Sunday 27 November 2011

The Problem of Repetition

After having played some adventure and RPG games lately something struck me: repetition in games have almost the same problems as trial-and-error do. This is not really a shocking conclusion, since repeating things in a game is basically what you do when stuck in a sequence of trial and error. But since the repetition is not a direct consequence of being unable to progress, and that not all repetition is bad per se, I figured it was worth looking into a bit.

The Problem
Most of the time the problem arise when doing an action several times causes the same response. Mostly, this does not apply when doing things to dead objects, like shooting a bullet on a wall. We expect that if we shoot the same bullet at the same place twice, the same response occurs both times. However this is not always true. For instance, many games use randomized particle effects for sparks from the hitting bullet. In more complex system, like water splashes, this is even more common, and while it might not be directly noticeable if they repeat, it can unconsciously lead to the virtual world being seen as less "real" (what I really mean is sense of verisimilitude, but more on that later) . So even though it does not constitute a large problem, we do run into trouble even when repeating consequences for very simple interactions.

The problem becomes more jarring when the object of interaction is a supposed to be an intelligent agent. This is very common in RPGs and adventure games during dialog, where the same question generates the same answer regardless of how many times you ask it. Adventure games are generally a little bit better than RPGs and often have NPCs giving a summary instead of the exact same response and more frequently terminate threads of conversation. Even so, a big part of dialog in both types of games have actions being met by the exact same response no matter how many times they are repeated.

There are of course a reason why it is like this. The player might have forgotten some information and need to hear it again, forcing dialog to be repeated. Or there might be some compulsory puzzle that requires the player to trick or persuade a character, which forces the player to redo the same conversation if unsuccessful at the first attempt. I think these reasons expose two problems that narrative focused video games have: reliance of "info dumps" and puzzles as core activities. Info dumping is a form of exposition that one tries hard to avoid in other media, yet is very common in video games (often forming the core storytelling device). It is something that I think needs to be considered more (and I am well aware we have been using it too much in our own games). Puzzles is something I have talked about having negative effects before and this is yet another argument to why we should try and cut down our reliance on them.

Another very common form of repetition is that of having the same kind of gameplay scenario repeated several times throughout the game. Sometimes this can be a core part of the experience, but most of the time it is just a form of padding and an attempt to prolong the time it takes to finish the game. There are tons of examples of this and two that spring to mind are the vent sections of Dead Space 2 and the spirit capturing in Sword and Sworcery. I felt that both of these activities would have been a lot more interesting if not repeating so much. You quickly become very familiar with them and they eventually loose much of their first

There is a deeper reason why repetition is so common in videogames. Many games base their interactions on traditional games and software systems where reproducibility is a corner stone. You do not want to use a paint-tool and not know what expect when pressing a button, and the only way for you to get this knowledge is to is for consequences to repeat themselves. In traditional games, you need to have systems that a human player can keep track of, and thus the consequences of actions must be easy to comprehend. Videogames carry baggage from both of these directions, and thus it is not strange that video games contain a large share of repetition.

As you might have guess I think this sort of repetition can be quite bad for videogames that focus on story and narrative.

The Causes
As I said earlier, the repetition has pretty much the same issues as trial-and-error. Since they are both about doing the same thing over and over, this can feel pretty much self-evident and not worthy of much discussion. However, while trial-and-error elements are more easily pointed out and can be directly addressed, repetition is more subtle and not always as obvious. Many of issues with repetition are also commonly seen as limits of the medium (or at least our current technology) and thus not really addressed. I do think these problems can be overcome though, and a first step is to figure out what give rise to them.

- Mechanics gets apparent
By having something repeated over and over to players, they will quickly start to notice patterns and short after figure out the system below. What this leads to is that the player will no longer focus on what the system is trying to represent (eg. dialog with a person) but will instead see the mechanics that it is built from (eg. the abstract dialog tree). Repetition does not force this onto the player as trial-and-error do (where the player often is required to learn the system in order to continue). But since many of the things that are repeated constitute a big part of the experience, the problem piles up. Like I mentioned above the repetition can include entire scenes and the player might go through a section in a go (ie no trial-and-error). But then when a very similar sections is repeated throughout the game, the underlying mechanics become more and more visible. As an example I think the enemies in our own game Amnesia have this very problem. This problem is very subtle though as it only applies on longer play sessions and can thus more easily slip by.

