Replay Value

What is replay value?

Honestly, I’ve seen the phrase thrown around in just about all video game review writing, but there’s never a solid definition. It appears, from my research, that “replay” depends upon the whims of the reviewer, rather than the mechanics in question. Do I like this game? Yes! Then it definitely has replay value! Except for the fact that so many games come out every year that, in reality, said person will NEVER return to that game in their life. It’s a relief that the reviewers have moved away more and more from this idea, but they did so for all the wrong reasons.

For example, the prototypical video game of the modern age provides an “experiential” product. As such, you can only ever experience that game once; replay value, then, becomes an anachronism for when people played games that had actual rules and mechanics. If you return to that experience, it’s not guaranteed to retain the same flavor, simply because it’s only meant to work once. The Assassin’s Creed single-player modes demonstrate this perfectly; really, there’s no incentive to play the games again once you’ve moved onto the next game. You’ve seen the story, and done the sidequests – now it’s time to move to the next game. Bioshock, as well, lacks any kind of replayability because you’ve seen everything before.

Imagine if this was the case with a Mario or Sonic game. Fans would cry bloody murder at the thought of those games becoming “experiences”! The whole point of the platformer is to make levels both playable, challenging, and memorable. That’s why, sixteen years later, you can play Super Mario 64 and it still feels fresh and new. Most Nintendo and Sega games have these essential characteristics; most arcade games, as well, encourage playing the same levels over and over to gain skill. It’s not exclusive to Japanese games, though; plenty of first person shooters from iD Software (DooM, Quake) and Epic Games (Unreal, Gears of War) were designed with that value in mind, as well as anything from Rare’s golden years.

What does that mean for the video game market of today? Well, apparently we’re willing to pay sixty dollars for something that will last all of ten hours, at most. Maybe it’s the age demographics of gamers, but I find it astounding that we demand so little value from companies that have more than enough resources to not gouge us with ‘Season Passes” or additional downloadable content. Up until I finished ACIII, I was considering buying the Season Pass, but for $29.99? Are you kidding me? I don’t even know how long it is, nor how much such things are worth. It’s already got a multiplayer component, so why extort the customer more? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was developed along with the game itself, and they charge more simply because they can. I’m not that mad about additional content in fighting games; at least that makes sense, even if it still have the aformentioned extortion problem (“buy this to get the full game!”).

Do you see the problem? We pay sixty for the base product, then pay extra for additional things. Before the Internet. we simply GOT what was in the game. The rare console game would have an expansion (Dynasty/Samurai Warriors comes to mind), and PC games would usually get them as well (and still do), but they added real content. They spent their time refining and listening to the fans, making expansion packs a “true” expansion, not just an additional money grab. Now they just dazzle you with graphics, music, and plot, expecting some hilarious royalty payment for more content down the line. To that I say no.

If the game must be judged, it’s judged in what comes within its case and/or cartridge. In that sense, all excellent games have replay value that comes from developers adding content SO GOOD and fun that it demands to be played again at some point. There’s not many games of the modern era that begin to rival the games of the past in that respect. They’re disposable products, wastes of time, and – to be frank – unnecessary.

I might sound like a 25-year old curmudgeon, right about now, but I lament the current state of video games in that respect. Nothing has quite captured my imagination like something from the SNES. I’m not playing old games because “I only like them because of nostalgia“, but because there’s nothing beneath the modern game than a focus group tested desire to eagerly light up your dopamine receptors. Numbers going up, checklists being filled – it’s a whole lot of experiential busywork without the payoff. Replay value comes not from stuffing your product full of stuff, or Achievements, or any of that extraneous material. There’s a genuine satisfaction in great games that, even when you can finish them with your eyes closed, still gives that tension, conquest, and totally wonderful feeling of accomplishment.

An example: I was playing Super Mario 64 (surprise, the impetus for this article), which I’ve played dozens of times before. I find myself in Cool, Cool Mountain and the slide. My God, that slide is absolutely terrifying because you go so fast. Any slip-up at that speed makes Mario careen off a ledge to his doom, thus wasting a life. Due to my lack of precision, and my inability to make it past exactly one turn, things weren’t looking good.

This turn, obviously, was the culprit.

I was down to a few lives, having replayed the thing over and over again until I had the reflexes and time to JUST make it past. Like the (apparently) stubborn curmudgeon I am, I was NOT going to give up until I beat the thing! And I did (after about 10 or so more tries). With enough determination and persistence, I earned the victory and won it. The slide creates a sense of tension and unbelievable anticipation of that victory because mistakes mean in-game death. That’s what makes it nerve-wracking, challenging, and exhilarating all at the same time.

In a way, I’m redefining “replay value” here, but replay means starting a game over from the beginning, not just re-doing the whole thing for busywork’s sake. It’s in the imperishable and intangible, the minor victories, that replayability becomes something you cherish, not a chore for unlockables. As a Christian, I should know that better than anyone. From 1 Corinthians 15:

50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, andwe will be changed. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

If that’s not a reason to play great games, I don’t know what it. So it is in video games, so it is in life.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.