Do you remember the 1989 adventure-RPG hybrid Quest for Glory? For younger gamers this “golden age” RPG may be before their time, but the rest of us may still have trouble recalling it in any detail – at least without a quick Wikipedia reference. How about the argument of the last article you read? What about the website you visited before this one? If these questions challenge our memory, it may be because we have been playing too many modern RPGs. While we can celebrate new studies supporting the benefits of gaming for rapid decision making and vision, we might also consider mourning the anti-memory principles informing modern RPG design that have slowly but surely marginalized player memory as a valued resource of gameplay.
Hyperbole aside, there is an important transformation in the way player memory is valued by game developers currently taking place in the design of contemporary RPGs. The evolution of a modern RPG series like The Elder Scrolls tells the tale, which I want to explore below, in miniature: demands on player memory are increasingly mitigated by in-game archive and feedback systems, such as quest logs, goal tracking and mapping, and real-time interface cues. This tendency in the modern RPG not only changes play by redirecting attention and mental effort, it also narrows the scope of “fun” possible through gameplay. Setting aside for now discussion of the reasons for this ongoing transformation, I would like to characterize it in some detail through examples, as well as consider why it should matter to us as critical gamers.
fig.1, Sierra’s QFG, 1989
Difficult or Poorly Designed?
Quest for Glory (QFG) is often a frustrating game experience for many modern gamers, and the major reasons for this are instructive for our concerns. QFG was a particularly innovative adventure game that mixed RPG elements like character class selection and avatar development with adventure game staples like crafted storytelling and narrative puzzle solving. It also included an interesting yet unrefined real-time first-person combat system that would test any gamer’s timing skills, but for all the wrong reasons (fig.2). Despite this complex mixture of mechanics and features, QFG had a simple and abstract premise: explore the land in search of adventure, and by helping others, become a hero. Gameplay consisted of learning about the land and its people by attentive exploration and NPC conversation, and (of course) solving their problems, which required developing the skills of your character and collecting items.
fig.2, “Almost Realtime” Combat
Back in 2008 I asked students to play QFG as part of the seminar “Poetics of Play in Digital Roleplaying Games.” Feedback about the game experience split into two basic views: (1) the game was too difficult, especially in figuring out what to do, and (2) the game was poorly designed—it just wasn’t easy enough to have fun playing it. Both responses were interesting and related to the experience of difficulty. On the one hand, much of the difficulty of playing the game for the students had its origin in their historical distance from the gaming culture and design practices of the 1980s. On the other hand, the difficulty in having fun seemed to be related to the kind of challenges the game was designed for. That is, even when players figured out how to play and found some initial hints on what to do, the challenge of exploring the gamespace, synthesizing scattered information, and making inferences without significant feedback from the game interface turned out not to be very much fun for them. That fact that this situation prompted judgments about “poor game design” says more about our contemporary moment in gaming culture than the quality of Sierra’s design. The conditioning received from modern gaming experiences was not only of no help to the players, it was positively a hindrance to having fun with a game which presented challenges that required more open and unaided reflection and memory than modern games.
Difficulty Design and the “Problem Space”
One way to explore this relationship between difficulty and fun in QFG is to attempt to think more precisely about the types and scales of difficulty games can design for. Following Steven Poole in Trigger Happy we can start by thinking about how games engage time in two general ways.
First, consider “tactical timing” in which the player must respond to the real time flow of gameplay challenges. Tactical challenges in games are often matters of “muscle-memory” and habit; the player is focused on the immediate moment of play, the scene, the current turn or game stage, etc. Arcade and action games favor this form of play, and it is this kind of experience that we laud for developing hand-eye coordination, improving reaction times, and “decision” speeds. Second, consider “strategic timing” in which the player reasons about or interprets the game situation, recognizes key patterns in play, and generally attempts to make planned decisions in the game world (usually in between game sequences in which tactical timing reigns).
These two forms of game timing, tactical and strategic, are really two poles on a continuum of game experiences, and all games include both in varied ratios. Taken as forms of difficulty, though, the experiences of tactical and strategic time in gameplay provide an interesting way to view particular game designs critically. For example, mimetic games like Rockband design for tactical difficulty whereas adventure-RPG games like QFG are designed more for strategic difficulty.
As a provisional insight this conceptual division is helpful. We can all agree that RPGs, for example, categorically design primarily for strategic difficulty—this is because, among other reasons, the information flows and kinds of choices mediated by this genre cannot be made playable (much less pleasurable) as tactical game experiences. Tactical difficulty directly induces the formation of habits and play techniques by necessity, usually through repetition. Traditionally, games that we have labeled RPGs not only depend on development of correct play habits (such as learning responses to real-time combat events), but also, and more essentially, strategic interpretation and understanding of the fictional game world (apart from the technical game system). Indeed, RPGs are in some sense designed against tactical time, and thus tactical forms of difficulty. However, our critical consensus on this view wanes in usefulness as we get more historical and specific. The idea of strategic difficulty is ultimately too broad to be of any specific use because it spans diverse gameplay examples such as contemplating what action phrase to type in Zork, reasoning about unit movements in an upcoming turn in Civilization IV, and reflecting on the implications of a moral decision in The Witcher. Furthermore, the problem is compounded when considering the historical evolution of a game genre, or even games in a series such as The Elder Scrolls which all undoubtedly emphasize strategic difficulty but hardly do so to the same degree.
