive fabric that was initially invisible to the eyes of the developers.

The result of this "beautiful accident", as it has been repeatedly defined by professionals, is that Super Smash Bros. Melee has turned into a video game capable of living on different souls. On the one hand, there were hordes of fans who got lost in the arcade component of the title, having fun browsing through dozens of entertaining modes. On the other hand, however, there were players who pushed every single mechanic to the limit, making each fight a game of chess played at three hundred kilometers per hour.

It is no coincidence that this happened right in orbit of Nintendo, because the Japanese house would seem to have an innate talent in coming across coincidences of this kind. Video games such as Super Mario 64, the Metroid series, that of Zelda and many others, have become pillars of the speedrunning communities over the years: if on the one hand they are played and lived with joy by tons of very young people, on the other there are groups that succeed to push them to the limit through seemingly impossible feats.

This is probably because Nintendo has always had a strong connection with very dry, straightforward and no-nonsense gameplay systems. A case in point is that of the physics and movements of Super Mario 64, which even today after almost thirty years have remained almost unchanged.

After 30 years, Mario's adventures in 3D still have the same profound mechanical. Jumps, dips and slides are extremely predictable as well as very simple to master, to the point of becoming the mathematical axioms behind any 3D plumber experience. This means that they can be exploited to solve any puzzle of a platform nature in a creative way: knowing perfectly how the character reacts to certain inputs, it is possible to exploit them to adopt unconventional solutions in practically any circumstance.

The difference that passes between a system of this kind and, for example, the one adopted by a work like Prey by Arkane Studios is nothing short of abysmal. In Prey, in fact, there is what is simply an illusion of depth, since the true mastery of Arkane lies in the level design, and this means foreseeing all the unconventional solutions that the player could exploit when faced with an obstacle, an operation that in fact it makes them conventional.

Even the depth "sought", on the other hand, has its own dignity. A key example of this case is Miyazaki's Dark Souls, a title that makes stratification, and not only with regard to mechanics, its focal stone. Dark Souls rests all the foundations of its extraordinary success in the concept of depth, applied by From Software to every facet of the work, from the exquisitely technical to the purely narrative.

The odyssey of the chosen undead yes set up like a matryoshka: initially the player has the sole purpose of crossing the path unscathed until the next bonfire. Once ready to leave the surface layer, he begins to explore the areas carefully, to focus on his own style of play, to reveal the enormous technical offer of the title. Only then will Lordran begin to show his true nature, including bites of hidden fiction, dozens of elusive secrets and unexpected rewards.

Dark Souls continues to reveal secrets even after hundreds of hours, such as Quelana for example. The surprising element of Dark Souls lies precisely in the conjugation of technical depth with that narrative, to the point that there are people who have dedicated years to analyzing the plot and as many who have studied dozens of data relating to the combat system. After all, we are talking about a video game in which even the consumable objects conceal fragments of "lore" intended only for those who seek them with passion.

The connotation of depth then takes on even different meanings when it comes to experiences multiplayer, and it is evident that this has had an enormous weight in building the rankings of the most played titles in the last decade.

Among the productions that deserve a particular analysis is undoubtedly Overwatch by Blizzard Entertainment, another publisher who has made "easy to learn, hard to master" experiences (ie simple to take in hand but complex to master) his workhorses. On closer inspection works such as Starcraft, Warcraft, Hearthstone and even Diablo, have reached a huge audience precisely because they have added to solid and extremely intuitive foundations entire systems intended only for the most ambitious players.

Even if it has fueled one of the major problems in Blizzard's history, namely the difficulty of balancing productions around the needs of the "casual" and "hardcore" audience, this choice has also certainly contributed to generating huge waves of success. If there are millions of players who enjoy themselves on the shores of Overwatch and Hearthstone without asking too many questions, the web is dotted with thousands of databases dedicated to the optimization of the mechanics, not to mention the competitive scenes that have flourished around the different titles. >
Overwatch is the epitome of the video game that is easy to learn and difficult to master. On closer inspection this kind of scheme can be easily extended to all the productions that occupy the first places in the rankings of the most played and followed. From MOBAs like League of Legends to shooters like Counter-Strike, enormous accessibility, which only later acquires profound connotations, appears to be one of the main ingredients behind commercial success.

The example of Fortnite is emblematic: the choice to launch a free-to-play title on all platforms had the consequence of capturing a huge and extremely varied audience in the Epic Games network, practically what is defined as the "0-99 years old age group. ". The difference between a professional's approach to game mechanics and that of a child placed by the family in front of the tablet is abysmal, yet both manage to obtain an extremely satisfying experience from it.

Conversely , there are numerous titles that are designed in order to pursue a sort of artificial depth made up of indispensable technicalities to be able to fully enjoy them; and although these manage to conquer certain niches of the public from time to time, it is very difficult for them to be able to compete with the really profound formulas, those that can easily be lived on the surface or thoroughly explored in all their forms.

Think for example of the gameplay of the Monster Hunter series, complex to the point of dedicating dozens of chapters only to loyal fans and then, through the releases of the more accessible World and Rise, to experience an unprecedented surge, both in terms of the numbers of new players as well as hardcore fans.

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Monster Hunter, by making itself more accessible, has been a huge success. Obviously, the reverse reasoning is also true. When Nintendo and Sakurai decided to cut the competitive component from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, eliminating all complex mechanics and adjusting the experience to the party game genre, there was a resounding backlash in the sales numbers. The professional MilkTea summarized the situation by stating that the two different communities of players lived a symbiotic relationship in which one did not in the least affect the experience of the other, but each gave its own contribution in building the success of the work. br>
In short, making deep game mechanics absolutely does not mean making complex titles, intrinsically difficult or with a steep learning curve, on the contrary. It means building solid, immediate, clear systems from the surface but which, once explored far and wide, reveal unexpected game dynamics, elements of an emerging nature and large improvement curves, all without affecting the experience of the less players. ambitious.

Is it difficult? It is extremely difficult, and the fact that a technical depth of this kind is in dozens of cases a mere hiccup is further evidence of the unpredictable implications of the world of software development. On the other hand, video games that manage to close the gap between casual audiences and hardcore users, gathering fans under a single banner, have an obvious edge over the rest of the productions.

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