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So there I was, having just shot and killed half the Walton gang, busting through the flimsy doors of their desert hideout – about to rescue a rancher’s daughter from the loneliness of rapists and outlaws. I burst in like hell with legs, and see there’s still one man standing over her with a gun to her head. I waste a split-second aiming. Crack. Too slow. She’s dead. In rushes the father to cry by the side of his dead daughter, and for some reason I lose 200 honour points as if I shot her myself. I feel gutted. John Marston failed.

Then, about an hour later, I ride through the same bit of country and find that this grim show is staged again, just as it was before. This time I remember to use dead-eye, shoot the bastard, and (having already taken other jobs to get my honour back up where it was) I pick up an additional 200 points, and earn a new title and get a duster coat. And she lives. SCORE! John Marston rocks.

It’s got “redemption” in the title because you always get another chance. The clue is in your stats in the game menu: “World events encountered” then “Unique World Events Encountered”. The game is letting you know there’s only so much it can provide, but it will keep giving you those moments time and time again if you know where to look. I went back to that fort at Twin Rocks because I knew there might be a chance to save that rancher’s daughter – it took me an hour to want to do it all again but a combination of my engagement with the situation, and Rockstar’s incredible work in creating an atmosphere in a game, left me suitably haunted by my failure to save that girl last time, and compelled to ride the bloodstained road to redemption. I would like to discuss how Red Dead Redemption manages to maintain the atmosphere and majesty of The West (though by flitting oddly through all its permutations), and somehow blend an action experience with RPG elements that in a weird way feels “arcade”.

It’s a testament to the elegance of the design that an open world game like this can support emergent game play, the narrative of the story, and still retain a very ludic feel regarding your actions (its like everything you do you are doing for all three reasons). I know people will tire of the comparisons, but to quickly mention GTA4 – your actions in that game outside the story had little or no impact overall. The situations that it could have worked in didn’t really exploit their setting in a game. The phone calls that led to your driving your friends around and hanging out with them could have but the reward/punishment for succeeding/failing in these things is detached from the core experience. They make up a stat buried away in the menu that no one cares about because the reward is limited anyway. Free taxi rides? Roman? Why am I not interested? The clue’s in the title. Grand Theft Auto 4 let the burden of these situations rest in your conscience – not your stats. Red Dead Redemption does both – your penalty/reward for your performance is in the same pile as for every quest/story mission for the whole game: money, fame & honour. Side quests they are in name, but they’re not marginalized by where they benefit you.

"Why Johnny Ringo, you look like someone just walked all over your grave."

The way RDR splits up its content is key in the way it makes you care about what you’re doing, and also in how the world remains believable in its own fridge logic. Story quests are supplemented by a handful of mini-games; jobs (nightwatching or horse breaking); challenges (hunting, sharp-shooting, botany *cough* I mean survivalisim, and treasure hunting); strangers (with unique mo-capped, story-like cutscenes) who make up the traditional side-quest side of things; bounty missions which can be taken voluntarily or as a means of penance for your legal indiscretions; and finally, my favourites, the “random encounters”. When I say that, I am not simply referring to them in the strict RPG sense that they are an enemy, but much more curiously in the sense that they are occurrences that happened that for some reason keep repeating themselves in roughly the same place. They have little or no exposition, and are characteristically over in a few moments. Despite the story (which I’m enjoying, and I think has sturdy characterisation and the usual hallmarks of a Rockstar Game) my main emotional engagement with Red Dead is in these vignettes, these momentary shots of simulated spontaneity. They contribute to a whole world where the joy comes from it being a bit like the movie Groundhog Day – somehow a story and a narrative continue while the world repeats itself.

My obsession with the random encounters began in Armadillo – the first proper town you encounter in the game. Now so far in town I have had several encounters including being propositioned to a few duels, catching a few horse rustlers, catching a thief stealing from the cordial racist shopkeeper, getting horse-jacked, and saving a woman from a pack of wolves. My two favourite encounters, the ones I hang around outside the saloon or on the roof of the coach-house for, are somewhat more wild: Firstly, the moment four horsemen ride through town shooting rifles into the air dragging a kidnapped woman behind them through the dirt screaming “This is our town!!”, and secondly, the one that started my craze, a prostitute being attacked by a spurned man wielding a knife outside the saloon.

