A familiar refrain in recent weeks, as everyone has been discussing the nature of games, is that videogames are no longer all about head-to-head competitions and high scores, as they were back in the heyday of the videogame arcade. While we often scoff at the ignorance of commentators who say you “get points” for killing enemies in, say, Grand Theft Auto IV – or pretty much any game that makes the news – it’s come up more than ever in the past fortnight, since Roger Ebert’s myopic dismissal of videogames-as-they-were-in-the-1970s-when-he-last-played-one has been countered by everyone in the entire world, all of whom have pointed out that most games aren’t about points or scores any more.
With typical obliviousness to the zeitgeist, and entirely by coincidence, I just discovered the campaign scoring system in Halo 3 – a game I’ve owned and played regularly for more than two years.
The option for campaign scoring is hidden in an inconspicuous sub-menu. When it’s on, a small number appears at the bottom corner of the screen as you play the Halo 3 campaign. Every kill is worth between five and 500 points, depending on the type of enemy, and subject to multipliers for difficulty level, speed of playthrough and “style”: headshots, grenade sticks, triple kills and so on earn extra points. By finding secret skulls hidden about the campaign levels, it’s possible to turn on additional handicaps that ramp up your score even further; for example, the Famine skull reduces the amount of ammunition you find lying around, but doubles your score.
The campaign scoring system seems like a throwback to a simpler era of game design. It’s a moderately complex meta-game, but – skull handicaps aside – it doesn’t affect the gameplay at all. The level design is the same, the enemies are the same, the guns are the same, the cutscenes are the same. It’s the same game, with a number at the bottom of the screen.
But somehow that score counter makes the whole experience much more engrossing. Knowing that number exists has transformed the Halo 3 campaign in my mind from a game I’d played through once, perfunctorily, on a low difficulty setting, and intended never to play again, to something that fidgets at the back of my mind all day when I’m supposed to be making pie charts and editing press releases. Suddenly it’s not enough to have seen the campaign through; I have to beat it, on as high a difficulty setting as my impatience and dearth of free time can bear. Because, you see, the higher difficulty levels give you a score multiplier. MORE POINTS!
Actually, it’s not just about points. Points by themselves are not enough. I rarely get into games that track your progression mainly through points – games like Geometry Wars and Brain Training. It only took me a few goes at Brain Training to realise I was just setting arbitrary standards for myself: the better I did, the better I had to do next time to keep up, and the eventual goal was… what? A better score. I’m not competing for the world record, so there’s no real target. No motivation.
Points with a goal is more interesting. The XBLA edition of Geometry Wars uses this formula, as do plenty of others like Chime and Trials HD. They avoid the ennui of solely points-based games by giving you something specific and permanent to aim for: achievements.
I’m not much of an achievement hunter; I’ll go out of my way to pick the low-hanging fruit if I know it won’t take me too many hours, and only if I’m having fun with the game to begin with. But there are a surprising number of obsessive completionists out there whose default goal with any new game is to harvest all its achievements. My partner, for example, has had all but one of the achievements for Viva Piñata for a long time; she lacks only the medal for playing for 50 hours. The reason she hasn’t sat down to get it? It would take too much time away from getting achievements in other games.
For me, though, neither achievements nor high scores are enough to motivate me to play a game. I’ll never suffer through an experience that isn’t entertaining to begin with just to get a higher score or an extra few gamerpoints. I suppose I have a low threshold before I start asking: “why am I doing this?” But when a game combines a compete-against-yourself system (like scoring) and clear, permanent and public goals (like achievements) with the rich level design and elegant set-pieces that are the rising form of contemporary videogames, as Halo 3’s campaign does, it can elevate the whole to something… perhaps not better, but something you can fully enjoy more than once.
If the game can tell an engaging, well-written story at the same time, it’s all the better. Fortunately, Halo 3 has very good guns.
END OF PART ONE.
Part Two will take a closer look at scoring systems in some other modern single-player games, and investigate what became of the old-school high score table.