“Hey, Niko. It’s your cousin, Roman. Do you want to go bowling?”

“Hi, Roman. No, I am too busy to go bowling right now, another time.”

“Okay Niko. Let’s meet up soon though.”

The exchange above is something I believe anyone who has ever played for than four hours of Grand Theft Auto 4 will be familar with. It’s the call on your mobile phone that asks you if you’d like to step out of the game’s main world for a while, and indulge in a minigame. It’s also your reply that you’d rather not. Most games don’t actively seek you out to have you play a minigame, some (like parts of GTA4) require you to at least try them out to progress however, while some merely include them to add flavour. Of course some titles are just collections of minigames, as anyone who has a Wii would attest to, but I would like to keep the focus on those games where the minigame is just the small part of the package. I would like to examine what the inclusion of minigames does to enchance the player’s experience of a game, and the reasons why they’re included.


Firstly I should mark out what I believe constitues as a minigame, for claritys sake. Quite simply it is a small game that is accessed in another game, usually while you are playing in game time. They are generally much simpler than the games they inhabit, and are commonly puzzle games or short games of skill (such as shooting galleries, or fast paced arcade-style games). Now I’d like to go through what I think are the most common reasons developers have included them in their titles in the past, and currently:

1. When there simply aren’t enough keys in the world (Or we don’t want you to see that yet).

Not always a full “game” as such, but commonly enough – mainly with games that require you to explore an open world – you’re going to come across doors, chests, lockers and the like that cannot be opened with brute force. They don’t even have keys a lot of the time. Enter: The Lockpicking Game. Otherwise known as The Hacking Game in other cases.

Oblivion had a particularly frustrating one, as the ease in which you could do it depended on your secruity level. It makes sense in the game world but when you think about it, since the locks never get harder to open (in my experience), this minigame starts hard and progressively gets easier – which flies in the face of game convention in one sense. What it’s really doing is keeping the world interesting, and giving the player a reason to return somewhere. It’s making content hard to access at first, and revealing it later when the player has levelled up, or rewarding their skill playing the lockpicking sim. Bethesda struck again when they did the same thing on Fallout 3. This time it was more explicit, you had your probability of opening the lock shown to you, and certain locks could not be attempted until you’d increased your skill. Fallout 3 also included a hacking minigame in which you saw a computer terminal, and were given a page full of garbled nonsense in which words that contained similar arrangements of letters could be clicked on. To “hack” the computer you had to click on the right word before you ran out of attempts (in which failure could be easily bypassed if abandoned the “hack” before using your final attempt).

Oblvion and Fallout 3's lockpicking both relied on amassing lockpicks, adding inventory management to the equation.

Fallout 3 hacking: Impossible to lose if you kept quitting before you ran out of attempts.

Bioshock also used a hacking minigame to open locks, but I think for slightly different reasons.

2. Let’s take a moment here (Or help us help you).

2K Boston/2K Australia (Now back to being Irrational Games – Hooray!) had a hacking minigame in Bioshock as we’re all probably aware. It was used to hack the security cameras so they wouldn’t see you, to hack the flying security bots, and static turrets so they’d fight on your side, and to open safes and locks. Now, potentially for technical reasons, the game world paused and let you have your moment to attempt the hack. The hack itself had a time pressure mechanic as you were given the set of pipes, with water slowly flowing from one side, and you had to complete the pipe and connect it to the right end before the water escaped the pipe. In itself it may have been a representation of the rush you’d be experiencing attempting to hack these items under threat (I don’t believe the locks and flying robots had water sloshing around inside them). However, they weren’t always particularly challenging, and you could attempt a hack in the middle of a big firefight, and if done well could completely change the course of the encounter. It’s for this reason that I think it classifies as a minigame that is meant to give the player a break, and provide a temporary ingame reward. Often minigames will bleed into other categories (after all these are arbitrary categories I have marked out) but the reason I didn’t include it in the first one is that Bioshock isn’t really an open world game in the truest sense. The whole game’s narrative is about being told what to do, for one, but mainly because once you’ve progressed past a level there isn’t always the ability to back track, nor any explicit reward for doing so (sure you can pick up ammo, but since it’s lying around everywhere like confetti after a wedding why would you?).

Bioshock: Would you kindly refrain from hitting me until I've played this old sinclair game!?

3. No pressure, moneybags, just line your pockets why don’t you? (Or- isn’t it funny how the in game worlds are all capitalist?)

This is probably the most common minigame type, and the first thing I thought of after I scratched my head playing GTA4’s bunch. It’s fairly simple, you’re in an RPG/Action-adventure game. Final Fantasy VII, Fable 2, KOTOR, whatever. You’re wandering around the place and you walk into a Themepark/Tavern/Cantina/whatever, and some bloke wearing a silly hat tells you that if you spend five gold coins playing his game you can win a shedload back. So you do. Why is it here? A little of the second type above, to give you a hand. But mainly to give you a bit of variety in how you earn money (developers only make so many quests, so to prevent people flying through the game these can act as speed bumps – a way to get resources without burning up content), as an alternative/or compliment to a jobs system, but mainly to give their world’s a little flavour, local colour.