They captured my imagination, because – like with the hideout at Twin Rocks – I failed to act as decisively as I’d have liked. The first I encountered was the prostitute being stabbed. I heard the scream, saw the blue on my minimap (though I was standing right there), and for some reason I dicked around with the weapon-selection wheel, and decided I’d use the knife – because in my head that was potentially less fatal (I can’t speculate as to why I didn’t just punch him). By the time I selected knife and got close to him she was already dead. I then fatally stabbed him right after. A few moments pass while I bathe in my inadequacy as a person, then I sigh and loot the attacker’s body, and pay my respects to the departed. It is only minutes until the next encounter signified by yet another terrorised scream of a damsel in distress. On this occasion I had the great misfortune of standing in the middle of the road, and for suffering “gamer’s ego”. What is going on? And how can I be DIRECTLY INVOLVED?! This was not a blue-mark on my minimap, this woman was just a woman apparently. People were running scared into buildings. Any sane man would have done the same, but I apparently decided that John Marston is not a sane man. No, in fact John Marston finally gets his act together (after being trampled underfoot) as the posse are almost out of town and shoots one of them in the back, causing them to turn around and charge back into town. Then in the confusion he shoots several lawmen and has to evade capture. Then, apparently, John Marston has a bit of a cry about how he’s lost honour and goes to pick flowers for half an hour to calm down.

I didn’t know these things would occur over and over yet. The reason I headed back into Armadillo was because I thought there must be more things like this that could happen. I was right, as I listed earlier more things were on the cards, and thankfully – without me expecting so, I got my chance to save the prostitute. Walking by the saloon I found her being wrestled to the ground in the alleyway. I saw the flash of steel from the attacker’s knife and thought “We’re not messing about this time!” pulled whatever gun I had holstered (thankfully not a shotgun) and plugged him in the head. His knife flies from his grasp and lands a few feet away, harmlessly laying in a puddle. Then I am offered the thanks of the woman I saved, and she even gives me money. John Marston – you can be my hero baby.

It would take a few more attempts before the bandits dragging that woman would be stopped – primarily because I spent two encounters trying to shoot the rope like some hotshot. Eventually, from the balcony of the saloon, and once again by chance, I had the opportunity to swiftly kill them with my rifle. I was given thanks and honour. John Marston – doesn’t like women being dragged.

John Marston - doesn't mind men being dragged.

The reason these random encounters are much better than simply an enemy appearing is because you choose to get involved in them. They begin a story and let you apply narrative, and as many people have already been discussing, Red Dead Redemption is a game that makes great stories for gamers. In the last three paragraphs I told four stories of what I did in Red Dead, and each scenario offers dozens more variations on them. The shopkeeper’s thief for example – I killed him once. Then one time I hogtied him, and brought him back to the shopkeeper who started kicking him in the head. Then one time the shopkeeper said something racist before I could give him the prisoner, so I punched him in the head and chased him around town and hogtied him, freeing the robber. I got done on one account of abduction but sod it, it was worth it. Besides, the shopkeeper holds no grudges apparently.

So to restate my main point, Red Dead Redemption takes Rockstar’s emergent gameplay formula one step further by offering the player two things: One – the opportunity to make right our mistakes by letting us re-enact them (I would argue against it being a counter to engagement, as to play along you have to be immersed in their iteration of The West and drop your own preconceptions), and by increasing our own narrative experience of their emergent game play tools or props by granting them context – that is to say, offering us small “situations” – like the racist shop-keep’s thief – in the world rather than static things the GTA games use like stunt ramps. You may get a good crash off a stunt ramp, but you won’t get half as good a story of how you interacted with it as you will with the thief.

John Marston like’s Pina Colada, and getting caught in the rain.

Post Script: The “Red Dead” bit is because when it goes red you’re dead. I guess.

