Jay Button: Games that keep players engaged

February 23, 2012

Despite being one of the most popular franchises of this generation, Mass Effect had managed to completely elude me until recently. My cultural blindspots have always been staggering. I’ve yet to play more than two hours of the Assassin’s Creed series, I never saw Citizen Kane and I have no idea who Skrillex is. But this one just made no sense. I love Star Trek and, for that matter, any sci-fi/fantasy property with an expansive and lively universe, so Mass Effect should be a no-brainer for me. And once I got into Mass Effect 2 a few weeks ago, it was. I absolutely loved the game.

But I had some issues with it. The main issue was why I loved the game. The ME universe is huge, and very well-thought-out. Every bit of lore you can uncover in that game has its place, and only helps to build the world into a more solid setting than most games I’ve played. It manages to introduce you to enough new elements to make the player want to learn more, without feeling like they’re just making things up to fill out some time like half the Star Wars novels I’ve read. I wanted to keep playing just so I could learn more about this world and help out the characters I was growing to love during my playthrough. Though that was pretty much the only reason I kept going.

The second half of Mass Effect 2 felt like a complete slog to me. Normally, a player will get annoyed when a long cutscene breaks up their playtime, but I felt the exact opposite way about ME2. For every story-building cutscene I earned, I had to do what felt like the same exact cover-based shooting mission over and over again. A few of the side missions were interesting and broke the monotony (like infiltrating an upper-class mansion party), but then it was right back to waist-high walls and waves of disposable enemies. At about 25 hours, I actually considered just picking up the Mass Effect novels rather than playing the game, but those don’t follow the game’s plot thanks to the completely customizable story.

Eventually, evil was thwarted and I completed Mass Effect 2‘s campaign mode. Despite my many, many issues with the gameplay, I still considered it a great game and it got me thinking about why I play games. I’m often asked this question, but I hate answering it. Each game has a slightly different reason for why I like and continue to play it. So I started thinking about my favorite reasons why I wanted to continue playing a game. Here are a few games I felt especially engaging for a unique reason:

This one is a bit of a cheat, because I haven’t actually played Dead Island. But I’ve watched plenty of it, and have heard a lot about it from my friends who still play it online regularly. The quest structure is nothing that special. “Fetch this, fetch that.” But it’s what they’re fetching that intrigues me. The player isn’t just fighting zombies in this game, but they’re genuinely trying to survive and help others to do the same. Whereas in games like World of Warcraft a dude with an exclamation point over his head will ask you to kill eight whatevers and the only reason you do it is because his exclamation has become a question mark, Dead Island asks for more. An NPC will be dying of thirst or needing their medication, and you’re the only person who can get it for them. And the voice acting is so good that you’re instantly compelled to go do this. This dude really needs help.

I know you didn’t play this game. But you should.

Created by Yuji Naka and his company Prope, Ivy the Kiwi? is the story of a little kiwi bird who can’t fly, but needs to find her lost mom. So she sets off on a quest through the dangerous jungle and it’s up to the indirect actions of the player and some vine manipulation to make sure she makes it. By drawing and flicking vines with the DS stylus or Wii remote, you’ll flip and toss Ivy across levels and help her avoid enemies, spikes and pits. But if you don’t, you feel terrible about it.

Ivy is a poor, defenseless little baby bird, and if you don’t help her she will die. Not only will she die, but Ivy makes the most teeth-grating, pathetic, hate-yourself-forever little noise when she loses a life. Every time I flung her into a spike or dropped a baddie on her head and heard that sound, I felt like an enormous failure because it was all my fault. So I kept on and made sure she found her momma.

Another adorable game made for little girls. Why do I find these the most engrossing? I just hate bald, stubbly dudes shooting foreigners. In Chibi-Robo, the player takes control of the titular cleaning robot to help the Sandersons out around their house. By scrubbing the floors, picking up garbage, and ridding the house of unwanted pests, Chibi-Robo will gain happy points and the family’s love.

That’s it. That’s the whole game. And that’s all I need.

This family paid for me and brought me to their home. Without them I wouldn’t exist, and cleaning is my purpose. And if I do a good job, it makes them happy. What more reason could you need to do a good deed other than to make others happy? Then achievements were invented and an actual reason to complete a game was no longer needed.

If a game finds a narrative reason for me to continue, I’ll respect it all the more. I never cared about getting 100% of anything in a game, and only caught the Pokemon I liked. I don’t know how many trophies I have, but I’ve traveled across the world with Nathan Drake and stopped the Collectors from enslaving the human race.

What makes you keep playing? Is there a certain game that found a neat way to keep you engaged? Let us know in the comments!