Emotional Statelessness: A Problem in Game Design

A Brief History of this Essay

This was originally a part of an essay describing problems I had with the crowdfunded game Starbound, and describing what I would have preferred that game to be, and how I would make a theoretical sequel to the game. I originally wrote that essay before Starbound got its 1.0 release in 2016; in that first version of the essay, I was getting nervous because the later early-release versions of the game, which were deliberately missing the narrative core of the game and served as a technical preview, seemed to me indicative of a lack of direction, or at least, indicative of the game being taken in a direction I did not approve of. Not because of the parts they had yet to release; as they added features and tweaked the way the game was structured, I found myself unable to think of a compelling vision that could be uniting the concepts into something meaningful.

However, I did not release that essay. After Starbound was released, I found my fears confirmed, and I began to rewrite the document, feeling more and more like my own sequel design was too much to ask of the developers (who I interpreted as running out of cash, rightly or wrongly), and the multiple prefaces were seeming more and more pretentious. I became distracted by other things, and Starbound received updates, and then eventually became ultimately irrelevant; it lacked the sticking power of the genre’s titans like Minecraft and Terraria–which to be fair, most games do.

The essay stuck around, the redesign portion turning fully into a sequel idea and then into a spiritual descendent, but more importantly, I continued to preface the design with essays like this which describe not merely what I intend but why. As a person who is not an industry insider, I feel that it is important to explain my reasoning clearly, both to give credence to points that might not otherwise be heeded, but also to spark new ways of thinking in myself and others. As always with design–in games and in everything else–it is the discussion of problems and the search for answers which ends up creating new things.

Starbound vs Terraria and the Problem of Emotional State

For those who have not played the game, Starbound is a game built on a very similar engine to Terraria, which itself can best be described as a two-dimensional Minecraft; for those unfamiliar with all of those games, they are survival adventure games in which the terrain is broken down into square or cubic blocks which can be mined with suitable tools and the resulting resources (where ‘resource’ here can be as meaningless as dirt, or something more like magical ores, crystals, plants, and other treasures) refined and placed back on the map to form buildings or turned into equipment. Along the way, hostile entities randomly spawn to provide challenges; these entities vary by the biome they are found in, with some areas more difficult to survive until you have better equipment.

Context is important here: Terraria and Minecraft both come with the general conceit that you, the player, are dropped in the absolute middle of nowhere, and nothing you do can or will return you to any semblance of civilization; this is the definition of “survival” as a genre, here: not only your own safety, but the meaning of your whole existence is now what you make of it. Although Minecraft, the effective spiritual leader of the genre as we know it, has grown in its mechanics since then, it has made no attempt at adding narrative and, as a consequence, has added no meaning to playing the game; it remains a sandbox with some minor “adventure” added onto it so that game progression has meaning.

Terraria, in contrast, has had a kind of implicit narrative–but no explicit narrative–almost since its inception. You, the survivalist, find yourself battling corruption of the environment, defeating horrific demonic boss monsters, managing the balance of an ecosystem that can tilt from neutral to corrupt to even-more-dangerous “hallowed” zones, providing shelter to innocent and helpful NPCs, and generally, serving as the only sane part of a two-dimensional island full of danger and mystery.

Starbound was clearly intended to be “Terraria in space,” but they lost sight of their goal. The first quests you are given are to repair your space ship, giving you access to other planets, first within the same solar system and second, in neighboring star systems, all of which are procedurally generated–every star in effectively infinite space contained planets, and you could go anywhere you wished, as long as you mined enough fuel to travel the distance. That was a tempting design, but it came with problems; in order to gate progression, they decided to limit certain resources to certain classes of planets, and only seed you the resources necessary to get to the next tier of planets after completing an adventure mission. Those adventure missions, they decided, existed outside of the game map, and you simply teleported to them from the teleporter on your starship, no matter where you were in infinite space.

The upshot of this was that Starbound was a game built on an engine made to tear down worlds and rebuild them in your own image, but where the game mechanics dissuaded you from investing in any given planet–not the one you started on, not another in the same system, not the nearest one with the best resources. You would build a base on a low-resource world, collecting the common materials of copper and iron and silver and gold, and then adventure and have access to new worlds with tungsten, titanium, durasteel, aegisalt, and other advanced metals–but only getting each new metal after spending hours on the last tier of planet, mining and refining and adventuring on a brand new map that you would, inevitably, leave behind. Even once you move up to a new tier of planets or systems, you could pick between any one of several randomly-generated planets of the new tier, with nothing but luck differentiating one from the next… or, you could move from one to the next, never even bothering to settle on any of them.

It was in trying to describe my disappointment with this part of the game that I coined the term emotional state. I define emotional state as game content which gives the player the necessary context to judge whether they are succeeding or failing. This doesn’t need to be done explicitly; in all the games of this genre, for example, you as a player will generally feel successful when you have all the resources you need, a safe home, and have access to all necessary or desirable unlockables. In simpler games, such as classic Super Mario Bros games, the life counter and progress through the world are simple emotional state mechanics: you are winning as you progress, and losing as you have fewer lives, until eventually your lives reach zero and you lose progress, or until you win the game entirely.

