Incentives are the currency of the world. More than money itself—bills or coins or shekels—the intangible essence of incentives are the lowest and basest urgency we find powering our shambling bones. Rewards very obviously drive you to want more and more, to run faster and faster as the carrot dangles out of your reach upon the tip of a stick.
The other half of that truth is that the stick can just as easily be flipped and now you are compelled to not get hit over the head. It is the incentive to avoid punishment that propels you to run now. The lack of pain is the only reward now, but it is not so much a gift as it is one less vulture picking at your skin than usual.
While drastic examples on rather far ends of the spectrum, this balance of how to push and pull someone along into doing something is largely the basis of game design. How do you—through smiles and shouts of joy alongside screams of anguish and furrowing brows—make someone want to play a game? Not just play but explore the corners and crevices of the world and mechanics around them. How indeed.
Two recent games (and a third somewhat recent one that further supports an argument or two in this treatise) go about it by way of the punitive camp but through wholly different schemes. The first is Watch Dogs, and yes, a review is forthcoming. In it, you play as Aiden Pearce, a vigilante hacker in a near-future Chicago out for justice. It’s an open world game that has drawn a lot of both fair and unfair comparisons to last year’s Grand Theft Auto V what with a lot of driving, shooting, and running in a digitized version of a real world locale.
In Watch Dogs, you have a consistent metered tracking of your reputation in the city. With good deeds, your reputation goes up and you can get away with some slightly less extreme indiscretions. For instance, you can steal a car and witnesses might not call the cops on you. It’s a pretty nice bonus to being a nice guy.
On the other hand, if you start killing cops and running over pedestrians, then you are going to be known as a bad dude, with both the media and the city’s populace badmouthing you, distrusting you, and generally making your day a lot worse. It is, without a doubt, kind of a buzzkill.
And that’s just the problem. This overarching system of being known as a good or bad guy in Watch Dogs greatly affects how you play the game in an adverse way because both negligence and untoward behavior both punish you. Unfortunately, as proven by GTAV, both of those things greatly facilitate exploring a world and generally having fun.
We are dropped into an open world of a real place. Our curiosity is naturally piqued at this point. We want to poke around and we want to make this faux Chicago our playground. But when the lifeguard is always telling you to not run around the pool even when you’re just sitting by the steps, it really lets the wind out of your sails. It’s deflating. The punishment of getting a wanted level in GTAV is playing more of the game. The punishment for being wanted in Watch Dogs is having a bad time.
What it really harkens back to is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 video game. You almost constantly have to stop swinging about the city (one of the few bright spots of that game) to go beat up the same four thugs over and over again. Otherwise your reputation in the city goes down as well. Then, as you get closer to being labeled a full-on menace, you are harassed by trigger-happy gunmen and super annoying robots. It’s an awful incentive to keep playing.
Then there’s Transistor, the latest from Supergiant Games. It is quite the lovely game, what with its unbelievable art and—quite frankly—surprisingly deep and complex combat mechanics, but the most interesting bit about Transistor is how it urges you to experiment with the game.
While you have a traditional health meter in this isometric strategy action game, its depletion does not mean the end for you and our hero Red, a singer who lost her voice but gained some powers as the Transistor came to her after a plague of trouble hits her world. You have slots you can equip Functions (read: abilities), some of which operate as attacks and others as passive boosts depending on the slot. When you run out of health, your equipped Functions overload one by one and remain unusable for a time.
It is, undoubtedly, a punishment. It is taking away something that once made you powerful, but more importantly it takes away your comfort. It’s kind of the same for many strategy or role-playing games where you find your thing and you stick with it. You have an opening gambit and then a set of responses for each enemy action while you fill in cracks in the dam as they arise.
That’s just how those games go. You discover the base foundation of strategies for succeeding with your prized configuration and then you find the limits of it as you go up against harder and harder enemies. It’s a self-produced inclination to explore. The game does really demand it but you certainly want to find out just how smart you are as you test your mettle and your wits.
But this wrinkle in how Transistor handles intermediate “deaths” is quite literally a game-changer. Entire portions of the game are now missing from your repertoire, your armory. You go-to combination is no longer in existence and therefore your go-to plan for success is now far beyond invalid. It’s a punishment if there ever was one.
However, with other Functions available at the next Access Point and empty slots and free memory on the rise, it also invites you to replace your lost safety blanket. More than that, it invites you to rethink your entire strategy. Move this Function to this passive slot and then pair these two up instead of these three and you are an entirely different player. Quick and imprecise turns to sneaky and singular.
It is one of the grand successes Transistor, compelling you to fully explore and experiment with the entire game rather than just what you stumble upon as the first thing that works. Granted, balance issues eventually renders experimentation moot, but the combat system succeeds as a punitive incentive. It replaces fear and apprehension of replacing success with failure and instead says discover something new or be worse off. It’s a pill far easier to swallow than punishment for punishment’s sake.