There is another aspect to this, that makes the problem even more severe. Once you figure out the mechanics of a system it can damage events that you experienced when you did not have this understanding. For instance, if you feel like a conversation is really meaningful, and then later on find this same character reduced to mechanics, it will change the way you view your prior experience. It will be very hard to still feel the same sense of meaningfulness when looking back at the conversation. Your mental construct of an aspect of the game's world has now been reduced to a mechanic and when you later summarize the experience you have had, this can severely reduce any emotional attachment you might have had to earlier happenings. As this piles up, it will slowly degrade the experience and makes you less emotionally connected to the game's world.

- Decrease in Verisimilitude
What verisimilitude means is basically how real and truthful the fictional world feels. This does not mean how well it replicates the real world we live in, but how much a it feels like it represents an actual place. In most narrative media, giving a strong sense of verisimilitude is really important. As I said, this does not mean that everything should be "just like in real life", but instead follow the fictional world's internal logic somehow. What this means in games is that when encountering a virtual element, such as a character, we do not need for it to behave exactly like in real life, but simply to behave in such a way that it evokes feelings of verisimilitude.

This means that we can tolerate dialog selection and similar, while other things are instant deal breakers. I think one of these deal breakers is the repetition of a responses. If a character repeats the same sentence over and over, it is very hard to see them as nothing but a simplistic automaton. We can quite easily disregard our knowledge that there is not a sentient mind
shaping the responses, just like know something is not really happening in a movie. But when the information that the experience is feeding us (in this case the repeated voice response), the very thing that is supposed to support the view of an intelligent being goes straight against its purpose.

Not only dialog is affected by this but plenty of other aspects. For example, whenever you have to go about clicking on the same hot-spots over and over in an adventure game, it also significantly reduce the feeling of verisimilitude.

- Decrease in effectiveness
This point is almost identical with what happens in trial-and-error. Certain scenes and events simply does not do well when repeated. For some events it is simply that they are very emotional, and it will be hard to feel the same way once again. You will grow desensitized and less prone to reacting to it. Just compare a movie filled with gory sequences to one with a single visceral scene. The latter will pack a much harder punch. Other times it might be that the event or scene is set up like a magic trick - it only works when you are not expecting what will happen. Finally, it might simply be that the passage is too boring, sensory intense or similar that you cannot bare to take further viewings. Other media rely on things like these hard-to-repeat moments a lot, but since games are so prone to repetition, they are much harder to put in and/or to have the same emotional value.

The Cure
So how do we overcome these issues? I think there are a few things to keep in mind when designing that makes them a lot simpler to avoid:

  • Not a approach the experience as a competition. The less goals we set up for the player the less likely we are to need to repeat things for the player or to make them repeat their own actions.
  • Make sure that the story is understandable without the need of info dumps. If the player is required to have story related information repeated to them, then I would consider that bad narrative design. The story should emerge simply out of playing.
  • Skip the notion that players need to learn a system. I think this is mainly historical baggage from how software works for more practical application, where mastery of the system is essential. Creation of narrative art does not have this requirement though, and I think we should instead make the player focus on the representations (graphics, sounds, etc) that the system provide.
  • We must demand more of the player and give them more responsible. We must teach them them live in our virtual worlds instead of trying to beat our game systems. As most games reward players for combing the virtual world for goodies this is not the easiest of tasks though. Our goal must thus be to undo this and reward roleplaying instead.
These small rules does of course not solve everything and there is a lot of hard problem connected with this. For instance, conversational responses is an incredibly tricky problem and the same is true for narrative devices in games.

Still, I think just a little change in our thinking can take us a long way and simply recognizing the problem is a big step forward.


  1. Also: a great example of this would be Heavy Rain. I say it's almost impossible to replay the game because of how apparent the system becomes. That is also why you never die/have to retry part of the game. The whole game relies on this concept of non repetition and this is possibly the only/main good thing about it's design.

