The Art of Replayability
Finishing a good game is hard. By stepping away from the world you’ve immersed yourself in for the past ten, twenty, or even forty hours, you relegate loveable characters and sights into faint memories. You want to keep playing, but artificially stopping the game’s flow only sours your experience. As you reach the ending, a tinge of sadness gets mixed into the emotional climax — something remarkable has just ended, and it might never happen again. After a few days off, you pick up the controller in pursuit of that special feeling. But something’s not right. The gameplay no longer feels as engaging, almost tedious, the level design and enemies leagues below the skillset you’ve developed over hours of playing. The characters seem flat, and the story beats feel predictable. Now frustrated, you start looking around for new games that will hopefully push the same buttons. There’s nothing left after you finished, only memories that can be cherished but not replicated.
Games are fundamentally a medium to tell stories through, and a fundamental part of stories is that they end.
Tension and release are the building blocks of all narratives. Building tension through developing character relationships, plot points, and the world creates and retains interest. Tension is relieved throughout the story by answering questions and finishing off character development, but never enough so that the game feels complete. Only when it ends does the final resolution come — the journey has finished, and the world presents you with some final takeaways. Tastefully leaving questions unanswered is difficult, so most writers try to tie everything up as neatly as possible. Even in sandbox and open-world games, where players often create their own stories and personalities, some overarching plot usually keeps them on track. After a powerful, concise resolution, the game should feel complete. Adding extra material afterwards can seem like fluff, and bloating a story with too much detail can ruin the otherwise perfect pacing. So, when the story’s over, when there’s nothing more to do, how can you convince a player to relive it once again?
The most simplistic approach, or the “New Game+”, is rather barebones. First popularized in JRPGs, it allows the player to start a new save file with all of the powers and abilities they gained throughout the game. The goal is to extend the endgame of the first play through, or where the player feels the most accomplished, throughout the entirety of the second. Enemies also grow in number and difficulty to provide a meatier challenge, balancing out the increased power to make for fair yet punishing gameplay. Unfortunately, this new difficulty can often feel artificial. New Game+ often pumps up health and damage without introducing any new mechanics. The struggle against an exciting boss or level can quickly transform from an immersive experience into an arduous, repetitive stamina test. Bashing your head against a wall until it breaks can be enjoyable for some people who appreciate a challenge, but the line between demanding and unfair gameplay is thin. Once your actions feel worthless and the challenge unsurmountable, frustration starts to take over. Only the most vehement supporters of a game or the most skilled will continue playing past this point.
The more modern approach deals in more abstract terms, involving how much agency the player has over the world and the characters. Contemporary game design has shifted towards increased dynamism and fluidity overall, allowing players to play the way they want to play. Stealth-action, for all of its bad reputation, is very helpful in creating dynamic combat encounters. No matter how you tackle the ten or fifteen enemies ahead of you, all of them should, in theory, work. There is no best way to play, and the ability to approach situations differently every time drives the replay value. One play through could be as the silent killer that works his way through efficiently, and the next, an irresponsible, erratic fighter that only survives situations through quick reactions and adaptability.
While theoretically, this approach should work well, false depth is deceptively easy to create. Players want to do what feels natural to them, which means how they approach a game the first time is most likely how they’d do it every time. You could play through again and only use ranged weapons, but why would you if you love brawling and getting your hands dirty? Playstyle variety creates accessibility, not replay value. Artificial difficulty, especially when self-imposed, is incompatible with how most people like playing. Unlockable characters and weapons can encourage players to run through the game again, but can easily become a reskin of something that already exists. From a developer’s perspective, the lack of focus on specific playstyles can also be detrimental. Instead of one or two well defined and polished way to play, about a dozen mediocre approaches are designed instead within the same period — nobody’s left out, but nobody’s exactly happy either.
Focusing on the environment instead may be a better approach, and open-world games lend themselves quite nicely to this idea. Super Mario 64 allows you to beat the game with 70 stars, but 120 exist in total. In different play throughs, different stars — necessitating unique platforming challenges — can be completed to win. Games that require exploration, like the Soulsborne games and Breath of the Wild, enjoy great replayability simply because of how much there is to do. Take a wrong turn in Bloodborne and find a new boss, or get sidetracked in Breath of the Wild and discover a hidden temple or Korok seed. Jampacking a game with enough content so that consequent play throughs are necessary to experience everything is a simple yet effective solution. By maintaining a strong primary gameplay loop while offering novel and unique ways to apply them, games keep players satisfied and engaged. This approach is often used to create post-game experiences, where the game continues past the main storyline ending, but fundamentally works the same for replay value as well. Feature creeping can result in an unfocused game that lacks a strong identity, so measured restraint is still necessary — nevertheless, this style of variety is an excellent first step.
