As much as I enjoy picking apart a game from every angle I can think of, value is rarely an angle I poke at. I’m not looking for just one particular experience from games; I love short, complete narrative experiences, and sprawling open-worlds. I like competitive multiplayer games and mechanically difficult reflex games. When I’m deciding to buy a game—for me—price does not come into the equation except in the most rare of cases. For those of us that write about games, and those I’ve talked to that make games, that’s a pretty common feeling.
But that’s me; that’s us. Value doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Different gamers have different needs and wants from their games. Say you’re a teenager, flush with time but low on cash. You need a game that’ll give you the absolute maximum time for your penny—a free-to-play game like League of Legends or a huge open game like Fallout 4 will provide countless hours of fun for cents on the hour and sustain you to the next gift-giving holiday.
Conversely, you could be a parent with a great job and tons of disposable income, but your time is at a premium—your kid is your primary hobby. You know you’re never going to get very far in Fallout (like in the good old days before you decide to make another human) (congrats on that, by the way). Instead, you need something that can give you a complete experience in a short time. Either something that easily splits up into small chunks like a competitive shooter like Call of Duty, where you can play a few matches a night, or a game that has a complete narrative arc squeezed into just a few hours, like Firewatch or Gone Home—something you know you might be able to finish before the year ends.
So, value means different things to different people. For most of us, time and money are both limited, unless you’re an obscenely wealthy immortal, I guess? Keanu Reeves, in other words. If you’re Keanu Reeves, stop reading now—this doesn’t apply to you.
IS HE GONE? OK
The Witness got me thinking about what value really means to me. The game is gorgeous and last month it’s all anyone could talk about. Here’s the thing: I’m terrible at puzzles. The game, packed with a solid 600 puzzles, is downright intimidating for me. That’s hard for me to admit, so I hope you appreciate how much I trust you, Keanu (I know you’re still here).
Simply counting those puzzles shows that there’s no shortage of value for someone who enjoys the challenge they present. Someone like me, though, isn’t going to find value there. It’d be a bit like walking into an amusement park and seeing that nearly all of the rides fall less under “The Gentle Wave” and more under “MEGA CHAOS TWISTER XTREME (trademark pending)” when you can’t handle that much chaos (or twisting).
So with a copy of The Witness on my PS4, I had to find another way to enjoy it. While many players found it preferable as a solitary experience, it turned into a social one for me. With a room full of friends and beer, the controller passed through different hands as we threw ourselves at one puzzle after another. As a group, we were able to collectively take in the aesthetic craftsmanship of the game while taking turns solving and marveling at the puzzles that fill the game world.
This isn’t something new to games. Gamers always find new ways to enjoy games that the people who created them never planned for.
Some gamers make it a point to break games. Sometimes, that means literally breaking the game world, escaping the bounds of the world defined by the developers and seeing what lies beyond, finding discarded ideas or seeing how something is put together. Other times, it’s about breaking the serious narrative. One friend didn’t find the ultra-serious Heavy Rain entertaining until he started goofing off, walking around the mall in the beginning—a section that should last two minutes—for half an hour, or standing directly in front of the TV as the protagonist’s son stared blankly at nothing.
Part of the appeal of the Xbox 360 game Crackdown was in the game’s wide-open multiplayer mode, and in the minigames players invented and passed around through message boards and social media. Dark Souls is primarily an action game, but clues to the game’s bleak world are hidden in the game’s many nooks and crannies. For some players, the challenge is secondary to the detective work of piecing together the game’s obscure narrative.
Other gamers will get nearly endless value out of otherwise short games by speedrunning them. Just about any game with a beginning and an end can be subjected to this. For games with no end, there are similar challenges, like seeing how far you can get on maximum difficulty without losing a life.
Yet others find their value not in the game itself but in creation. Players give their cars custom paint jobs in games like Forza Motorsport, make accessories for games like Counter-Strike, and even craft new animations for games like Second Life.
The deeper I go, the more apparent it becomes that value is an entirely subjective experience. The developer plays a role, of course; they have to create something we can pour ourselves into and spend our time, effort or emotions on. From there, what we take from the game is up to us. It could be the simple matter of seeing “100% completion” in the game menu. It could be experiencing the game exactly as the developer intended. But we can claim it as our own, too, breaking it and putting it back together, endlessly making new things out of the old, and that part is entirely up to us.
Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, and it’s been downhill ever since. He takes a multifaceted approach to gaming news and reviews, mixing business analysis, cultural studies, tech and design. In his free time, he perfects his napping technique and pursues the elusive perfect cheeseburger.
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