The Scope and Quality of Strategic Challenge
So, we complicate this idea of strategic difficulty in two phases:
First, we should note that the scope of the challenges games present varies greatly. This is an aspect of strategic difficulty we can refer to as “the problem space.” The problem space of a game is shaped by the scale, complexity, and amount of the information the player must handle in the course of gameplay. RPGs are usually designed to have a very large-scale problem space: a sprawling world to explore, a wealth of objects and creatures, diverse cultural and moral situations to negotiate, and so on. Marketing of RPGs often involves boasting of both space and time: “over 50 areas to explore!” and “over 200 hours of questing!” The trajectory of RPG design has been one of continual expansion of the problem space (modulated by the advancing game graphics and memory technology). For example, QFG (1989) had less than 80 single-screen areas to explore and a handful of npcs, while TES4 Oblivion (2006) has an immense, seamless exterior world with over 500 interior areas and nearly one-thousand npcs. Historically, expanding the problem space has been the dominant way game designers have addressed strategic difficulty in RPGs—the logic of more.
Second, we can further complicate the idea of strategic difficulty in RPG design by considering the quality of the challenges. The increased amount and kinds of information the player must deal with in an RPG presents a challenge to player memory, at least in principle. However, as we will see, the default logic of game developers has been to mediate the expansive and rich problem spaces of modern RPGs with archive and feedback systems which automatically remind and guide the player. As the problem space expanded in RPG design it was natural that developers would ease the burden on player memory. Remembering what is going on in Spielburg in QFG is much easier than all of Cyrodiil in TES4. However, many of the mechanisms designed to help players remember their many objectives, navigate the large world, and otherwise mentally map their purposes during gameplay have tended to replace, direct, or obsolesce rather than aid or reward player memory (to say nothing of using it creatively as a resource in play).
Take, for example, the quest or journal systems that have now become obligatory in RPG design. In TES4, the journal system records everything – the relevant who, what, when, where, why of all your conversations – and automatically syncs up with other feedback systems. Audio alerts are sounded during gameplay that indicate when a quest is given, when any sub-objectives or waypoints are reached, and finally when the quest is completed. Visual feedback is also provided on the world map as marked coordinates indicating where the player should go to continue to experience the quest. These are examples of common design techniques that mediate player memory, which we can refer to as the mnemotechnics of a game. Taken as a synchronized, holistic system, these anti-memory mnemotechnics characterize what I call amnemonic game design.
Mnemotechnics and Amnemonic Design
Amnemonic design absolves the player of most reflection and recollection (or rendering it optional). In effect, the character’s memory is archived in the interface and organized according to the logic of the game system (not the game world as experienced by the character), and the player’s memory is replaced by this archive, since the quality of the challenges to attentiveness, memory, and understanding offered by the game are thoroughly neutralized by the feedback systems built into the game mechanics. It is important to note that the information that is archived and represented to the player in the interface in this way is the narrow field of data deemed relevant to the completion of tasks. What’s more, this feedback is increasingly designed to manage the player attention, too—it is not enough to absolve them of remembering, their visual and mental focus must also be put into rhythm with the tempo of the game system.
Realtime task-completed sounds and messages, floating icons, flashing objects, completion percentage bars, active-quest map markers all conspire to aid the player and spare them experimentation and failure.
The modern RPG has evolved to adapt to expanding problem spaces in games and incorporated feedback systems designed to mitigate that expansion. Consequently, the quality of the challenges offered by modern RPGs has transformed as mnemotechnics proliferate, and design principles are converging on a very narrow model of player experience and fun. The player is effectively rendered as a task manager and information consumer rather than a questing adventurer. Questing, a purposive activity of inquiring into the given problem space of a game world is undermined when mediated by amnemonic game design (see fig.3).
fig.3, Schematization of Amnemonic Design
Forgetful Realms: Decline of the Questful Gamer?
This criticism of modern RPG design should not be understood as a call to return to the minimalism of QFG, or even to eliminate the use of the popular mnemotechnics that characterize bestselling games like TES4. The problem is not with aiding player memory, but in doing it so pervasively, and with no clear understanding of how the challenge and meaningfulness of questing is changed—how the pleasures of exploration, inquiry, and diegetic understanding can be undermined by poorly designed archive and feedback systems. Amnemonic design transforms quests into tasks and achievements, relegates diegetic reasoning and interpretation of lore to an option, and narrows the pleasure of inquiry to information collection. To be questful is to be “inclined to quest or search,” yet amnemonic design only affirms our inclinations to collect, achieve or complete—and to do so with maximum efficiency. Unfortunately, these values are also reinforced in our wider economy (material and informational) as well as the new media ecology generally. The growing interest in how technology addresses human memory (Ex. 1, 2, 3, 4) should inspire gamers to reflect on this aspect of contemporary gaming. This will be of particular concern to RPG gamers, since there is a close relationship between the way an RPG game addresses their memory and the kind and scope of the challenge and fun it affords them as players.
 The extent to which we actually should be worried depends on the importance we place on complex reasoning on ideas that are irreducible to representation as information, data, images, etc. This concern is similar to Plato’s concern about writing as a replacement for memory.
By “unaided” I mean that there are no aspects of the interface or gameplay that consistently guide, cue, or remind the player of things they should do or understand in the fictional game world.
The concept of “the problem space” of a game was introduced to me by my colleague Eliot Hemingway who has taught a few courses on games and difficulty.
This is a complicated relationship. Better memory technology opens up possible game world expansion, but better graphics capabilities always constrain the expansion by requiring more design work be put into content. The apex of RPG game world expansion seems to have plateaued as the industry reacts to the time economy of players who increasingly desire easier and more modular gaming sessions.
This is often seen as good game design (without any qualification) since the frustrations of learning the game interface are also mitigated by this technique, especially for first-time players.
It is not that any of these mnemomtechnics are categorically bad, but rather that their inclusion is becoming obligatory and detached from any reflection on how they might affect the kind of experience and challenge the game seeks to foster.