Tired of carting around many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, I decided to buy a bookshelf. My wife walked in as I was organizing them in alphabetical order (something rather out of character for me), and she asked me what I was doing. I responded matter-of-factly by explaining that neither carrying pounds of books on my person nor leaving them scattered in piles on my floor made sense when I had a place to put them. Then she asked me a simple question with rather complex implications: “Shouldn’t you be out fighting dragons?” I had no answer. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim released a year ago, and one of the most prominent memories I have playing that game involved my organizing virtual books on a shelf in my digital home. I had slain numerous dragons, explored countless caverns beneath the earth, fought in a civil war, and become the leader of the Dark Brotherhood assassin group. And there I was, spending time in one of the richest, most finely-crafted fantasy worlds in any medium organizing books I’ll never read.
Book organizing isn’t even the only aspect of the game at home in the realm of the mundane. Gathering ingredients and cooking nets your character a meal. Hunting can yield both meat and pelts; the latter can be tanned for leather and crafted into armor wear or sell. Enchanting weapons, mixing potions, sharpening blades, mining ore, and chopping wood all have their places in the frozen hinterland, and the player is free to build his/her own experience with or without them. For some reason or another, I chose to entertain these activities even though they were about as adventurous as my average commute to work. Indeed, Skyrim could potentially be the most boring game of its time.
There is, nevertheless, something satisfying about these mechanics. They certainly go a long way in terms of helping the player feel more involved in the world. I admittedly spent an embarrassing amount of time hunting animals and crafting goods and weapons so I could eventually forge a set of dragon armor. As badass as the armor may be (in both form and function), the actual act of crafting countless sets and weapons was still satisfying. The game rewarded my effort with my character’s progress, allowing me to create more powerful armor—rewarding, practical, and above all fashionable.
While my Nord warrior/dragonslayer/blacksmith/librarian peddled his wares and honed his craft from city to city, I began to see the pattern in the monotony of building this one particular skill reflected in the action end of the gameplay. I found myself venturing out of a city to go down into a dungeon, kill bandits and beasts, find a lost item (because for some reason, no one in the whole damn realm to keep their family heirlooms) or perform some other task, and then return to the city to sell all the loot to merchants with too little coin, forcing me to fence my items across the entire map. Then I would do it all again. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s certainly not a bad formula by any stretch of the word; I still enjoy my time in Skyrim (even though I’ve been playing on a PS3). But I cannot shake that pervasive feeling of sameness in nearly every task I perform.
Bethesda’s opus is hardly the only game to elicit feelings of player déjà vu. One of the flagship titles of 2012 thrives on this type of compulsive gameplay. Similar to dungeon crawling in Skyrim, the loot-and-shoot gameplay of Gearbox’s Borderlands 2 tasks the player with completing missions for colorful characters inhabiting various exotic locales in a wasteland of a planet. The quests are largely of the “go here and retrieve this” type, forcing you to kill hundreds of bandits in the process. Along the way, you’ll fire barrages of bullets and pick up loads of loot, and upon completing the mission, you receive a reward (usually in the form of more loot). Then, after visiting shopkeepers and unloading your inventory, you venture off to do it all again, always following the siren song of the Vault.
The allure of loot a strong one, hence the game’s critical and financial success. Finding the gun that fits your play style perfectly is gratifying to say the least, but the search for that item becomes a compelling one on its own, providing just as much (if not more) satisfaction than the gunplay. Opening chests, searching over fresh corpses, performing odd jobs all potentially get you closer to that one weapon or shield that becomes your go-to piece of equipment. Checking every locker and box becomes an essential part of the game almost to its detriment as combing over piles of loot to see if one gun is marginally more effective at killing enemies than the one in your hand can slow the game’s pace to a crawl. But for many gamers, the compulsive need to grind is the primary mark of the game’s appeal.
The Borderlands series, similar to The Elder Scrolls, thrives on the player’s compulsive desire to repeat the same type of task for hours on end, but whereas Skyrim offers mundane tasks like cooking and crafting alongside its more standard gameplay, Borderlands 2 foregoes the inclusion of mundane tasks in order to focus more deeply on the loot. Not content with just dangling the carrot, the game slaps you in the face with it. Everything from job postings to the primary campaign insists on collecting weapons and shields and using them to dispatch your enemies. Some vehicle sections open the world up a bit, and fantastic dialogue and fun characters also go a long way in terms of holding player interest and keeping the world alive. But the central mechanic is unavoidable. The game offers no alternative play style other than compulsion–get gun, shoot gun, sell gun, smile. Despite its repetition, the gameplay remains enthralling. The first head shot is as satisfying as the last, and the search for gear that alters your loadout keeps the gameplay from stagnating. The system works so well that it’s hard to be cynical.
It’s also rather pointless to play the cynic when so many games utilize the same philosophy. It never ceases to amaze me how games can turn tasks that seem like “work” into “play.” Successful games like The Sims, Minecraft, and Animal Crossing task the player with such shameless repetition that I initially wrote them off as products that turn my favorite hobby into a mindless time suck. But nearly all games have players combing through inventory systems, looking at discussion menus, or navigating world-maps all with a hefty degree of monotonous similarity. Perhaps open-world games, and maybe games collectively, always inevitably move toward ludological entropy–even the ones with focused narratives.
The kicker is that entropic gameplay is still absorbing. Sure it has its dark side with games like Farmville that prey on players addicted to compulsive gameplay by offering virtually no satisfaction in terms of accomplishment, but developers have been using the concept of routine to create meaningful experiences since the Atari days. It’s hardly surprising, though, since playing video games involves our interacting with machines through the physical sensation of touch and movement; pushing buttons on a controller or keyboard to manipulate a digital environment is called “gameplay mechanics” for a reason. While I do look forward to those gameplay experiences that break away from the hold of compulsion, routine has its rightful place in the games we love, if only to hold a mirror up to the tasks we perform outside of digital space. No matter the how dynamic the worlds we explore will inevitably be, the smart money says we will often find ways to settle into something familiar, like putting digital books on digital shelves.