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I recently decided to play a game called Morbid: The Seven Acolytes. I don’t recommend it, but I did not engage in this essay to do a review. Rather, I wanted to examine a particular problem in this game that I have noticed in a variety of similar games.
To begin, what are these “similar games”? As would be no surprise to anyone who has read my blog for even a short period of time, I am a big fan of FromSoft’s Dark Souls and related games. There are several things I enjoy about their various games, which includes both the basic gameplay, the storytelling, the environmental design, and so on. A consequence of enjoying these games is that I am always on the lookout for “soulslikes,” games which evoke the feeling of these games to greater or lesser extents. I’ve written a couple of times on the subject of this genre, often more about my disappointment than my excitement (though I have found good entries here and there).
Okay, so what is the underlying problem? A fundamental question: “Why should I keep playing?”
On the one hand, this question seems rather simple and easy to answer. There are plenty of possible answers that could crop up – “to have fun,” “to get to the end,” “to overcome a challenge,” etc. But many of the reasons we might provide presume that continuing is a good thing.
On the other hand, this question is often approached through the lens that it is the player’s job to determine the answer, making the question feel somewhat meaningless to ask of a game itself. If, so to speak, you don’t find yourself wanting to play, then you should stop. But I find this response lacking, because it presumes that basic work of continuation lies in the player.
I wanted to use Morbid’s opening as a brief case study of this problem, and attempt to show that while some responsibility for the desire to play lies in the player’s willingness to play, we still need to examine the degree to which a game allows or supports that willingness.
A Tale of No Tales
So Morbid begins pretty quickly. No big opening cutscene setting the stage of history and the present. No dialogue to explain who you are playing as. A protagonist wakes up on the beach, and you set off. On the one hand, this kind of setup helps reduce the amount of time where the player simply gets control. Sometimes long cutscenes can be boring. But something is still being lost.
As you keep moving forward, you explore a beach, collect your initial weapons, read up on your controls and test those controls out on enemies, and so on. And then you find your first NPC, and are told “hey, there’s this curse on the land that is maintained by these seven acolytes…go kill them.” Thus you have your quest…and that’s it. Go kill them.
So ask the question: “Why should I keep playing?”
The game’s answer ends up being something along the lines of “well…because it’s a game, and you play games, right?” The game isn’t able to offer anything else. There’s the faintest whiff of a narrative, but there’s nothing to connect your experience as a player with the rest of the world. Why should you care about this character? Why should you care about this land? Why should you complete this task when it seems damn near impossible? Why should you complete this task when so many of the NPCs you encounter don’t want you to defeat the acolytes?
I’ve written before about minimalist storytelling and the problem of “overminimalism,” and this is a clear case of it. It’s not that there’s absolutely nothing, but everything that’s there is built around lore – those bits of information tied to items and enemies and such. Stuff which is both entirely optional, and merely fleshes out the world without fleshing out the story.
The opening minutes of the game do a poor job from numerous standpoints of helping you as a player get motivated to continue playing the game. Indeed, had I not determined that I wanted to examine this game in more detail so I could break down my dislike, I would have stopped after the first five or ten minutes.
And here’s where we get to the first point. There are so many ways that this game could have been reconstructed to help the player find that motivation to continue.
It feels like Morbid – and a decent chunk of other soulslike games – are built entirely around being “challenging.” As long as there is challenge, that’s enough. Either the player will keep playing for the sake of playing, or they’ll keep playing because there’s a challenge they’ll want to conquer. And if they don’t want to keep playing, then surely it must be because they don’t like challenges. I don’t know whether this is what the developers had in their minds when there put everything together, but it is how the game comes across.
But challenge as a motivation is extremely limited, and is going to make the actual gameplay that much more important. If you haven’t got the basic gameplay loop down to near perfection, it doesn’t matter how “hard” you make the game.
So you need to add in other stuff for other people. You want players to want to overcome challenges because of something else. If it’s to see the end of the story, then you need a strong narrative that feels worth exploring. If it’s to see “what comes next,” there needs to be a feeling that there’s a “something next” that’s actually coming up. If it’s to get stronger, you need to give the player some direct feeling that they’re getting stronger.
This is what I mean by the design of a game allowing or supporting motivation. While it’s absolutely necessary for a player to want to play a game, it’s also incredibly important that a game helping the player want to play. Even something as trivial as small increases in power and better equipment might be enough. But there needs to just be something more there. Solid gameplay, a narrative that connects the player to what’s going on and makes them feel invested…anything.
My constant forays into the genre of soulslikes is a source of plenty of frustration. And I think a lot of that frustration gets sourced in the failed potential. There are so many games in this genre which aren’t very good, but which could be great. Where the developers clearly care about the project they want to create, but still seem to lack some fundamental understanding of what they’re making.
Nevertheless, at the very least these failed experiments can be valuable to all parties. For the developer, it might give them information to help them create another, better game in the future. The shortcomings might also be a useful tool for other developers, who might be able to see how others have made mistakes and thus avoid those mistakes themselves. And for the rest of us, they provide us with opportunities to better analyze flaws and become more thoughtful in how we play games.