  2. This is perhaps one of the best game/storytelling design posts you made thus far.

    I especially liked it when you said that the story should emerge from the gameplay (instead of being told) - that, IMO, is the core concept.

    I always wanted a game where characters generally don't posses some exclusive knowledge that will enable you to go further - I want characters with doubts, assumptions, wrong interpretations... That would make them much more lifelike.

    Of course, the problem then becomes: how, then, can the player figure out what is expected of him/her?
    And that's where your "change in our thinking" comes in. A subtly guided gameplay. Exploration. Reaching conclusions on our own, as opposed to them being fed to us. Sure, there can be sections which require precise tasks; but overall, everything should be geared towards "living" the experience. It's the experience itself that needs to be central to the design, and the dynamics of it, from the beginning of the game, to it's very end.

    However, avoiding repetition requires variety, and you can only have so much of it due to technical (or temporal) limitations. But, where achieving a reasonable amount of (realistic) variety is possible, especially if it can be procedural, the chance shouldn't be skipped.
    What can help here is knowing that in games, we don't really need to simulate reality, we just need to make it seem real enough, within the domain of the mechanics and the experience created. That is, we often don't have to model the actual physical properties of real-world phenomena - we can simply take into consideration in what ways the player can possibly encounter them in the game, and take the advantage of that information to create a simplified model, but one effective in the given context.
    This, of course, means that our implementation becomes more game-specific, but that doesn't mean we can't take that approach, and still equip the engine with general enough tools - the tools just need to stop being tools for running simulations, and instead become tools for creating/modeling simulations. Then, providing a few out-of-the-box potentially useful simulations to be used from within the engine toolset is not a problem; but the power lies in the fact that there is extensibility and reuse potential here.

    P.S. What you said about Amnesia's monsters:
    The fact that there was repetition involved is diminished by the fact that monster encounters were relatively rare in the game. I loved the game, but I always felt that you skipped a chance there: since the monsters are few and apart, and since there's only two types of them, you only had to design two creatures; having only two creatures meant that you could create several models of the same creature to provide variety in their appearance and a certain individuality to them, and have this variety consistent throughout the game (in games with a lot of creatures, this would require too much work and horsepower). You could have increased the number of variations even further by providing several different texture-sets for each creature.
    You might ask: will the player even notice it, given that monsters are rarely seen? Is it worth the extra effort?
    I think it is. It nurtures, on a subconscious level, a sense of verisimilitude you hold in so high esteem.
    And just imagine that scene near the end of the game when the player get's attacked by a group of Amnesia's monsters: wouldn't it be cool if they all looked different? One skinny, one tall, one female, one with different metallic implants, one slow, one fast, some of them with different sound effects?

  3. So for the next game how about less scripted events, more variations of monsters?

  4. "We must teach them them live in our virtual worlds instead of trying to beat our game systems."

    Ha, the above strikes home, as my pre-alpha version of my forthcoming game has this text in it:
    "This is not a game you “try to beat.” It is not competitive. It rewards thought and is paced so that there is time to think."

  5. I'm getting into this blogging malarky thing.

    (as a flash developer, getting into games development (after being a lifelong chosen gaming as my primary entertainment source since I was about 4years old in the 80's i'm slowly growing into what I've always dreamt of doing. )

    my dream of a mercenary->elite mash-up on current gen systems where you can go anyway and do anything, comes under scrutiny

    repetition is a word i should have used ;)
    Go anywhere in our wolds and do the exact same 5 things you could do in the begining of the game, but we are forcing you via stats and level to do them somewhere else and declare that as gameplay.

  6. > if you feel like a conversation is really meaningful, and then later on
    > find this same character reduced to mechanics, it will change the way
    > you view your prior experience.

    This is exactly how I felt about Agrippa in Amnesia. At the beginning, the game created a nice image of him as someone worth saving. Every time I went past him, he had something meaningful to say.

    However, since I was kinda stuck, I went by him quite a lot. And once he ran out of things to say, he started to repeat things like "Hurry up, there's no time to lose", etc.

