growth of minigames and immersion
Back on Playstation One, Final Fantasy 7 used a minigame of riding a motorcycle and swinging Cloud’s sword to give the player a more active control in the escape from Midgar. The entire part could have entirely been a movie sequence instead (and given Square Enix’s recent products, probably would be if the game were made now), but the player interactivity heightened the experience and made it far more memorable because it was me doing all that, not Cloud. Since then, this same kind of interaction is being replicated on a smaller level to not only give a different kind of gameplay but also to improve the player's immersion. More and more, minigames and button-sequences are replacing over-simplified and passive actions and turning them into more dynamic activities for the player, making the experience more engrossing. Dragon Age, for example, is one of the few games where a thief character can open a locked chest or door without requiring the player to perform a minigame to simulate the action of picking the lock. I enjoy this attempt as it furthers the immersion into a game as it increases the interactivity of the player in the world and also furthers the reality of a game’s world.
Picking Locks and Hacking Computers
The first, best example I know of this is Fallout 3’s computer hacking and lock picking. I enjoyed staring at the puzzle of hacking a computer in the wasteland because it actually required me, the player, to do something. While it was not much in the ways of actually replicating computer hacking, it made the process accessible to anyone playing Fallout 3. The same applies to picking locks in the game. By using these mingames, Fallout 3 manages to place more emphasis on the player being able to play these minigames than merely boosting the statistics related to a skill. In a way, by playing the minigames more and more, you, in a way, increase your own skill at it. I know the more locks I picked, the more I got to know where the sweet spots were from only a few jiggles. And I know I felt more accomplished after every lock I picked or computer I hacked because I performed the action. It isn’t like I threw myself a party every time, but I know I smiled while looting a locked safe because I earned it. This reflects reality because the only way to get better at these tasks is through practice (Skyrim makes this a reality, as using the skill is the only way to improve it). In real life, I never decided I wanted to learn how to pick locks and did so by increasing my lock picking stat (mostly because I can’t simply do that).
Sadly, I’ve heard claims that this approach slows the gameplay down and the tasks themselves are too repetitive. Honestly, I do not understand these complaints because it is within every player’s power to either not use skills or even increase them. The game does not hang upon these two minor mechanics and can be played without ever hacking a computer or opening a lock. But because the game is an RPG, if you want to play a character who hacks computer or picks locks, then these activities are pivotal to how your character plays and interacts with the game world. For a long time, games left these kinds of activities as a passive, single button press moment but are now something more interactive. Now playing a thief in Skyrim or Fall Out resembles a thief because I perform the action, not just pressing a button.
I know Fallout 3 was not the first to do such a thing, as both Bioshock and Oblivion introduced a good minigame for hacking first and credit should be given and even some games attempted before those. However, these minigames often bogged down the player with their slow progression or irritating nature, especially in the case of Oblivion’s lock picking. The pipe-game in Bioshock does not mesh well with the rest of the game because it is a slower and more methodical minigame, as opposed to the Bioshock’s core of a fast-paced FPS. Fallout 3 is a much slower game and its minigames reflect this more. Bioshock 2 even changed the hacking minigame to something much quicker and easier which never detracted from the actual action of the game for very long.
Similar to Bioshock, Mass Effect changed minigames for hacking. The designers chose to replace Mass Effect 1’s “Simon says” button sequence with two minigames that are speedy yet require attention. These minigames, the connect the dots and code matching, are not difficult nor take much time but not paying attention results in failure, mirroring the core gameplay of Mass Effect 2. The game’s action moves fast, but the player must notice what abilities to use on specific enemies or else quickly be overwhelmed and in a tight spot. Mass Effect 2’s minigames even fit in well because of the science fiction feel the games have, as being matching lines of codes and matching corresponding circuits together. These events feel technologically similar to the Mass Effect world as opposed to the bland “Simon says” button sequence of hacking a computer or opening a locker.
Jobs and Money in Fable 2 and Red Dead Redemption
Fable 2 and Red Dead Redemption make clever use of mundane minigames and activities to replace jobs. While Fable 2 requires the player to take on a job (or two) like being a blacksmith or such in order to have money at the start, Redemption makes it merely a nonessential. I enjoy how Fable 2 breaks away from the standard RPG cliché of amassing wealth through killing random monsters. By eliminating this bizarre fantasy game cliché, Fable 2 forces the player to make money in a logical way: getting a job and eventually investing in business. This feels extremely logical to me, since it does not make sense that wild monsters carry money for a civilization that they do not belong. The logic here simply works as it represents our own world and thus adds to the immersion between player and game world. Even though I like the theory of this implementation of jobs, I wish the actual minigames were not tedious. I could make an argument that the jobs are meant to be tedious because an ordinary life is, but I that is committing authorial intent. Also, from what I know of Peter Molyneux, the promised rarely get achieved. If I wanted to play a game about real life, I would either play Sims or, you know, live my own life.
While on the other hand, Red Dead Redemption keeps these kinds of activities (cattle herding, horse breaking, night watch, bounties, gambling, hunting, etc) strictly as side content of the game. But the variety of activities makes me wonder if RockStar San Diego considered making these side tasks the only means of making money. Does it really make sense how John Marston gets paid hundreds of dollars in cash on the spot by certain individuals? Not really, especially considering how well the game dedicates itself to emulating the Wild West. I understand it is a game and game-logic reigns in a videogame. But I enjoy the idea of requiring Marston/player to make money outside the plot so that it pushes the player to explore the world around him to upgrade gear and such. It then seems to justify the existence of the entire world around the character and encourage exploration and tinkering with it. Perhaps it is the variety and option of the mingames within Red Dead Redemption that makes it more of a success than Fable 2, aside from the tedious experience of the jobs in Fable 2. Red Dead Redemption finds a pretty good place of using mundane activities paired with an easy minigame.
I know these are a few examples of minigames become more pivotal to a game’s over all experience, but for the most part the highlight the growth of the concept. As in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, it is no longer “the thief character picked that lock” now it is “I picked that lock and I get the treasure.” While the player is being given more responsibility of the character’s actions and behavior, there are plenty of instances where the minigame is not fun, as in Fable 2, or does not properly fit with the game, as in Bioshock. I am not arguing that every little aspect of a game needs to be micromanaged by a minigame. Would Left 4 Dead benefit from having a quick time event to pick up an incapacitated character rather than the load time? No, no it would not. It would break the game and make it far more difficult to help someone to their feet since enemies already make it difficult enough. The time it takes to get an incapacitated ally back up is time the special infected get to set up another attack. It seems that the most successful examples of the minigame are used to increase interactivity of passive events are still secondary aspects of the game. And to be honest, it probably should stay that way. I enjoy the mundane and passive tasks being made into a more enjoyable and active task. However, not everything in a game needs to be micromanaged.