Last week, I was playing a bit of Diablo III and as I was clicking around, fighting lag (in a singleplayer game no less!), I was suddenly filled with a profound sense of ennui. What was the point of clicking around, killing monsters and gaining experience? Loot? Maybe, but I’ve never been one to dwell on the risk-reward aspect of gaming. The story? Unlikely, given that the plot is pretty standard fantasy fare. Gameplay? Perhaps, but isometric games have never been my favorite source of entertainment.
Ultimately, I decided that Diablo was “pointless” and that I was wasting my time with it.
Then I started playing Minecraft.
Ironic, huh? Minecraft is a game that is essentially devoid of objectives. And yet, I could spend hours wandering around the procedureally generated world, digging holes, building castles and fighting monsters–all of this without a big arrow pointing me in a certain direction. How is it that a game without objectives could feel liberating, but a game with concrete objectives feels so pointless to me?
I suppose I have a history with pointless games. Recently, I’ve been playing a bit of ARMA II: Combined Operations, specifically a mod for that game, the newly popular DayZ. That mod is the definition of pointless:
- You spawn into a huge environment with only some basic tools.
- You must scavenge for supplies by being a lone wolf and searching for supplies yourself, teaming up with friends and strangers to search for supplies or by preying on other players for their supplies.
- You must also defend yourself from zombies, bad weather and of course, other players.
- That’s it.
- No seriously, that’s it. There is no end game. When you die, you lose all of your stuff and have to go scavenging again.
- And you know what?
- It’s one of the most compelling games I’ve ever played.
The atmosphere of DayZ is second to none. Your only goal is survival. Not to save the world. Not to find a cure for the infection. Not to stop bad guys. Survival is all that matters. How you go about accomplishing that task, and for how long, depends entirely upon player choice. Some players decide to become bandits and kill survivors for sport. Others try to repair vehicles and travel from town to town as wanderers. Others try to head into the wilderness, occasionally raiding towns for supplies.
In DayZ, there are no objectives; it’s a very large sandbox.
Even in games with objectives, like X3: Terran Conflict, I steered clear away from the main story and played it according to my own goals. I played maybe two or three hours of the story, got bored, and became a pirate. Most games would never dream of allowing a player to do this, but X3 was designed with player perogative in mind. If the player does not find your main story interesting, it means that you have failed as a narrator to some extent, but this does not mean your game must fail too. A living, breathing and flexible environment allows players to craft his or her own narratives.
- The part of the story where the protagonist finally gets his revenge
- The part of the game where you get hit by a car, fly 50 feet in the air and knock a person off of his bicycle
Sometimes pointless games leave the biggest impact. Whereas Diablo is a more directed experience, games like DayZ and Minecraft allow players to create their own win conditions–if such conditions even exist.
Until next time, here’s to pointless games!