    Part of it is that what he uttered was simply annoying, but the repetition is what destroyed his character. By the time I got to the end, I couldn't care less about saving Agrippa's head.

  7. intgr:
    Good example! I really agree to that. There was a lot of stuff that went wrong with Agrippa, but I think we learned tons from it and can use that for our upcoming game.

  8. Repetition is a main theme in my writing.
    I will try to sum up the key concepts of my ideas below.

    Nothing is created, everything is edited.
    In fractal structure there is an underlying shape repeating itself in rotation and miniaturization. Then again it can be applied to a pattern, a form and even an idea. A pattern occurs when at least 3 elements are connect by a stringed logic. Complex and/or extense patterns tend to be hard to be described in mathematical equations or texts just by looking at it, we tend to perceive them more as texture and/or not inter-related compositional elements.
    A series of elements must be interwoven to form a uniformity known as consistency, image if in a game you find an axe and break a lock with it, then later on you find very similar locks scattered in doors, gates or whatever and none of them are able to been broken with the axe, it just give us a sense of unbelievable situation. The experiences perceived in games don't need to be believable outsite their own universe, they only need some internal logic to work just fine.
    The difference between the medicine and the poison is in the concentration, when an element is over-repeated the solution saturates and generates non uniformity through the appearence of different phases: the fun that will be known later as the proto-boredoom and the boredoom of operating a stressful machinarium of pressing buttons to meet the goals the software spits on your face. Little repetition and too much repetition destroys the experience.

    Sorry for the unpolishedness of my comment and thoughts, I don't even know where my previous texts are, I'm just sending some stuff that suddenly appeared in my mind.

  9. I loved reading this blog - as someone who has never really been into developing or creating games, but as an avid player (and I thoroughly enjoyed the Penumbra series) I really love finding out about the inner workings of how games are created.

    On the subject of repitition, the only problem (and it is a very small one) that I found with Amnesia was the repitition of the 'find chemicals to mix together somehow' puzzles towards the bginning. I know there was only two, for the acid and the explosive, but for me it seemed somewhat like an excuse for another puzzle.

    Apart from this, I adored the game, and I didn't find the small variation in monsters to be an issue as they are seen so rarely because of the run and hide mechanics. Saying this however, on a subconscious level, maybe more variation would have improved the experience even further.
    I didn't see anything wrong with the read out-loud diary entries, I kinda figured they were meant to be memories as opposed to Daniel reading them out loud.

    All I'll say is this - you guys sound absolutely committed to creating amazing games every time, and if your next creation is anywhere near as good as Amnesia, or even improved upon (it sounds like you're really trying to unpick every aspect through these blogs) then we are all going to be EXTREMELY happy gamers, and you are going to be very rich developers!

  10. Thomas, which adventures and RPGs have you played?
    I'm interested to know from what games you get the impressions.

  11. blogger:
    Now most recently:
    - Planescape: Torment.
    - The Dream Machine
    - To The Moon

    But there are lots of other in mind as I wrote it like Oblivion, Final Fantasy, etc.

  12. This was an amazing post. I can't believe how much you share my thoughts. While reading your post the game I had in mind was Skyrim. It was like perfect description of it. Bad, automated dialogues, repetition, etc. I don't really get how that game got such high grades on reviews.
    But anyway, this was a great post, it's really good to see how other people think about games. Keep up the good work!

  13. @Thomas
    None of this games would give me an immersion feeling. I'm lack of interested by watching trailers and gameplays.
    Either it is kitschy fantasy cliche with bizarre monsters and implausible style. A game have to look credible!
    So there are only less RPGs and adventures that haven't this action fantasy style. Good games like you developed.
    Some are old, but very immersing in story, atmosphere, gameplay and puzzles.

    I give you some tips for games you really should try.
    They're good in it's own way, good like Penumbra & Amnesia are.

    - Gothic
    - Gothic II - Night of the Raven

    - Risen

    - The Witcher
    - The Witcher 2: Assassin's of Kings

    - Tomb Raider: Legend

    - Indiana Jones and the infernal machine

    This are rare good games from great artists.
    May, when you have some time, you should take a glance of this games.
    Gothic for example has the same dialogue problem you described, but this game is from 2001 and that doesn't really destroy the feeling.