I’ve been faced with the temptation to blog about games  with the wholly subjective fanboy eye, and give almost useless qualitative rhetoric about why it’s the best thing ever and that you should play it before you die many times since I started this blog, which is impressive as it was only a month ago. I have relented customarily, as a young man in the first throws of passion is quick to remind himself not to propose marriage, but now… now I’m hitched. Against my insticts I’m going to try and discuss a game a lot of us are discussing, and I’m going to try and be fair.

I totally respect her. I didn't even cop a feel on the first date.

Some people may sigh wearily, and that’s fine. This isn’t a perfect game. No such game exists, but I love her. And I would like to yammer on as to why. I’ll avoid spoilers.

I start with the admission that I didn’t play the original Mass Effect until this one came out. I’ve done one playthough of each, and I’m at the beggining of a second playthrough of the (I think) superior sequel. The second admission is that I didn’t play Mass Effect until after I’d completed Mass Effect 2 despite buying them both on the same day (via Steam). CALL MYSELF a GAMER?! Yes, I do. Sorry. I was too tempted by shiny graphics and all my favourite podcasts and blogs talking about the sequel, and for some bizarre psychologial reason the promise of day one DLC, to hold off playing it. That and I’d heard all about the “broken combat” of the first one.

This isn’t my first experience with Bioware, don’t worry. I did play Baldur’s Gate 2 (I know, not 1) and KOTOR. I can’t really tell you why I hadn’t played Mass Effect. I assume it was a money thing, or that I’d simply never got around to doing it. For instance, in all this time talking about Bioware I also haven’t got Dragon Age: Origins. I know. I should go to hell. I also haven’t got Blade Runner on DVD.  It’s just one of those things that I managed to let pass me by, though I know I should have taken care of it.

I digress. The reason I’m taking the fanboy stand on this game of all games (within mere weeks of its release, too) is because it represents something wonderful and important to this game industry we all love so much: clarity of vision. That’s clarity of vision on a big scale, too. It’s easy for an indie to stay true to their beloved design, but in the big boy’s game your idea has to get passed through so many filters it becomes a real testament to how good an idea is to survive it. I’m not saying all Triple A games are good because of who published them, a thousand times no, but an idea that’s difficult to pitch financially – a trilogy where you can’t even wrap up the first game just in case, because the second game follows on, and it’s a key part of the marketing – that makes it because of the developers work, that deserves a bit of credit.

I suppose EA deserve a bit of credit, but then they have a lot of my money so I won’t bother.

Okay, so anyone who’s been following the game’s progress will know that like the first one, choice plays a big role. Choice plays a role in the significant ways that the Fable series has yet to manage, actually, but I won’t go there. You would also know about the hoohah around importing your ME1 save game to form the base of your character for ME2. That, I think has worked very well in my experience so far. The events of the first game are referenced and embedded in the universe of ME2 from the get-go, down to the gender of your Commander Shepard, the choices made in ME1, their general manner, and suchlike. If this wasn’t continued throughout the game, and offered you different possibilites not found in the default quest (with no imported character), than it would be little more than a neat trick. What it is, instead is massively effective (had to, so sorry) tool to immerse you in the continued narrative of your Shepard (and I’ll briefely mention here that forming the second act of a trilogy leaves it with certain restrictions you have to accept when Bioware are formulating a tight story arc over three games. If you feel as though your choices in the original Mass Effect haven’t been considered as much as you’d like, remember that it’s perfectly likely you just haven’t experienced their consequences yet – especially re: The Rachni, in my opinion).

I’m not embarrased to reveal that at several key moments in this game I punched the air in glee, exhiliration, relief, and (in-character) anger. I also chewed my nails in worry and anticipation. And at one bleak moment in my own life licked my lips in anticipation. That’s emotional engagement. That’s the holy grail. And deciphering it is the key to the world, my son. The story is fantastic, I’ll say. The characters for the most part are wonderfully realised and you want to learn about them (I don’t much care for Jack, or the DLC character Zaeed, though his loyalty mission is very dramatic). And because the squad number is increased greatly over ME1, you’re bound to end up liking at least two of them, which is all you need for a squad if you play your class wisely.

