It seems as though point-scoring systems, once an indispensable part of videogames, have slowly been dying out. High score tables are far from extinct, but among the immersive single-player games that are considered the flagships of the medium – commercial colossi such as Half-Life, Uncharted, Fallout, Metroid Prime, Super Mario Galaxy and Grand Theft Auto, and critical high water marks such as Braid, Portal, World of Goo and BioShock – few use scoring in any significant way.
Why has the high score fallen out of favour? And are we overlooking an element of games that has not outlived its usefulness?
In Part 1 of Who killed the high score? I wrote about Halo 3‘s campaign scoring system, and how it greatly improved my experience of replaying that game. That got me thinking about another well-realised scoring system, in a game at the very opposite end of the developer budget scale: Spelunky.
For those who haven’t played it (why not? It’s free!), Spelunky is a roguelike cave-exploring platformer by Derek Yu. It’s “roguelike” because death is permanent (meaning you have to restart the game) and levels are randomly generated. For example, levels 5 to 8 will always be jungle-themed, but the layout, enemy placement, treasure and items are different each time.
Spelunky is famous for its longevity: people play it over and over again for months on end. This is partly attributable to its random level generation and to the brevity of a life in the game, but also partly to the scoring system. There is no designated way to play Spelunky: you can try to get as far as possible as fast as possible, you can collect loot, you can kill everything that moves, you can gather treasure – all are viable and fun, and all are tracked by the scoring system. What’s more, the game tracks your cumulative total plays, deaths and (rare) wins, and keeps your high scores for treasure found and creatures killed. That means every time you play, you are simultaneously contributing to your record and competing against yourself for a permanent high score – a combination that can easily turn “a quick game before bed” into a prolonged challenge that lasts well into the night.
High scores (and randomly generated levels) are used to similarly compelling effect in a series that is otherwise wholly different: Civilization. The ending of any Civilization game is single-handedly saved from anticlimax by a post-game graph that shows how the power level of each culture fluctuated throughout the game’s timeline. A graph! Although the game doesn’t say so directly, it is very clearly a score system: your culture’s power is based on a combination of the land, population, wonders and technology it controls.
If a scoring system is still such an effective way to hook players into a game, why are less and less single-player videogames using one? Is it because, as some critics argue, a score seems out of place in the contemplative realm of art to which videogames aspire to belong? Is it because it distracts from the “immersive” quality by which all big-budget games now seem to be judged? Is it because of the negative social connotations – the associations with teenagers playing arcade machines, which undermine the suggestion that games are for adults?
I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that says all videogames should be all fun all the time and the sky should always be blue, but it does seem a shame that a feature which used to be an integral part of videogames is slowly being abandoned, outside of competitive multiplayer modes and casual games. Not every game would benefit from a scoring system – certainly it would detract from the experience of something like Silent Hill, and it would be distasteful in a more realistic war game such as Modern Warfare* – but surely it would benefit many games and be easy enough to implement. Why doesn’t Just Cause 2 have a skill-based score system? Or Crackdown? Games that involve a level of skill and challenge, especially if the challenge is generally repetitive, in which the player can demonstrate some proficiency in dexterity, tactics and strategy.
Perhaps this is what the infamous proliferation of RPG features across all kinds of videogames has been about: rewarding player actions with unlockable abilities, improved stats and bonus features instead of a simple points tally. Just Cause 2 has its Chaos meter; Crackdown has its orbs and Agent star levels; Modern Warfare has its unlockable weapon loadouts for multiplayer.
One game that cleverly merges the RPG levelling feature with a score system is Batman: Arkham Asylum. In Arkham Asylum, you gain experience for defeating enemies, which accumulates until you level up and gain access to an upgrade or a new piece of equipment. However, while each enemy is worth a set number of experience points, the experience you receive is greatly magnified by bonus multipliers for the skilfull execution of combat moves and combinations. The more diverse attacks you can chain together without missing or being hurt, the more your bonus multiplier ratchets up your bounty, acting as a de facto scoring system. Cleverly, the experience points you earn also proportionally fill up Batman’s health meter, providing a neat alternative to the static or recharging health bar.
As fresh as Arkham Asylum‘s approach is, it stands out as an exception to the rule. The RPG mechanic in most games is primarily about rewarding players for playing, not challenging them. It doesn’t come with the same sense of achievement that a high score does.
It could be a coincidence, but the popularity of speed running – recording super-fast completions of games and racing to see who can finish a game in the briefest time – grew quickly in the same period of time that high score tables started to disappear. Without a high score target to beat, some players obviously felt compelled to compete for a low score: the shortest speed run.
Despite the pull of the high score table, you might be tempted to think of scoring systems as a brake on games’ popularity; after all, aren’t videogames more popular now than when they were all about getting your three initials (or “ASS”) to the top of an arcade cabinet’s high score board? But look again. What appears to be the most popular type of videogame in the world right now is the so-called “social game”: Farmville has eleventy billion players and its imitators have zillions more. What baffles many experienced game enthusiasts is why these games are popular; after all, there’s nothing to do in these games except mindless, repetitive tasks.
That’s true, but it overlooks the most important point: these mindless, repetitive tasks contribute to your score. The reason these games have taken off so strongly on Facebook is not for direct social interaction (“social games” is a misnomer; unlike MMOs, Farmville and its ilk barely let you interact with other players at all) but rather for the chance to show off your high score in a public forum. More people play Bejeweled Blitz than Peggle because Bejeweled Blitz is on Facebook and allows them to compete against their friends, even if Peggle is the better game.
* UPDATE 9/5/2010: Modern Warfare does in fact have an unlockable score-based “arcade mode” for its single-player campaign. Thanks to Brendan Keogh for pointing this out. The RKD fact checker has duly been fired, and will be replaced with someone better looking. To paraphrase The Beatles: fact checkers have got to be good looking ’cause facts are so hard to see.
- Who killed the high score? Part 1: Combat Devolved
- Arkham Asylum, and the space of traumatic memory
- A Framework for Review