Back For More: What is Replay Value?

So you just beat a game. You’ve won the championship, slain the ultimate evil, completed your sacred mission, exposed the killer, escaped the testing facility, and saved Earth from being obliterated by alien laser attacks. The results screen has come and gone, the end credits have long since rolled off and faded away, and you’re left staring the title screen wondering what to do next.

Although it would probably be a good idea to just move on with our lives, many people in that situation (such as myself) would slam that new game button and play the game all over again.

The question is, why are we compelled to do this? Why do we feel the need  to return to something we’ve already experienced before?  The various reasons why someone would want to replay a video game is known as its “replay value”. Replay value can be loosely organized into 3 different categories.

Challenge

feats shovelknight

Achievement screen from Shovel Knight.

Just because a player beat a game doesn’t mean it’s over. There are usually still tons of achievements to unlock, and records to beat. Many of these achievements require the player to have a very thorough understanding of the game that they simply wouldn’t possess during their first playthrough. Yeah, you might have got to the end of Shovel Knight, but can you win without dying a single time? (I know I can’t!) It takes a lot of effort and patience to complete a game “for real”, and to do so demonstrates one’s appreciation for that game. Understandably, making some of these challenges nearly impossible might turn some players away, so it’s important to find a good difficulty level even for the non-required stuff.

Some people just like to challenge themselves regardless if there’s any in-game incentive for it. Speedrunners replay games over and over again in order to improve themselves and be able to beat the game as fast as possible. People who follow self-imposed rules such as the Pokemon Nuzlocke Challenge and the 3-Heart Run not only increase the difficulty of the game, but also make it feel different, which brings us to our next topic…

Variety

The spice of life. If there’s one advantage video games have other other pieces of media, it’s their ability to be different experiences each time one plays them.

mm2bosses

Stage select screen from Mega Man 2.

The simplest example I can think of that illustrates this is from the Mega Man series. In all of the games, the player has the ability to choose which Robot Master they’re going to take on. After they defeat a Robot Master, they gain their power, and can use it in the other stages. This system offers a lot more freedom to the player, and even though they travel through the exact same stages, the circumstances in which they do it are different. Stage selects and a list of characters are just some of the ways developers make their games different across multiple playthroughs.

Sometimes the most basic of changes can encourage the player to return. In numerous video games, the player can earn rewards that alter minor things like the game’s aesthetics or the music. Although pretty much no one wants to play The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker again just because of the unlockable option to go adventuring in their pajamas, it’s nice to have some small differences between playthroughs. My personal favorite of these trivial bonuses is the Scrambler: a secret item from Iji that corrupts everyone’s dialogue into incomprehensible nonsense such as below:

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Uhh..I’m sorry, what was that?

The Scrambler is provides a refreshing change of atmosphere from Iji’s usual bleak and depressing storyline.  It’s probably not the greatest reason to replay the game on its own, but combined with Iji’s insane amount of secrets and stat distribution variability, I consider it a fun little addition rather than a gimmick.

Story

stanley parable endings

A flowchart showing The Stanley Parable’s absurd amount of endings.

Finally, a player might come back for reasons similar to other types of media: the story. Unlike most other mediums, video games are interactive, and sometimes take advantage of this to give the player some influence over the narrative. By including variable story elements, the player isn’t forced to sit through the same story every time they restart. Interactive stories are frequently based around player choice. Some games, such as Undertale, utilizes a kind of “morality system” that changes the story based on one’s playstyle. If you can choose to play as different characters, they often have different stories associated with them. The problem is that the player might feel like they’re just “checking off boxes” trying to go through each path and experiencing everything a game has to offer, but that’s a topic for another day.

People also sometimes play through a game again much like one for would a book or a movie: to experience the story from a different perspective. They’ll be able to pick up on all of the foreshadowing before the “big reveal”, and be able to appreciate the setting and characters more because of their understanding. Or perhaps they never understood the story and are trying to make sense of it to begin with.

 

So, those are the basic pillars of what makes a game worth playing more than once: challenge, variety, and story. However, you can’t just throw some achievements and secrets into a game and expect people to keep coming back.

One of the most well-known things that unintentionally discourages replayablity is the dreaded unskippable cutscene. I like to think I’m pretty patient when playing games, but I know that there’s always people who just want who get angry when a game takes control from them and forces them to watch something instead allowing them to play the game. It’s even worse when the player is forbidden to skip some boring exposition that they’re already aware of after the first time. I think pretty much everyone can agree that cutscenes should always be skippable at least on the second run-through of a game.

But sometimes it’s not just easily removable, non-interactive scenes that impede the player. Sometimes the problem is more ingrained in the gameplay and narrative itself, and takes a lot more effort to seek out and remove. For example, Pokemon Sun is probably one of my top 3 favorite Pokemon games because of its decent storyline and surprising difficulty level compared to some of the more recent titles. Like every Pokemon game, there’s good reason to replay it due to the staggering variety of partners one can catch and train. But even though I really appreciate it, I find it very difficult to pick up again because it has an incredibly slow start. Getting introduced to the characters and doing tutorial stuff like spending time at the Trainer’s School is fine on the first playthrough, but it can get a little grating having to sit through all of it again the second time when you already know what’s happening. It takes forever for the game to stop holding your hand, and I unfortunately stopped playing long before then. It’s a good game ruined by just a little too much exposition and instruction early on.

It should be noted, of course, that games don’t necessarily have to have replay value in the first place. I love the series, but I’d say that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has almost no replay value whatsoever. It would defeat the game’s purpose to play through it again. The player would be able to coast through the game effortlessly because they already know all the answers, and won’t be able to get that same sense of satisfaction they got the first time. Replaying Phoenix Wright is the equivalent of rereading a book, where the player fully understands that they can’t change anything.

But in general, games that have a high amount of replay value are usually more memorable and engrossing than ones without. Having lots of challenges to conquer and secrets to discover encourages the player to keep playing and hopefully fall in love with the game’s depth instead of forgetting all about it and moving on to the next one. Undertale might have been a fairly short game of about six hours, but the sheer amount of secrets that are revealed through its multiple endings made it stay relevant for quite a long time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to replay Risk of Rain for like the hundredth time. I still have to drown twenty whorls!

(Photo Credits: ign.com, hiimmaxiwrite.com, myself, thestanleyparable.wikia.com)

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