Seeing The Spreadsheet

A look at why we get tired of games, and why sometimes we don’t.

I love talking about food. I love talking about chefs and restaurants and the cooking process and technology and all of that. My cousin Derek hates it. It’s not that he doesn’t like food — he’s a professional chef and arguably one of the best in his state. It’s just, he’s surrounded by it all day long. They make and serve food with relentless efficiency, they talk about it constantly and at the end of the day he’d rather talk about anything else. Books, movies, politics, whatever. Just not food.

The second most common conversation I have about being a game designer is whether or not making games makes it hard to play games because I do it all day and do I get sick of of it because the bugs stand out and the answer is no motherfucker I love playing video games. I play games, I watch videos about games, I go into the office and talk about games all day long. This is what I do. I try to immerse myself in the worlds of the games that i’m playing and to shut out the noise surrounding game development and play like a player. And i’m usually successful — for a certain period of time, and then the illusion crumbles and I See the Spreadsheet and it’s over. The obviousness of the grind gets to me and the simulation falls away and I get so overwhelmed with ennui that I throw down the controller in disgust at myself so I guess yeah in a way it does happen to me but I logged 16 hours of Stardew Valley in the last week so I can hang in there.

You can’t avoid the fact that video games are made and run on computers. We program systems that interpret data to create an immersive simulation. Some of these simulations (from the micro simulation of physics to the macro of world creation) can be very convincing and immersive. Underneath that simulation is some kind of database that’s a collection of static and dynamic statistics, characteristics, lists, variables, and a variety of other organized data. That’s the spreadsheet i'm talking about — but most games do everything in their power to hide that fact from the player through a variety of means so that the dissonance between the technical implementation of the gameplay and the immersive simulation doesn’t ever fall away.

In some games, most commonly games closer to what we’d call “RPGs”, the player is directly modifying the spreadsheet through their choices in a veiled way of relative thickness. In the metagame for Diablo, the distance between the player and the data is about as thin as it gets; the fact that a particular sword has a particular appearance or real world functionality has nearly no bearing on its relationship to its abilities in the game. This has not hindered the game from having extreme long term engagement, in fact the opposite is true.

if you squint you can see the game

Games like the modern Far Crys (Fars Cry?) spend much more time and effort thickening the distance between the player and the spreadsheet — everything is contextualized and coherent, and the fidelity is consistent throughout. You still have to stretch to believe that a pouch made from 3 shark skins allows you to carry 2 extra grenades, but once you’re in it you push it aside, mostly because you get to shoot a shark with an AK47 — and that AK47 does the same amount of damage and behaves exactly as you would expect throughout the game unless you modify it yourself.

In Far Cry 4, the only numbers displayed are how much it costs to buy the item — relative strengths are shown through a bar and text descriptions, then through the player’s experiences in game.

When I say The Metagame I mean the progression system of abilities that your character grows through by earning and spending some kind of currency, typically experience and more and more commonly better gear and usually a combination of both:

An example of metagame as represented by a skill tree in this year’s Salt And Sanctuary, a 2D Soulslike that you should totally play.

I want to talk about that but first I want to talk about how these games might relate to one another through a couple of charts that I created while plumbers were installing a P-trap in the off-code, off-permit bathroom rental property I recently moved into:

This chart is 100% scientific based on a sample set of 1 person

Let’s look at how a few games hide the spreadsheet, or don’t.

There are a couple of games where the spreadsheet is laid bare; it’s the thing you paid $59.99 for. Pure management games, or some of Paradox’s more hardcore titles like HOI3 — they rely on the user bringing their understanding of the real-world thing they are trying to let you optimize. They do the bare minimum to actually contextualize the experience — in the examples i’ve given, the user creates the immersive simulation through a previously experienced connection to the real world. They ask you to bring a lot to the table and for some players it is enormously satisfying.

Similarly, E-Sports games (when played as E-sports at the highest level) like DOTA and CS:GO rely on the players having an in-depth understanding of the functionality of the game. They know how the choices they make in regards to loadouts or character rosters on a team will affect the tactics and strategy employed in a match. For them the metagame is represented by their skill as it relates to other players in the real world over time.

A game like The Witness has it’s metagame directly embedded into the user’s play experience — by solving a puzzle, you flip a boolean from “false” to “true”. Flip enough puzzle bools and you deploy a laser, also a bool. If your true laser bools are greater than like 6 or something, I forget what, you can enter the mountain. But it’s obviously not presented to the player in such a needlessly reductive fashion; the metagame of the pure experience built by the mysterious and elusive island hides it from the player in a way that is the work of masters at the top of their game. The lasers are always lasers, and the illusion never falls away.

Where it gets challenging is in the nebulous action/adventure and RPG spaces, the lines of which frequently blur. I’ll try and illustrate how they solved this problem through two examples — examples I chose because they are very different from one another but also kept me immersed to a degree that few other games have, and left me wondering for a long time how they did it:

The first is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. This game has no metagame to speak of — you progress along a linear narrative, and each scenario is specifically crafted. This limits the possibility space which allows for maximum polish and fidelity. Everyone has exactly or nearly exactly the same experience when they play it. Through masterful writing, direction (full disclosure UC2 Creative Director Amy Hennig is my current CD and I am a huge kiss ass) and character performance, the player doesn’t need a metagame to get lost in the immersive simulation. They are Nathan Drake, and they have an emotional connection to the characters, and combined with a propulsive plot and some pretty ok third person shooter mechanics they are compelled to play the game to see what comes next. The metagame is the emotional growth and change you experience with the characters. Matthias Worch has written some excellent material on what he calls the “identity bubble” that expands on this in great detail.

The second is Fallout 3. Many of the characters are interesting and some are well acted. You have an emotional connection to some of them. The world is rendered at a reasonable level of fidelity and the character performance is adequate. HOWEVER, the game’s contract with the player explicitly states that they are trading off fidelity for total freedom to approach the world, and their character as they please. The possibility space is infinitely broad at all times. The player’s engagement is sustained through a long term plan that constantly changes as they play — what stats they want to improve so that they can manipulate the world and their gear to their liking. But even the missions are very much a spreadsheet — for the world to be that expansive, and for the player to have that much freedom, the missions have to be very simple (go to point A, get object B, bring it to person C) and rely heavily on systems freely interacting with one another (occasionally with hilarious unintended consequences), and also have to be well written but not performed at a high level of fidelity. This is not intended to sound judgemental or pejorative; it’s one of the tradeoffs you have to make to make this kind of game.

Both Fallout 3 and Uncharted 2 create a very specific contract with the player and deliver on that contract exactly as stated. People will play Uncharted 2 multiple times for the story but grow fatigued by playing the same gameplay content over and over. People will play Fallout 4 for hundreds of hours but will become fatigued by the nearly infinite grind and the increasing sameness of the experience.

Some games sustain engagement and immersion over the long term through either a rich metagame or a rich plot and characters (or choosing to ignore both); games that fall in between the two extremes have to walk a careful balance in order sustain immersion and engagement. If you don’t balance it just right, players get an uneasy feeling that they can’t explain — “why am I bothering with this at all”. Even though they might not be able to express it, they are Seeing The Spreadsheet.