by John Rogers
The case for less 'gamey' games
Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time playing video games will have, at some point, rolled their eyes at the gameiness of a game. We’ve all been there – that moment when an onerous multi-part task pops out of the woodwork, preventing us from reaching our goal.
Let’s say we’re approaching the final gate to confront our nemesis, levelled-up and armed to teeth, only to find that the key to their chamber has been lost, split into four parts, and scattered to the far corners of the realm. Or maybe we’re a road warrior who has built up a rusted hunk o’ junk into a devastating war machine. We’ve conquered the wasteland, and battled through to the final arena to cast down the warlord who rules these barren lands... only to have an NPC gatekeeper send us on a tacked-on fetch quest for some light bulbs.
Find me the MacGuffins!
This kind of writing didn’t begin with video games. Trivial objects on which a larger plot hinges go back to the beginning of mass-cultural entertainment. It was Alfred Hitchcock who coined the term “MacGuffins” – also derisively known as “plot coupons” – for objects that exist only to catalyse a narrative. “In crook stories, it is almost always the necklace,” said Hitchcock, “and in spy stories it is almost always the papers."
In video games, it’s most often keys, orbs, crystals, or a scenario-relevant variation of the three. These MacGuffins are, in effect, interchangeable – simply a progression gate to elongate the play time and, in turn, the perceived value of the game.
But when their meaninglessness becomes apparent, it can break the spell of a game. My Skyrim run ended when, tasked with finding a magic staff in yet another monster-packed dungeon, I decided I just wasn’t cut out for the tedium of the Dragonborn life. I married Aela the Huntress, fostered an orphan, and settled down in Whiterun. Finding those light bulbs – a galling MacGuffin quest that gates the finale of 2015’s Mad Max – was the final straw for that otherwise solidly entertaining title.
MacGuffins are at their worst when fetch-quests become artificial progress barriers, resulting in the player dissociating from the story in question. Those ubiquitous key shards become tedious digressions, and schlepping across the map to pick up The Seven Crystals Of… (Whatever) becomes an immersion-breaking cliché of game design.
Remnants of the old world
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. In more thoughtfully designed and well-written games, the player’s goals feel seamlessly interwoven with the motivations of the protagonist. In the excellent Horizon Zero Dawn, for example, the plot unfolds through exploration and discovery. The optional collectibles of mugs, statuettes and holographic diary entries allow for deeper world-building via object-based storytelling, whilst fulfilling the completionist urges that many gamers possess.
In Remedy’s superlative paranormal thriller Control, every Object of Power has a fascinating backstory, and Altered World Event case files turn the fictional FBC into a believable entity. In 2020 action-adventure The Pathless, the story is built entirely on discoverable “final thoughts”, found on corpses scattered over a barren land. It’s an atomised narrative, the fragments of which can be discovered in any order, slowly cohering into a powerful, detailed history.
The writer’s work
In each of these games, progression-gating MacGuffins were replaced by story-relevant objects. Well-crafted collectibles can be used for deeper world-building, or an optional reason for the player to experience more of an environment that’s worth their time.
When collectibles are smoothly and meaningfully incorporated into gameplay, the result is a coherent game with believable aims, and a welcome sense of continuity. We notice the writer’s work through a lens of appreciation, rather than exasperation. Accordingly, I ended up finding every collectible in Horizon Zero Dawn, and platinumed The Pathless and Control.
But that lightbulb-seeking MacGuffin gatekeeper in Mad Max? He’s going to be sitting in the dark for a long time.