Now there will be those who maintain that this “choice” thing is destructive to narrative. I would say it depends by what degree if choice we’re talking about. I railed (after my own moderate fashion) the elements of choice in Bioshock*, and I’ve always looked at “emergent gameplay” with something of a suspicious eye. I sometimes wonder when I’m trashing cars in GTA4 if the “emergent gameplay” is what I slip into doing when I’m bored by the missions and narrative, and I haven’t realised that I want to stop playing the game yet. It may be endemic to GTA4 since it tries to force a heavy narrative on you (compare it with the loose approach of Saints Row 2 and you’ll see what I mean), but when I’m mucking about making choices in that game I’m actually less engaged in the experience because I’m consiously aware that I’m messing about instead of getting on with the game. The other big critiques of “choices” in narrative are that they’re too binary to reflect a real choice, and that the more you have the weaker your narrative structure becomes. Let me shock you all by proclaiming in my weediest fanboy voice that Mass Effect 2 averts this trope. Sort of.

This is the screen shot I've seen the most, so I'm adding creedence to my post by using it as well.

Choice in the Mass Effect Universe comes in three flavours. There’s the narrative choices that affect the world in the grand scale, there’s choices that won’t really reverberate to everyone because either outcome is the same more or less – the choice is how you get there (these are often the less drastic Paragon/Renegade situations – think of things like getting discounts at shops), then there’s the usual RPG stuff – levelling and assinging points, squad building. That sort of thing. It’s this three-pronged attack that really makes the choice thing work. Mainly because unless you’ve tried to write a blog about it, you don’t recognize them as three different things. The impression you get playing it is “Cor blimey, everything matters!” The wonderful truth is, yes – it does matter. I don’t want to spoil anything, but yes. Every element of how you play the game, all three kinds of choice I have mentioned, all work in what must be a very sophisticated algorithm to dictate the nature of important plot points, and the glorious kicker – plot points that will be carried forward into the final installment. I would like to highlight the second kind I mentioned. The smaller (though sometimes in the main quest) situations where the outcome to a situation is more or less going to be the same, but how you get there isn’t. A lot of people wouldn’t call that a real choice. I’d say it’s possibly the most immersive kind. During the quest, like in life, you’re going to be in situations that are going to end one way. How you deal with it, the decisions you make contemplating it, is the part we most relate to. By getting into the mind of Shepard and thinking “What would he do? My Shepard” and considering the consequences (you obviously never know what the consequences of anything might be) you get more immersed.  These moments interspersed with the bigger choices (and the fact that you’re never 100% sure what you’re going to say or do) keep up the momentum and excitement of The Universe. The fact that your Paragon and Renegade points also serve a purpose in the mechanics of the game (in a sort of universally karmic morality system  of sorts) gives them the neccessary depth to stop them being a superficial RPG add-on**.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the first game to use choice mechanics. It’s not even the first Bioware to use choice mechanics. But it is definitely the most robust use of one. This game is a benchmark for many reasons, and I’ve only discussed one here, but all I’ll say (in a typical fanboy manner) is that you owe it to yourself to play this game, man.

I’m not going to mention the romance. Except then, when I did.

Mike Dunbar.

P.S. Oh, and I got one of the hoodies. The Bioware Mass Effect hoodies that are selling out all the time? I got one. So, yeah. Fanboy.

* Which there isn’t: The game being about being a brainwashed slave, essentially. Except when there is: Oh, but choose which plasmids you use to fight the bad guys and play the game any way you want! But really there isn’t: But you’d better use a lot of electricity, as there’s lots of water around. And fire if you ever want to get past the bits blocked by ice. Which there are many. Except when there is, but it doesn’t matter: The little sisters.

**Fable and Fable II both suffer from a morality system that is superficial to the point of unimportance. If you do bad things you look bad, but so what? And maybe you need so much evil to unlock a demon door, so you do some bad, you unlock it, and then you do some good to compensate. What was the point? People on the street say different things to you if you look good or bad, but since they convey all the depth of a gap-year student in a Disneyland Mickey Mouse costume – waving inanely and laughing for no reason around you – then why would you care what they think? You can barely interact with them one on one (though Molyneux has promised to rectify this with Fable 3. But then again, Molyneux is always promising things. He promised to water my garden last weekend, and he’s still not helped my tree grow.).

“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.

Minigaming

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: