Essay - The Games People Replay

Michael Lutz is a PhD student in English literature at Indiana University-Bloomington. His interests include Shakespeare and early modern drama, the intersections of posthumanist theory with Renaissance humanism, and relationships between media.

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In a 2009 paper, Clara Fernández-Vara highlighted the use of theater as a model for understanding how studies of videogames and performance overlap.  “The audience is […] indispensable to theatrical performance,” she writes, “since they complete the process of making meaning” (4).  Similarly, the player of a videogame completes the process of making meaning by interacting with the game as it is executed or “performed” by computer hardware (5).  However, as Fernández-Vara points out, the player is not simply a spectator, but an agent whose interaction with the game is needed for things to continue.  Player performance consists of navigation among the system’s scripted behaviors, and the player’s own capacity for “improvisation based on the system” (7).

The way in which Fernández-Vara’s comments turn attention back to the player of the game also raises the question of why certain games are repeatedly played by certain players, and furthermore why the games are esteemed for this quality, commonly called “replayability” or “replay value.”  In 2010, Ben Abraham posted a polemical entry to his personal blog in which he points out that as pieces of software, games by definition may be played multiple times.  He alleges “replayability” is a “non-word … lack[ing] any actual meaningful content,” because while we can understand replayability in a general sense, in individual cases its particulars remain elusive and difficult to quantify.  Speculatively, Abraham asks if “replayability” might in fact be used as a “shorthand way to refer to a series of unrelated yet seemingly connected factors that influence whether someone is willing to endure repeat exposure to a game-type experience?”  A game may have a branching narrative, multiplayer components, or unlockable content that becomes available as the player reaches certain benchmarks; none of this is a guarantee, however, that any given player will be willing to play the game multiple times.

The implication, Abraham astutely notes, is that a great many of the elements that determine a game’s replay value “do not survive their exposure to the harsh light of objective analysis,” they cannot “survive as concrete and measurable qualities that exist in the games themselves” (italics original).    Yet if the factors that lead to replay do not exist solely “in the games themselves” that does not mean they aren’t worth talking about – indeed, as Fernández-Vara’s insights show, the middle-ground between game and player is fundamental to a “game-type experience” as such.  This paper admits both to the elusive and idiosyncratic nature of replay value, while attempting a tentative outline for a mode in which replay value may be described and analyzed.  To accomplish this, I rely most heavily on the work of performance theorist Peggy Phelan.

Performance and Spelunky

A scholar specializing in drama and performance art, Phelan has influentially argued that “performance becomes itself through disappearance” (146).  According to Phelan, performance’s chief attribute is its ephemerality, its execution in a particular way, by particular actors, in a present moment that can never be reproduced: “It can be performed again, but this repetition itself marks it as ‘different.’  The document of a performance then is only a spur to memory, an encouragement of memory to become present” (246).  Because performance constantly recedes into memory and invisibility, Phelan devises a theoretical method of performance study which attempts to articulate the unique and elusive, acknowledging that “[p]erformance honors the idea that a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience which leaves no visible trace afterward” (149).  Here, I think, we may begin to investigate those qualities of the gameplay experience that Abraham describes as shrinking from “the harsh light of objective analysis,” by relating my own replay experiences with Mossmouth’s Spelunky.

As the moon burned bright above,

I squinted into the darkness,

And a cold chill took hold of me.

- Spelunky introductory text (randomly generated)

In Spelunky the player takes on the role of an adventurer, “the Spelunker,” who descends into a cursed underground cavern.  If the player dies, she is returned to the very beginning of her expedition at the first level of the cavern, though upon reentering she will discover that the levels have regenerated with different layouts, traps, enemy placements, and treasures.  Like the performances Phelan speaks of, each Spelunky level is ephemeral, there for only a few minutes, then gone.  While potentially frustrating, this mechanic also adds a significant amount of variable content that could contribute to the game’s replay value, and indeed, Spelunky’s replayability is one of many assets its reviewers praise.

Yet, as Abraham points out, the existence of extra or hidden content is not enough to actually make us want to replay a game.  So what about Spelunky makes it an experience to be replayed?  It is almost certainly the case that there are many people who have played Spelunky only once and have no interest in playing it again, and so we must bear in mind the truly limited and partial nature of the question asked.  By accounting for my own gameplay experiences as a test-case, I hope to sketch the contours of something that is difficult to see or describe definitively, but which from certain perspectives seems to be there anyway.

During my first game of Spelunky I played through the tutorial, learning the controls and rhythm of play while being killed by snakes and bats or impaled on spikes due to misjudged jumps.  Upon finishing the tutorial, I felt pretty secure in my command of the game and entered the caves to begin it properly.  In the first room I spent some time deploying what I’d learned during the tutorial, collecting as much treasure as possible, rescuing a bellowing pug dog, and stomping on snakes.  When I found myself standing in a chamber just over the level’s exit I knew that I could use bombs to clear out the floor and have easy access to the exit later on.  I placed the bomb and walked a safe distance away, but at almost the precise moment the bomb exploded white text at the bottom of the screen informed me “A terrible chill runs up your spine!”  A strange gray fog then began to fill the room as the level music slowed and warped.

“Okay,” I thought.  “What did I do?”

From the side of the level a new monster hovered into view, a large white ghost that pursued me across the map, clipping through all obstacles.  Curious as to whether or not the ghost could be deterred, I threw out my remaining bombs trying to destroy it, but to no avail.  The ghost cornered and killed me.  Several possibilities had run through my mind as I attempted to escape.  Since the ghost spawned right as I blew up a barrier to the level exit, was it to keep me from making direct paths to the end of the game?  Or was there some visual cue that I’d missed that would have told a more experienced player that disturbing such and such a tile would raise the restless dead?  Was the ghost even, perhaps, a completely random encounter, something with a certain probability of happening at any point in gameplay?  I ventured to the Spelunky wiki, where I looked up the ghost and found out that it is virtually invincible and spawns when a player has spent too much time in a level, thus functioning as an incentive for clearing maps both efficiently and quickly.

A Doomed Search for Originals

I offer the preceding description because the question of “replay” takes for granted an initial play experience, a sort of “first performance” that lays the groundwork for playthroughs to come.  Performance theorist Joseph Roach offers the idea of “surrogation” to explain how we negotiate precisely the “three-sided relationship of memory, performance, and substitution” (2).   According to Roach, performative rituals such as parades, carnivals, and funerals occur when “actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitute the social fabric” (2).  Akin to the record of performance as the “spur to memory” that Phelan discusses, Roach claims that performance itself commemorates something lost while simultaneously providing a surrogate repeat performance.  Funerals, for instance, mourn the loss of the dead while also promising a continued life for the deceased in the memories of those who perform the work of mourning.

I would contend that in the context of videogames, each performance is doubly haunted: first by our memories of other games and expectations of new ones, and then by our experiences of playing the game itself.  Just as Roach says that the process of surrogation is a “doomed search for originals” that never really existed (3), our games are haunted first by the things we think them to be rather than what they are.  I had a pre-established conception of the Spelunky gameplay experience based on my own memories of 2D platformers and roguelikes I have played in the past, but the game itself wasted almost no time in demolishing the model I’d been carefully constructing in my head.  Spelunky’s replayability, then, might be seen as an effect of how often it confounds the rules the player deduces from gameplay, demanding she play again with a revised frame of mind.

I replay Spelunky not simply because it has varied or hidden content, but because the experience of losing unexpectedly and then restarting is so fundamental to the play experience.  Now in addition to the first encounter with the ghost, the ghosts of many, many dead Spelunkers figuratively crowd the peripheries of my gameplay.  The satisfaction of a successful run is nonexistent without the memory of the myriad failures that precede it, and even the smallest achievement is followed, inevitably, by another parade of deaths – but the specter of future accomplishment has already been conjured. To categorically claim this is part of the game’s “value” is to imply that all players seek the same sort of mental and affective stimulation this particular replay experience offers, which should not be taken for granted.  Games can be replayed for many reasons, but it is the player who chooses what to replay, how, and why.