Of course most of the minigames offer you a fairly pedestrian gold reward for playing adequately. What they do to keep you playing, sometimes, is offer you the chance to win big, and get a legendary weapon, or some valuable item that can only be obtained by playing. Final Fantasy VII’s minigames could get you money for playing them, and as an added incentive a reward in that if you concentrated your efforts at the Golden Saucer’s Battle Zone you could get Omnislash, Cloud’s limit break. This is partly how this kind of content justifies its existence, and also how it is plain and clearly the speedbump.

Fable 2: The lower image depicts, cheekily, the point that you can max out a characters wealth way beyond what they'll ever need.

Of course every minigame has to be introduced to the player. The developer spent money and time making it, and they want you to see it. So you’re bound to encounter these whether or not you want to take part. One of my favourite commentaries on the minigame as a neccessary evil came in Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge. It was only subtle, and I wonder if it was intended as such, but there was a Wheel of Fortune game which you needed to win to progress. Aside from the prize you needed, there were several other prizes on offer and you could stay and win them all. None of them, however, ended up being of any use (including the gold, which Monkey Island has always made a point of declaring it a easy mechanic to exploit for gameplay by lazy developers). Then again, this is from the series that brought us the best minigame of all: Insult Swordfighting.

There was no reason to include this image except that I absolutely love Monkey Island(tm).

4. The Minigame as cash-in material (Or how I learned to stop worrying, and love my phone).

Final Fantasy snowboarding for your phone? Need I say more? Need I say more?

Then there’s Grand Theft Auto 4…

"Ah Niko! Just one more frame, cousin come on!"

There is no real in game reward for playing GTA4’s games as such. Your performance in games can give the player Xbox 360 achievements, and to attain 100% completion their required (Ed. Thanks Ian), but that does not benefit the in game world at all. No, merely the act of taking time out of Niko Bellic’s day to go an pick up his cousin, or gangland cronies, dive them to the Bowling Alley/Pool Hall/Bar/Resturant/Comedy Show/Cabaret, endure their company, and then drive them back again… that is what you are being rewarded for. For choosing the activity wisely, or just taking them where they want to go. This builds up Nikos relationships with the characters and in return they offer him services, such as free cab travel, the ability to reduce his wanted level when he’s in a tight spot. Sounds good? Debateable.

Grand Theft Auto 4’s desire to integrate life-sim elements into its core gameplay as a way of providing exposition is at once a brave decision, and a natural progression from the things they were doing in San Andreas. For an adventureous game, with a long story quest, and a huge open world,  having your characters converse in a moving car with no need for a cutscene every 5 minutes (there are already many cutscenes in GTA4, and they’re of a great quality, and well written I feel) as a means of introducing game concepts and plot points then it seems like a wise and frugal decision. As a fun game mechanic? Not so much. The reason why? “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Here’s the situation: You’re driving around Liberty City, you’re somewhere in Algonquin, the city’s equivalent to Manhattan. It’s beautiful. You’re surrounded by awe-inspiring sky-skrapers, you have the radio on and you’re listening to Phillip Glass, or the satirical talk-stations.  You’re pelting around at tremendous speed on a dirt bike looking for a stunt jump to attempt. Or you’re having a walk around Central Park listening to people’s conversations, and admiring the scenery. Then your phone goes off. It’s Roman. He wants to go bowling. He’s on the other side of town. You have an in-game hour to get to him. The question everyone is asking, “Why is he calling me now?”

Is it to make the world feel alive? To give the player a keener sense of time progression (which despite day and night cycles it doesn’t feel as though time progresses as there is no change in the world day to day)? Perhaps R* weren’t confident about the world they’d created and didn’t want you in it too long unsupervised (which is hard to imagine as there are games that have come out since that claim to be open world that fall very short of this high watermark)? Or is it to try and make you care about the characters? I feel it’s the first and last of these, from a narrative perspective. And I’ll say that from a ludological perspective there is a larger metagame in progress that I will get into, but for those (like me) uninterested in what it’s offering, I will say three things in its defence:

1) You can cancel plans with no cost to your relationship. Though you’re still being forced to partake in this bit of pre-fab throwaway story. You can also put your phone on a Sleep Mode, but this prevents you tackling the main story quest as well.

2) The activites vary in the level of interaction required. Should you want to increase the relationship score, you can go eating, and it’s basically a drive to and from the venue. Or a taxi journey which you can skip should you be very lazy.

3) The game itself demonstrates the ability to refuse invitiations and shows there is little consequence during the course of story missions, by refusing for you.

Really, what is occuring with GTA4’s minigames, and more prominently with Fable 2’s pubgames is this metagame I mentioned.

