The joys and pitfalls of new game-plus content.

One of my favourite parts of the eternally intertwined Drakengard and Nier franchises is how each game in both series has a huge variety of endings. There’s usually around four or five different endings to each game, each requiring different conditions to be met before they can be achieved. These endings also tend to really run a gambit of different scenarios, everything from a “happy” ending all the way up to the literal apocalypse.

Natural to the bleak tones of these games, the latter endings tend to be the true endings.

Most of the enjoyment from these varied endings comes from just watching the characters you’re now familiar with enter into increasingly odd and sometimes desperate situations, and how just a few seemingly inconsequential changes can really shake up the path they take. It’s the wonder of watching the writers really let loose and create some really unforeseeable conclusion that keeps me coming back to find out what every last ending is. That, and the morbid curiosity of how grim the writers can make the situation (the answer is really, REALLY  grim).

There is one facet of this kind of design decision that I kind of go back and forth on, though: the introduction of New-Game-Plus content. For those not in the know, ‘New-Game-Plus’ (or more commonly, NG+) refers to content that is only accessible or only achievable after you’ve beaten the game once through. This usually manifests itself as you keeping all of your stats/levels/equipment in the new run of the game, meaning you can plough through all the challenges that used to give you trouble, and instead focus on new challenges that have cropped up. Different games have different variations on what exactly is unlocked or made available in NG+, although the most common one is some sort of challenge mode that has no bearing on the story. Other games have entire sections of the story revealed only when the player actually reaches these new playthoughs, such as the Nier/Drakengard games.

The reason I say I kind of go back on forth on these kinds of designs is that these are some features of them that I’m not always 100% sure are a good idea, from purely subjective standpoint. One of the main problems I’m really not fond of is when there’s content that is made purposely to only be achievable in NG+, but can be found in the base game. This often results in you running into a fight or challenge that you have no way of actually winning, and thus will sit there taunting you for the rest of the playthrough. This is especially bad if the game doesn’t actually warn you that you’re not meant to even attempt the challenge in the first game, since you might end up thinking that it’s perfectly possible to beat and you’re simply messing up somewhere. What follows is the player repeatedly ramming their head against a brick wall, waiting to see which cracks first. I’ll admit that this is more of a personal issue, since I have a massive OCD about completing major side-objectives and missions. I remember in my first run through Final Fantasy Type-0 that I (despite the game repeatedly warning against such action) actually managed to struggle through several of the insanely high end challenges with an extremely underpowered team. It’s a choice that I regret immensely, since I’m never getting back all that time I spent running poor sods into one hit kill enemies back. Likewise, it might end up with a situation where in it’s perfectly possible to complete, just a massive pain. The combat in Nier Automata means that, even when faced against an extremely powerful opponent, you can actually learn his attack patterns and take him down. The only problem is, you’re dealing about as much as damage as a stiff breeze to him. This means that you will eventually win, but getting there is extremely tedious. Both of these situations are most likely intentional, since the cathartic feeling you get when you’ve beefed up and come back to these challenges can’t be beat, but even so, they can also be the source of a great deal of frustration.

Despite how much I’ll sing its praises, another potential issue could arise if you put crucial parts of the story into the NG+ sections of the game. I personally like this kind of touch, since it’s similar to the game rewarding diligent and committed players for sticking around even when others would have left, however it’s easy for problems to pop up. As an example, here’s my experience (and some borderline spoilers) with the original Nier. In the first Nier game, you go through the entire game thinking it’s a mostly black and white story, with the ghastly and alien looking enemies you’ve been fighting this entire being almost completely unsympathetic. However, EVERY playthrough after that first one goes the entire nine-yards to make you realize that you have been aggressively misled this entire time. It’s genuinely well done twist, and eventually culminates in one of the most heartbreaking instances of integrating the mechanical parts of a video game to the story. I, however, didn’t realize any of this after I immediately stopped after the first ending. I got up as the credits were rolling and said ‘yep, that was a fun video game,’ and left. I didn’t even realize there were any alternative endings, let alone all the crazy stuff that’s revealed as time goes on. I only found out about them years later, when I saw a Let’s Play that went on for a suspiciously long time.
Basically, putting important parts of the story, while super cool, is also a pretty big risk, since a lot of people aren’t even going to stick around to see them. Like I said, I think this is actually a really interesting idea, especially since pretty much every Nier and Drakengard games have standard happy, ‘quest complete’ endings as their first, which lowers your guard for how screwed up things become. It appears that Square Enix was aware of this when they published Nier Automata, since they put a message right at the end of the first run warning against leaving at that moment. None of the other games in the series were as direct as this one instance, usually only putting a cryptic message at the end with a single letter highlighted (both series break their endings down into ‘Ending A/B/C/D’ etc.). While in this day and age where every secret a game has is already known before it’s even out makes this kind of a moot problem, I still think it can be a stumbling block in some instances.

That all being said, I’m not going to deny that there are plenty of positives that introducing NG+ content can do for a game. The most simple, clear and obvious of these is the fact that it’s just more to actually do, and especially more to do for the more committed fans. Most games end when the main events of the story are done, and most players will be content to call it quits at that point and move on to the next game. However, if you like a game enough to carry on even further beyond that, it’s useful if the developer also thought that far ahead, and added enough new stuff to keep you going for at least some time. How much a developer is going to be willing to add to a section of the game that not a whole lot of players are going to see is something that’s going to vary from project to project. If we continue to use the Nier and Drakengard games as examples, those games have a ton of unique content that only gets used after the first play through. However, considering that one could make an argument that seeing the various endings is a core part of the experience, you could argue that’s not a great example. A clearer cut example would be in the now pretty old Vagrant Story: in addition to the standard fair of letting you keep all of your items and levels, you can now access bonus dungeons with sweet loot at the end. In many ways, adding NG+ content like this is just giving you an excuse to keep playing a game you already enjoy, which is pretty great in every sense.

Another big positive is the fact it really lets the developers go nuts with creating new challenges. Difficulty is something that is, funnily enough, not always easy to manage. We’ve kind of talked about how making something too difficult can push away potential players, but just reiterative, an important part of making a game is knowing just who the heck you’re making it for in terms of difficulty. Making something too easy is going to be bore players, but likewise making something too difficult is going to turn a lot of people off. The beauty of NG+ content is that you know two things for certain: one, if the player has made it this far, they’re going to be up to taking on really challenging encounters. Two, they’re probably looking for really challenging encounters. Games are all about overcoming obstacles, and as you get better at beating the snot out of whatever had the bad luck to get in your way, you’re going to want the challenges to become even tougher to challenge your growing skill. It stands to reason that, if you’re still up for more after the point where most people are willing to leave a game, you’ll be actively looking for the most challenging battles a developer can program. This is good for the player, but it also allows the developer to let loose. After holding back on making all the brutal ideas and instances for fear of scaring off potential players, they can finally throw together what crazy hard challenges they want. It’s a win-win situation, as long as you’re actually seeking the kind of stuff these kind of challenges offer.

In the end, like nearly every matter we talk about on this site, this going to have to judge on a case by case basis. Different games are going to have different capabilities to even support a NG+ mode, let alone make it worthwhile. Not to mention that there’s so many different ways to actually implement such an addition that it not really something you can just toss a blanket statement over it. On top of all of that, it’s something that can only be determined by individual opinion for the player; a game might have an extensive NG+ in place, but there’s point toiling through it if the player didn’t enjoy the base game enough. Still, also like nearly every matter we talk about, it’s been interesting to think about a subject in more detail than I would have normally. As always, thanks for sticking with the ramble of thought, and may all of your the NG+’s be deep and engaging experiences.

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