Theory: Game Playability

Let’s talk a little about playability, because this is a word that has been infecting my headspace for a little while now. For those unfamiliar with the term, I did a little digging and found one definition: "playability represents the degree to which specified users can achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and specially satisfaction and fun" [source]. Following this definition, playability is the ease which which someone playing a game is able to play the game. Playing the game, in this sense, is measured by achieving goals, and being able to do so effectively and efficiently in pursuit of being satisfying/having fun.

So, the thing about playability here that I want to discuss is this idea that in order for a game to be good, it needs to be satisfying and fun. And in order for a game to be satisfying and fun, it needs to be playable. Players need to be able to achieve the game’s goals with relative effectiveness and efficiency, otherwise this has a direct impact on how “good” the game is.

Spoiler alert: I think this is crap.

The idea of playability, and whether that makes a game good or bad, first entered my head when I was playing through The Beginner’s Guide, a video game by Davey Wreden. Without getting too spoiler-y, there is some discussion on through that game about the idea of unplayable games. At it’s essence, it gets a bit into the idea of “what is a game” which is a pretty big question that I am probably not qualified enough to answer, but I think the idea of unplayable games that are still games is an interesting thing to look at.

As an example taken roughly from The Beginner’s Guide, let’s say you sit down to play a video game. The content of this video game is simple. You are in a room. There is a door on one wall. The game will end if you pass through the door, however the door is locked and can only be opened by entering a six-digit passcode. There is nothing whatsoever to tell you what the passcode number is. The only way to open the door is by correctly guessing the six-digit passcode.

This is not playable. It’s near-enough to impossible to be considered such.

So, is this a game? It has the components of a game. You’ve got a start and an end to the level, with a puzzle in the middle you need to bypass. It’s called a game, and you’re playing it like a game.

Again, this gets a little into “what is a game.” On one hand, this might seem more like interactive art, then a game. However, there’s a lot of people that say that games are art (and I agree with them), so who’s to say this can’t be both art AND a game? But as I mentioned before, this is a big question that I’m not going to get into here. Let’s assume that yes, we consider this to be a game. The actual question that I’m more concerned with here is, does the fact that a game is unplayable make it a bad game?

This may not be the best example, because a lot of other things may make this a “bad” game. The lack of story, plot, etc. So let’s take another videogame example: The Witness, by Jonathan Blow. Here is a beautiful game. It’s very clearly a game. You’re on an island, beautifully rendered with stunning graphics. You are moving around it to the sound of an ambient and well thought-out soundtrack. Here, you are given a strange and sparse backstory -- really, more of a light plot dusting -- and sent forth to conquer puzzles. Tons, and tons, and tons of puzzles. The puzzles start easy enough, and follow a relatively simple pattern at their core, but as you advance from area to area you begin to find them increasingly difficult (exponentially so). In time, the puzzles become so frustratingly unforgiving in their complexity that the game grinds to a halt. The problem is that the game is the puzzles, so there’s no plot or story to drive you forward. There is only the need to succeed that causes you to throw yourself time and again into the blistering emotionless jaws of Blow’s antagonistic puzzles.

Countless negative reviews plague The Witness for being unplayable. Players cannot complete the game’s goals with ease, efficiency, or effectiveness. Therefore, the game is not fun. Therefore, the game is not good.

Okay, so all of that being said, let’s transition to something a little more relevant.

I’m working on a game. It’s not playable.

The working title of the game is My Name Is Not Alex, and it’s a alternate reality game for one player, centered around the player’s interaction with a single gamebook, and the characters within it. So, let’s talk about the first couple pages (go ahead and read that before continuing).

The very first thing the book asks you to do is put it down, and wait until the next day to continue. There are reasons this happens, but certainly not reasons that are clear, and at least a portion of my explanation behind it would be simply "well, that's what this game is. That's the sort of thing this game may ask of you." 

I sent out proof-of-concept drafts of My Name Is Not Alex to a couple close friends, just for general feedback and gut reactions to the game's concept, and as I should have expected a lot of people came back with comments about playability. A lot of people criticized the design decision behind a game telling you, forcing you, to stop playing it. And, in fact, making it so that any action in the contrary would either end the game immediately, or brand the player as a cheater. This, it was argued, stood directly in contrast to what I as the designer should be looking for and pushing for. Almost across the board, there were calls for the game to be simplified, or to not ask such dramatic things of the player. Everyone assured me that the last thing I wanted to do was to make it intentionally difficult for people to play a game. 

The thing is, I don't know if I agree.

Personally, I don't think a game needs to be playable to be a good game, or more of a game. I think games can be trying, exhausting, emotionally draining, unforgiving, and maybe even a bit impossible and still be a good game. My Name Is Not Alex certainly looks like it will be all of those things, and I think that only makes me more excited to write it.