To account for videogames as performative media, then, we must think of gameplay as not merely mechanics, but the experience of the player as she interacts with them, becoming a co-performer in whatever drama has been scripted.  Gameplay is not simply solving a puzzle or defeating an adversary; it is the moment of shock when we realize the game is something other than what we thought, of disappointment when we fail to accomplish an in-game goal, or of exhilaration when we succeed – all at particular junctures, at particular moments in time that can never be exactly repeated.  “Replayability” is a result of the fact that gameplay experiences, like all performances, disappear.  Gameplay’s transience underpins the urge to try that again, or to see if we can pull it off this time.  But we also revisit the stage of gameplay as a previous playthrough’s affective afterimage begins to fade, in an attempt to make that prior experience reoccur – or to make its memory seem to live for a few moments longer.


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Discussant’s Reply

Gerald Voorhees is an assistant professor in the Drama and Speech Communications department at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on games and new media as sites for the construction and contestation of identity and culture. Gerald is co-editor of Continuum’s Approaches to Game Studies book series, a member of the Executive Board of the Digital Games Research Association, and a former co-chair of the Game Studies area of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Nation Conference. He is also the acting faculty advisor for First Person Scholar.

Lutz provides a thoughtful mediation on “replayability,” but the specters looming about the edges of his essay may just offer up the most pertinent lessons for students and critics of games.

For me, the most interesting question is not ‘what is replayability,’ but rather ‘why begin with replayability?’ What is so interesting or significant about replayability? Why does Abraham’s rant warrant a response? Abraham is certainly right about replayability serving as an empty signifier, a word with no meaning that is therefore capable of containing any and every meaning one wants it to.  But, again, what’s the point?

I see two lessons to be gained from scrutinizing replayability.

One possible take-away brings us to consider a question that’s been largely ignored since it was raised. In an editorial for the first issue of the second volume of game studies, Espen Aarseth praised the mutual intermingling of academic game studies and the game development industry for its potential to help legitimate game studies. He also warned that academics and the industry may be fundamentally at odds, the former (largely formalist at the time) seeking to understand what makes a great game that people want to “play over and over,” and the latter seeking to make games that make people want to buy another game. Would figuring out replayability be like killing the ghost in Spelunky? If we adequately conceptualize and outline principles of replayability, could we slow down the incessant need to move onto the next title? Do we dare bite the hand of the industry?

Another possible take-away is a deconstructionist position on the player vs. game debate, the methodological conversation that, unlike the mighty phoenix, sort of but never really fully emerged from the ashes of the ontological conversation we call the ludology vs. narratology debate. Abraham offers a (circuitous) critique of both the textual/ludic bias of those who would study games and the sociological/anthropological bias of those who would study players. Lutz puts this critique through the paces by focusing on the performative quality of play, where play is something that people do in light of the context established by the game, among other influences and impetuses.  In this sense, Lutz’s notion of performance is more akin to Michael Nitsche’s, wherein the game is a stage and the player’s performance is dependent upon this situatedness, than it is to Clara Fernández-Vara’s understanding of the unfolding of the game as a performance. But this line of inquiry, as Lutz already notes, takes us beyond easy answers and requires that we turn our attention to gameplay. I prefer Nick Caldwell’s take on gameplay as an “economy of desire that operates between the player and the game itself,” but I’m eager to hear from others who’ve chased this ghost.