Starbound was noteworthy to me, however, in that it managed to accidentally strip away emotional state from its predecessor, and almost entirely as a consequence of its base premise. Whereas in Terraria you feel a visceral satisfaction in becoming familiar with the map and reshaping it to make necessary challenges easier, in Starbound mastering and reshaping the world feels tenuous and temporary, and as a consequence, unnecessary; you spend just enough time on a given planet to start to be familiar with it, but have no mechanically-reinforced reason to stay there once you are done getting its resources. Unlike in Terraria, where new tiers of resources are introduced into the existing map at certain points in progression–resources you may not yet be able to mine immediately, due to their tier–in Starbound if you choose to never leave your starting planet’s map, a vast majority of the game’s content is never revealed to you.

Similarly, Terraria introduces occasional events that come to you, even inside your own home–events that therefore test your ability to protect your home and any recruited NPCs, some of which scale as the game gets more difficult, and some of which remain at their original intensity, going from very difficult at the beginning to trivial at the end. These provide an intuitive measure of progress, not in the sense of narrative or mechanical progression but in the sense of technical mastery; if you have built your base properly and gotten good at the combat, these events may provide no danger to you even when the forces are mechanically superior, while if you build your base poorly, you may lose NPCs even when you yourself are too powerful to be threatened. This itself can be compared to Minecraft, which among other challenges notoriously has “Creeper” enemies capable of destroying the world around them and undoing all too much hard work in moments, if not protected against.

The fact that Starbound lacks these particular challenges isn’t the issue. The challenges exist to be a challenge; they provide emotional state by giving us a task at which we can fail, and when we therefore find a way to stay in the “success” state, we feel good. If instead you lose a familiar NPC or part of your base is destroyed, you feel bad and that provides an impetus to do better, to further master the systems and to go exploring for more resources. And remaining successful also inspires pride–pride that inspires us to decorate, customize, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Indeed, the problem with Starbound is that even if you don’t fail a challenge, eventually you are obligated to leave behind what you’ve created–something that in other circumstances would be considered punishment. By not understanding how important your progress is to you as the player, they’ve ended up turning their own systems against you.

This misstep is exacerbated by the truth that Starbound does not have the same emotional core of isolation and therefore self-sufficiency that Terraria and Minecraft do. In Starbound, you find several colonies of NPCs, starting with agrarian villages and getting all the way to large cities. Whatever conceit the game may offer in its narrative to explain why the main character cannot simply retire to the first friendly city they find–and I will say without further elaboration that I don’t like the game’s narrative at all, as a lifetime video game player or as a writer–that option simply isn’t present, even in the abstract as some kind of “retirement”. When you find a settlement much bigger and safer than anything you could make yourself, it is little more than a drawing on the background as far as the game mechanics are concerned, irrelevant but for finding baubles and macguffins or buying weapons and food. The NPCs are the same paper-thin automata that RPGs are commonly criticized for having, existing within an interesting world but doing nothing but wandering around and repeating the same lines when spoken to.

I call Starbound emotionally stateless because so many of the game mechanics were originally meant to test the player, but the tests have been stripped away. There is base building, but it is meaningless; there is exploration, but nothing becomes familiar. You begin isolated, but returning to civilization is both inevitable and not the goal. You literally break apart rocks and melt them down into metal bars in your own handmade kiln long after you return to what appears to be a post-industrialist society complete with skyscrapers, starships, and underwater cities. There is a dearth of game content that shows how successful you are; the game is mechanically and thematically the same at the end as at the beginning.

It’s worth returning to the question of what makes Terraria and Minecraft not be failures in this same respect, and that has to start with a discussion of my biases. I am a builder at heart, and depressive; I enjoy building things that seem safe and imposing, and do not particularly enjoy exploration for its own sake. By any definition, I have not beaten either game, and tend to leave, contented and/or bored, after having achieved certain building or terraforming goals. The extra exploration and combat goals provided by the late game are not necessarily the point for me, though I understand and respect them. I would like to think that in a survival situation, my response would be the same: I would achieve a level of safety and content myself with that, even if I never resolved all the world’s challenges or single-handedly changed everything.

This is, however, something that this entire genre of games supports; they are sandbox games, and while they provide you the opportunity to advance, the core gameplay loop is specifically about the transition from being vulnerable in a hostile world, to having created your own bastion of safety within it. After that, the game generally transitions into an adventure where you base yourself out of the fortress or fortresses you created to protect yourself, and into the wider and more dangerous world beyond, presumably for greater rewards, or a chance at redemption, or perhaps just greater glory.

I believe the greatest mistake that Starbound made was choosing a narrative where your ability to play in the sandbox was irrelevant–where success at playing in the sandbox is meaningless, and where investing time and energy into not merely mastering the systems, but learning the terrain and shaping yourself and the world together into a better version of both, where that laudable goal feels silly and a waste of time. That is, ultimately, why I call the game emotionally stateless: the game doesn’t recognize that time, effort, and mastery as being worthy of added game state.

Perhaps as a matter of budget or technical ability, it was beyond the ability of Chucklefish Interactive, the game’s creators, to go further, or perhaps they would disagree with my analyses. I’m sure not everyone reading will agree with my central point. But the point of this essay was never to shame or ridicule them, nor to shake the world’s foundations or make people agree with me by any kind of force; I just found the need to put what I thought into words.

One way or another, this hypothesis has come to be part of how I look at and think about gaming. If you agree, or disagree, I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments. I know there are several other examples in modern gaming of designers who don’t seem to know what they have on their hands, and I’ll probably end up talking about others at some point, among all the other thoughts I have jammed up in my head waiting for release.

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