  14. I forget to post a gameplay video of Gothic at the beginning.
    Great dialogues and drab atmosphere!

  15. You should write a book about your thoughts of a good game.

  16. Yeah, I thought the same thing. But before writing a book of other games, I write my own story.

    Amnesia was a great game, but the ending was very strange. Alexander flying in the air and all the magical lights. All that was very strange and not place in the setting of Amnesia. Penumbra also had a strange part with the Tuurngait. It means to be in heaven and the Tuurngait is the god what leads you. But it all takes a wrong place in the Penumbra setting.

    Looking of the ending of The Witcher 2 for example. It is very emotional.
    The enemy you hounted all the game isn't evil at the end. You'll see that the evil isn't evil when you look behind it.

    Something gets changed and you see that you aren't the only right man.
    This game is very emotional and you learn something for your life.
    Amnesia had the same learning, but the ending lost credibility.

  17. Or some emotional ingame scenes lets you feel goose pimples into your heart.

    This is what games need.
    Penumbra & Amnesia had great endings, sad and no really end-boss fights makes them to an unique fantastic ending. But there are any other games that have the same hot stuff.
    I love this feelings when playing such games!
    This is what games make unique.

    Games like Batlefield 3 or Final Fantasy are own games in it's separate way. They have different goals, but they never interested me, because I need a great story with something behind.
    So we can talk about the dialogue system, but this really have no influence about the core game.
    Old games like Gothic have the same dialogue problems, but that really doesn't make the game bad.
    There are so many other more important things a good game must have.

  18. Nothing to do with the blog post but could you guys please update Amnesia: The Dark Descent to show Frictional Games as the developer in Steam? I use the list view in Steam games library with developer showing and it shows blank for Amnesia. My OCD doesn't cope well with that.

    Keep up the good work with the blog and the games! Amnesia was my favourite game last year. Looking forward for your next game.

  19. Great blog post,it was very intresting to read :)

  20. What you pointed out is not really a problem! This i what single player games are about. Tho there are games with non-linear stories such as RPGs! Another approeach is multiplayer where players create their own games/matches, with each different events. Thats why MMORPG are so widely recognized and played by millions.

    FPS and action all games are all about repitition. Repitition calls player to improve his reflexes and gameplay skills.
    Answer to this were lately released FPS such as Call of Duty Modern Warefare or Medal of Honor. Tho their stories were linear and completely wiped out of player choices.

    For me a prefect single player game would offer me more than few choices and create consequences of it further extending story.

    There are games similiar to this idea such as KOTOR I & II or Mass Effect tho they could be still better and offer more choices. It is far from perfect game.

    What I loved Penumbra for was atmosphere - completely better than in AMnesia imho. Story placed in our times is far more itneresting. What I got dissapointed at was we got handed explanation about what is happening. I would much rather have unexplained story with good ending so I could try and think of answer myself.

    What I loved about Amnesia is that we could choose ending after getting to know the real Daniel and his past.

    Greeting and respect guys. I love you!

  21. Bit late for a comment, but I had to comment that this truly was the reason I could not enjoy Mass Effect. It consistently ruined any sense of immersion I had in the game. Most notably with Liara's repeating dialogue after the end of every mission. Saying the same lines, and returning to the medical bay. Where she would again say the same lines, followed by one or two lines of new dialogue.

    Honestly, I've grown so used to skipping dialogue in Bioware RPGs (starting with Neverwinter Nights) that I routinely get lost in the few games that don't rely upon blatant info dumps. Which I think is a learned flaw as a player. I used to love writing down notes and keeping journals--both mental and physical just to explore game worlds. My Morrowind map had pins in it with notes, and in the days of adventure games, I had books of notes for puzzles and clues.

  22. WOW, I'm really late to the party, but this is by far your best blog post on this site. For real. Thomas, if you follow this philosophy to the fullest you can, you and your team mates will probably go down in history for incredible experiences. You guys are the best, keep on innovating. I love you all :)

    -Jesse P


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.