Discussant’s Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen. 2002. “The Dungeon and the Ivory Tower: Vive La Difference ou Liaison Dangereuse?” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Games Research, 2(1) http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/editorial.html

Caldwell, Nick. 2000. “Settler Stories: Representational Ideologies in Computer Strategy Gaming” M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, 3(5) http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0010/settlers.php

Nitsche, Michael. 2010. Games and Structures for Mediated Performances,” in Logic and Structures of the Computer Game, eds. Stephan Guenzel, Michael Liebe, and Dieter Mersch. Potsdam University Press, 110-129.

[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author's and the readers' engagement with the text.]

Works Cited

Abraham, Ben.  “‘Replayability’ is NOT a word, so stop using it idiot!” 16 September 2010.  benabraham dot net. Web. Accessed 10 January 2014.

< http://iam.benabraham.net/2010/09/replayability-is-not-a-word/ >

Bramwell, Tom.  “Spelunky PC Review.”  8 August 2013.  Eurogamer.  Web. Accessed 14 January 2014. < http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-08-08-spelunky-pc-review >

Dyer, Mitch. “The Endless Adventure.”  6 August 2013. IGN. Web. Accessed 14 January 2014.   < http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/08/06/spelunky-review-pc >

Fernández-Vara, Clara.  “Play’s the Thing: A Framework to Study Videogames as Performance.” Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice, and Theory.

The Proceedings of DiGRA (2009): 1-9. Web. Accessed 13 January 2014.

< http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/09287.52457.pdf >

Phelan, Peggy.  Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Plante, Chris.  “Spelunky Review: Digging Deep.”  2 July 2012.  Polygon.  Web. Accessed 14 January 2014.

< http://www.polygon.com/2012/10/19/3526568/spelunky-review-digging-deep >

Roach, Joseph.  Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance.  New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1996. Print.

Smith, Graham.  “Spelunky review.” 9 September 2013.  PC Gamer.  Web.  Accessed 14

January 2014. < http://www.pcgamer.com/review/spelunky-review/ >

Spelunky. San Francisco, CA: Mossmouth, 2013. Videogame.

Notes:
1. Graham Smith (2013) highlights the game’s replay value in his review for PC Gamer; IGN’s Mitch Dyer (2013) titled his review “The Endless Adventure” in reference to the game’s variety; Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer (2013) remarked that he “could play Spelunky forever”; and in a review of the Xbox Live Arcade release, Polygon editor Chris Plante (2012) concluded that “Spelunky is never truly over.”
Graham Smith (2013) highlights the game’s replay value in his review for PC Gamer; IGN’s Mitch Dyer (2013) titled his review “The Endless Adventure” in reference to the game’s variety; Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer (2013) remarked that he “could play Spelunky forever”; and in a review of the Xbox Live Arcade release, Polygon editor Chris Plante (2012) concluded that “Spelunky is never truly over.”
  • Jason Hawreliak

    A fascinating article, Michael. I know there wasn’t space here, but I wonder how this might relate to Derrida’s concept of “hauntology.” You seem to be making a related claim here, i.e. that we’re always dealing with the ghosts of playthroughs past. There is no “original” in a sense, or if there is it’s deeply affected by memory and expectation. I’ve played Spelunky with people who’d never heard of it, but they still recognized the platform elements from something like Mario. Anyway, again a really interesting read.

    • Michael Ztul

      Jason, thanks! I think hauntology is a very astute parallel. I’m drawing a great deal from Phelan, and though it’s not necessarily obvious in Unmarked, she draws a great deal from Derrida (as is made clear in her second book, Mourning Sex). Discussions I’ve had with Alex Pieschel have suggested that this could also help us understand the currents of nostalgia in contemporary gaming (retro aesthetics, HD remakes, and if we want to pursue Dr. Vorhees’ ideas about market dynamics, the ways in which our seemingly innate desire for “replay” has been tapped by consoles by the abandonment of backwards compatibility in favor of re-releases and online marketplaces).

  • Charaleeg

    I have recently published an interactive book of fiction, THE JUDGEMENT GAME, I invite readers to play the game throughout the book and present games for readers to play on line and at book events. I found your article of interest in understanding models used for games on PCs and literary works.