There are a lot of arguments against games that send you off on a checklist, especially if it is an open world game. You might wonder how these games still sell when you’re just being led by the hand all the time. This is like games that tell you exactly what to do in the quest objective and everything makes it pretty obvious: a glittering line, a ping above someone’s head, or pop-ups that tell you when something is going to happen or there is something you need to do. Then there are side-quests or small things you can do, but they’re just pins on a map that need to be completed. The same thing here or there. Why do these kind of games still thrive? I was just thinking about that this morning and I realized that it’s because although they are not exactly great game design, they can still be satisfying.
You want your player to explore and find the way by themselves. Signposts and rules can only feel so…explorey. But if you look at games like The Division, the Assassin’s Creed series, sometimes Skyrim or Fallout, and some others, they just pile on objectives and little collectibles everywhere. In the end, you’re not really playing a game, you’re just doing a checklist. Yes, you could explore without looking at the map, but since everything is already marked on the map, how much exploring are you actually doing for yourself?
But we’re talking about why the checklist style is still present in some games. I think it comes down to the combination of two things. One, is just the base that checking off a list really can be satisfying. The focus can end up focusing on checking off a list, but it’s still satisfying. We do this with things like chores or goals that we set for us to do during quarantine so we can feel good about ourselves. And we are doing things, so we are legitimately feeling accomplished.
The second thing that combines with this is that video games make us feel good. They are entertainment and art, and those two things cover such a vast distance of things that the satisfaction of checking off a list can feel like it fits in there. I think there are times that playing a game just to check off stuff on your quest list or pick up items is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes that’s what we need at the end of the day. We just need to feel like we’re getting stuff done. And…I guess we are.
This satisfaction is not the same thing as playing a game with good game design though. It is a similar trouble with art and the layman. Both amateur and professional art can be appreciated, but the difference is difficult to distinguish for someone who doesn’t understand how the painting process or color theory works. Both levels, and all that is in between, can still give a feeling of satisfaction, but not the same understanding of what makes an art piece seem to be at a higher level.
I said sometimes Skyrim or Fallout, because concerning the main exploration, all the guidance is is a marker on your compass to tell you that something is nearby, which is not too bad of a hand-holding thing either. Just enough for you to get lost in the world. The smooth tutorials of Half-Life 2, the extremely well designed difficulty curve of Celeste, and landscape design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild bursts into our playthroughs. We can feel that these games push us forward and make us feel like we’re out there in the video game world doing something great, without having us check off a list. It makes us feel like we’re doing it because we ourselves are making our own list or trudging our own way through the land. That feeling of fun is from good design. At the right times, I think it is possible that satisfaction of checking off a list suffices, but can be misunderstood as that same fun from good game design. Guidance doesn’t have to be removed from a game, it is how they approach it that makes it feel good.
Entireties of games are not just the checklist though. There are still many good gameplay and design elements in these kinds of games. Remember that this (hopefully) does not make the whole of the game. I personally feel like they may bring the game down a notch, but I don’t think it should cause the whole game to feel like it collapses on itself. There are good games that are like this, and that may be because of other elements in the game that hold up what may be a lackluster guidance in the game. Because games are such a mixed media, no one pillar of games, whether it be graphics, gameplay, sound, or something else, can really bring down the whole game, at least not easily.
You know, I think the reasons for playing a game are really up to you. I’m not saying to not support these games just because they have this design. If you really enjoy them, by all means, you should play them. But we have to remember that these two types of entertainment are indeed different. The checklist is using gaming as a medium, while the good game design is emphasizing that it is a game and works on engineering itself to be better at that. I’m not going to say that the checklist style is good design, just like how I wouldn’t say that my art is professional, but just like how I can still appreciate my art even though it’s not perfect, games can still be appreciated for the level or style of design that they present to us. I mean, unless they’re a glitchy mess or highly inappropriate or something.
This is Elise. Thanks for reading! We’ll see you next time.