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Against Replayability

The never-ending story of replayability should come to an end. While a basic characteristic of games is the fact that players can always start over, this does not prevent designers from trying to avoid replayability. A long while ago I wrote about OSGONs -one session ephemeral games- that would disappear after being played. But this is not where I am headed today.

If you are, as I am, interested in designing videogames with social or political content, you simply can’t rely on gameplay. Gameplay, if good, becomes addictive and makes everything else invisible. A good example is the recent “New York Defender” game. The gameplay is quite good and, because of that, you feel compelled to keep playing even if you find its anecdote of pretty bad taste (you have to defend the WTC from falling airplanes). In fact, it is replayability which makes this game disturbing: you can always restart your game but the real cadavers who lie under the Twin Towers do not have any bonus life.

When I designed “Kabul Kaboom!” I decided from the early beginning that it would not be possible to win. Actually, I did not polish the gameplay at all: it is not supposed to be fun. I don’t care if people don’t replay the game over and over. In fact, just by breaking replayability I hope to alienate the gaming experience and trigger some kind of critical response.

Many years ago, I read an article – or was it an interview?- by Monkey Island’s designer Ron Gilbert. Basically, he said that he would love to create adventure games that could be solved in about an hour. But because of marketing reasons (games are so hard to craft) he had to invent some pretty tough puzzles in order to extent gameplay to 20 hours. This is not new. Actually, since videogames were born as coin-up machines, designers always tried to make sure that game sessions would not last more than a couple of minutes so player would have to feed the hungry arcades with more quarters.

The current poetics of replayability are ruled by market reasons and should not be taken for granted. Men and women need a bit more than being entertained. Sure, the videogame experience has to be thrilling, but not necessarily fun. It’s time to take the game part out of videogames and look more into play and simulation.

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