Narratively, the pursuit of replayability has increased the prevalence of RPG elements and branching narratives. Play differently, and see characters develop and the story progress accordingly. Will you be a smooth talker, an abrasive loner with a heart of gold, or a mute trailblazer? Modern games invite you to choose and try to validate all approaches, adapting the world around you accordingly. More generally, they aim to legitimize the player by making actions feel weighty and consequential. Disco Elysium and Undertale are fantastic examples of infusing players directly into the narrative, both in a nonlinear and linear setting. By giving them the potential to affect and change what goes on around them and demonstrating that the environment is not static, games encourage players to immerse themselves in the experience provided for them. Paired with quality writing and aesthetics, RPG-style games have the most potential to convince players to stick around.
But how can you define characters if each person chooses who they are? More importantly, how can the world shift around them in a meaningful way so that a strong narrative can continue? Games overall have shifted towards increased player control but have suffered from a lack of grand vision or strong stories. By giving the player the ability to determine how the story plays out, they relinquish authorial intent on what the story even means in the first place. Most of the time, the story ends up feeling meaningless. The characterization has to be weak, especially of the protagonist, to allow the player to fill in the details. Giving up control of how the story progresses can lead to stilted and unnatural pacing, as players can under or overdevelop characters and settings without knowing any better. By choosing who you talk to and where you spend your time, how you perceive the story can completely change based on missing a few dialogue trees.
How the game finishes is of particular concern. Successfully reconciling a story where the player sets up all of the pieces and only asks for how it should end is nearly impossible. There are unlimited combinations of protagonists, characters, settings, and interactions between them, necessitating unlimited endings where the story is resolved in an ideal and meaningful way according to how everything played out. Developers can only account for so much, and risk losing the advantage of a concise ending in pursuit of something much less valuable. If multiple endings are present according to how the player acts, which one is correct? The lack of authorial decisiveness can make all of these branching narrative style endings feel weak or unjustified, potentially ruining an otherwise perfectly fine story. Not only must it contend with its own issues, but player expectations as well. Nobody likes having their time wasted, and to pour so much of yourself into a world only for the experience to end the same every time is a slap in the face. Open world games have massive potential but are much harder to pull off correctly as a result.
Some amount of linearity and centralization is obviously needed, both in terms of gameplay and narrative. But hold the reins too tight, and the game will lose all value after a single play through — hold them too loose, and players can fail to create meaningful experiences for themselves. If games are sandboxes, then open-world RPGs provide the tools for players to construct their own sandcastle. Some players love that they can build freely, even if what they make isn’t the best. Pure roleplay games are theoretically infinitely replayable, but barely fall within our traditional definition of a video game. If the player defines the game more than the author does, who has even made the game? Others enjoy appreciating the details of a beautifully crafted castle the developers built and are content with observing from a distance. Both preferences are valid, and everyone tends to land on a slider with each side at the end. The theoretical perfect game — and the infinitely replayable game — should exist between, where authorial intent and player involvement combine to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Game design, especially narratively, still has a long way to go before even approaching this platonic ideal. What can we do in the meantime?
A massive part of art’s value, whether it be a novel, painting or video game, is novelty. New things are exciting; they can bring out emotions that we’ve never felt before, bring attention to subjects previously unexplored, and expand how we think and feel. Filling your game full of lore and branching paths increases replay value, but going through the same levels and enemies will always feel tedious. Eventually, budget and time constraints will limit how much you can introduce into the world as well. Ideas that developers didn’t include will hopefully surface in the sequel or their next work, but a single game can only say so much on its own. Because of our intrinsic desire for novelty, designing replayability is fundamentally a losing battle. Recreating the conditions that you initially experienced the game in is already impossible — add in predetermined expectations and judgements, and they all make your second, third and fourth play throughs feel less meaningful. You can only truly experience something once, and most attempts to recapture it usually only succeeds in capturing the shadows of what it made you feel. Instead, it is necessary to reframe the discussion entirely.
If we are to view games as an experience rather than a physical or intellectual challenge, then we must hold them under the same lens as any other art form. An infinitely replayable game should not speak the same message over and over, hammering across a single vision, but say many things at the same time. If you can gleam a new experience or idea every time you play, not only has it succeeded in being a valuable work of art, but also in enticing you to return again and again. Novelty is an enemy, but also a friend. The more a game can draw out of you in terms of diversity, whether it be simple enjoyment from clicking buttons to complex emotions, the more valuable it will feel. Linear or nonlinear, both approaches can draw out meaningful experiences. Replayability is not a feature that can be picked out and strengthened — it is the collective value of the game that determines how well it holds up in consequent play throughs. No amount of alternate weapons, costumes, or buffs can make a game worth revisiting if they fail to do anything new. You might have to take some time away from the game for it to feel fresh again, but a quality game is timeless.