I’m weird. By most accounts, you can beat Astro’s Playroom — the PlayStation 5’s glorified pack-in tech demo — in about four hours. I’ve played 50 hours, and I still haven’t completed it. That’s because instead of finishing out the last level, I’ve spent an absurd amount of time chasing after faster times in the game’s Network Speedrun mode. This mode enables you to post your fastest times on a leaderboard across eight stages, and this turned into a heated competition between GamesBeat reviews editor Mike Minotti and myself, GamesBeat speedrunning champion Jeff Grubb. And while it’s important to recognize that I’m one of the greatest gamers to ever live, it also led to a realization.
Back on my bullshit pic.twitter.com/l80WuVHmcN
— Jeff Grubb (@JeffGrubb) December 19, 2020
As players, we get to decide what we want from a game. And while people can go to music, movies, and books for unique, individualized reasons, gaming’s interactivity means that it’s more like a collaboration between the player and the designers. That’s something creators in other mediums don’t usually have to worry about.
Astro’s Playroom didn’t need a dedicated speedrunning mode. Millions of people will likely end up playing the game when they first set up their PS5, and most of them will likely play through to the end and put it down without spending any extra time battling on the leaderboards. But a minority of players, like myself, would rather race against friends and enemies than see through the critical path.
The key here is that I brought my competitive, platform-loving tendencies to the game and Astro’s Playroom met me half way in anticipation of that style of play. It’s a better game because the developers knew it could rely on a collaboration with a sliver of its audience. It’s an indication that the game and its designers respect players as active participants in finding the fun, and that feels nice.
Games tend to turn out better when developers understand and respect their relationship with the player. Crusader Kings III and Fallout: New Vegas are examples of that philosophy at its extreme. HBomberguy’s excellent video essay on New Vegas details the countless ways developer Obsidian designed its open-world adventure to react to different kinds of players.
I don’t envy the position that this puts developers into. Astro’s Playroom succeeded for me because developer Asobi Team predicted I might like some side mode better than the main quest. But that is also an overwhelming notion because when you start shaping your game to fit a variety of play styles, where do you stop?
And in the face of the daunting possibilities, I can see why developers would want to take a strong authorial stance. But that runs the risk of putting the developer’s vision of the game at the center and displacing the player. Red Dead Redemption 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 are both guilty of this. Those games are too preoccupied with presenting a singular experience to let the player have a say in things (beyond pre-determined branching paths).
That’s not to say that we should eradicate linear, static games. I might argue that Red Dead Redemption 2 is bad, but it obviously served a massive audience that seems happy with it. A game that sells well justifies its own existence. And I think it just so happens that a lot of people want to collaborate with Red Dead Redemption 2 on its very strict terms.
My point isn’t that developers should only make games with deep, reactive worlds. Astro’s Playroom, after all, is a standard 3D platformer. The point is that I want to play a game that feels considerate.
It’s obvious when a game has an affinity for the player. Sometimes that looks like Fallout: New Vegas, and sometimes it looks like a speedrunning mode in Astro’s Playroom.
During my time with Astro, I wanted to take pride in how I wasn’t playing the game like everyone else. But that’s not special. We bring aspects of ourselves to all the media we consume, but only games can do something about it.
What’s special is when a studio creates a game that can make me feel like I’m building a personal relationship with it. I’ll always be weird, but I’m also confident that developers will continue to make games that will facilitate and foster that weirdness.
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