5. The Mingame as Metagame (Or it’s not just you, it’s everyone)

Fable 2 and GTA4 both have online mulitplayer game modes. Both, however, are fairly limited and it’s abundantly clear to anyone who has played either that these are first and foremost single player games. Single player games in a climate of gaming globalization. Nothing is single player anymore. Not even your Xbox360 dashboard. If you don’t have Xbox360 Live it doesn’t matter, it’s still there on the dashboard telling you what you’re missing. And when you do have it, it’s telling you who is online, it’s inviting you to rifle through their games collection and look at their achievements. Through playing all your games you’re playing Microsoft’s (and Sony’s with PSN Trophies) metagame absolute. But aside from that each of these titles keeps stats of how you’re playing. And others can see them. There are leaderboards for every GTA4 minigame (in a system called the Rockstar Social Club), and street race, and everything else it seems. Fable 2’s minigames were released before the full game so that players could amass a fortune, take it to their game when they got it, and the ingame world reacted accordingly to your wealth and how you got it. The idea of the games communicating with eachother – building your own profile as a gamer online, and that your GTA4 minigames are contributing to a worldwide leaderboard – that is the minigame as metagame, and it’s Rockstar’s best hope of justifying their existence to those who don’t care for the game’s narrative, or find them that appealing.

In the end all forms of minigame fill a service of some kind, and I think that like all elements of gaming, you just need to excercise moderation, and avoid letting them become a crutch to lean on when content is wearing thin. GTA4’s games are harmless enough, it’s being harangued into playing them by the supporting cast that creates resentment.

And… Metagaming (A few short words)

Metagame as impetus:

The concept that a metagame can be the explination that justifes a game isn’t singular to GTA4’s minigames. Noby Noby Boy (a beautifully bizarre and wonderous creation from Keita Takahashi, the man behind Katamari Damacy, another game with metagame elements) almost relies on it’s metagame elements to bring reason to the chaos of his creation. In a game where you basically muck around, eat things, and stretch your character for no narrative reason, and if you removed the entertaining chaos of your actions and focused on the mechanics makes it a game of snake you can’t lose (not thrilling, exactly), then people would be justifed asking themselves why they would continue playing this once you’ve grasped the concept and had a bit of fun. The answer, wonderously, was that upon its release players had the unique chance to achieve a common goal as a whole collective. Every single player’s high score in terms of how long they managed to make Boy (the character) stretch was recorded, and then added up across all of the PS Network, and when that distance was equal to the distance from Earth to The Moon, The Moon became a level that was unlocked to everyone after a mere 4 days after release on Feburary 23rd last year. Mars was unlocked on May 23rd. It was a wonderful stunt, but better than that, an idication of what could come in terms of getting the entire gaming community to contribute to how a game functions.

Boy is on your windmill, messin with your flour.

Metagame as consequence:

The closest thing we have known over the decade up to now have been MMOs. Specifically the way economies work in MMOs. Much like in real life they’re monitored, and the balance of supply and demand (which is controlled by the dev team, really – but in response to the way the game is being played – I hope). But they have shortcomings. It would be unfair on new players to have a finite supply of resources, so they don’t. What happens then is that players end up accumulating massive amounts of tat. When you try selling it on, it’s practically worthless, or if it is a higher class item, it has a value that isn’t representative of the fact they’re in infinite supply but tricky to get a hold of. Besides that, it’s being controlled and monitored by the dev team.

The future?

Currently, however, we’re seeing a way in which the metagame is an element of the overall gameplay, but not the focus of development (as in Noby Noby Boy) or running in the background to the point that it barely affects our experience with the game (in MMOs – does the cost of a pelt going up by 2 gold really matter in the grand scheme of things?). Demons Souls for PS3 has one of the most interesting metagames that exactly describes the marriage of gamer interaction changing the world for everyone, and the changes informing the player’s experience in a tangible way. Demons Souls allows you to leave messages on the ground for other people to find as you play, alerting you of traps and whathaveyou. That in itself is great, but then there is the ghostly apparitions of other player’s deaths that you witness, leaving clues as to how not to deal with an enemy/situation. And finally there is the ability to have random people with whom you don’t interact with personally (so the game is in charge of your experience with them, essentially) to fight with you when you cannot succeed alone, so the game shifts around your experience. This is probably the best example of a game getting the metagame right, in proportion to the core mechanics. It is more or less afterthought in GTA4, and games like Dragon Quest 9, and Animal Crossing suffer from having great ideas but ones that won’t (in my eyes) be too succesful in the west because the Nintendo DS/DSI isn’t as ubiquitous a platform over here.

To wrap it up, I think it will only be a matter of time before elements of metagame such as those in Demons Souls start appearing in more games over the coming years, potentially as a way to fill that “demand for a mulitplayer function” that titles seem to have thrust upon them.

Mike Dunbar

EDIT: A couple of weeks have passed and Irrational Games have announced Five Cut Features from their games. It mentions the hacking minigame from Bioshock, and that initially the pipe system was meant to represent an “ADAM addicted mutant” whose loyalty you effectively bought buy giving it ADAM. Still not exactly representative, then.

A relaxing thing of beauty: