System Mastery is my Jam

I’ve recently been playing a lot of One Step From Eden and Dicey Dungeons and that got me thinking about what core gameplay loops I respond positively to. Both games fall within the rogue-like genre, but one has really captured my attention over the last several weeks while the other has left me wanting. Despite their similarities, the core experience is fairly different and I think that’s worth looking at.

So first off, what even are either of these games?

One Step From Eden is a spiritual successor to the Mega Man Battle Network games. These games are an RPG spin-off of the platforming Mega Man games wherein you dodge enemy attacks by moving around a grid while firing back your own counter attacks. Eden plays similarly, but ramps up the complexity of the enemy attacks considerably giving it a bullet-hell feel.

Eden also features light deck building elements. You collect spells throughout your journey to customize what attacks your character has during combat. These spells are added to a deck which is shuffled throughout combat, so you constantly have to adjust your strategy based on what spells you draw and when you draw them. The combination of these ideas creates a dynamic battle system where players constantly have to adjust their game plan based on the availability of their abilities and the attacking state of the enemy.

Dicey Dungeons is a dungeon crawler where you explore randomly generated dungeons collecting equipment and fighting baddies culminating in a final boss fight. Each run has set parameters which impose additional stipulations on the player and shift the general flow of Dicey as well as the player’s game plan. Examples include lowering the player’s health with every level-up, stealing abilities from enemies rather than finding equipment, or having to scrap a piece of equipment after every fight. These radically change how you must approach your trip through the dungeon, as well as individual combat encounters.

The big differentiating factor that Dicey has from its contemporaries is its use of randomness. Each turn during combat you’re dealt a hand of dice with which to use your equipment. Many of the different equipment options you’ll encounter only work with specific dice values. Some only accept values of three or lower. Other require an even number. Others still will take any dice roll, but trigger an additional effect if a six is used. This forces the player to adapt to whatever randomness they are dealt each turn making the best of it and, similar to Eden, creates a dynamic combat system for players.

We’ve established that both games force the player to be flexible while adjusting to a variety of changing parameters. This creates a ton of variety in moment to moment gameplay and repeated attempts through their respective gauntlet of challenges. So why is it that I’ve responded a lot more positively to one over the other?

Short answer: system mastery.

Late last year I completed the Quantic Foundry gamer motivation profile and my results were overwhelming skewed toward certain categories. Mastery of a game, both through strategy and challenge, came up as my highest category and I believe that goes a long way to explaining the dissonance between my experience with both of these games.

You see, Eden begins with one of the most unreasonable learning curves I’ve ever experienced in a game. There is so much happening on screen that it feels entirely overwhelming. Were it not for how bloody stubborn I am I would have given up on it after the first several hours. There was one point where I was so frustrated that Mir asked why I was still playing the game because I didn’t seem to be enjoying it.

The thing is, despite my grunts of frustration I was seeing slow improvement. The first time I played I barely made it to the fourth boss. Half a dozen runs later I was able to make it to the sixth boss. After a dozen I’d made it to the final boss. Shortly thereafter I finally emerged victorious. Following that triumph about half of my attempts to get into Eden would result in success. This gradual improvement is what made One Step from Eden so enjoyable for me. I was slowly getting over that wall of difficulty with the lessons and muscle memory I took away from each session. This is at the heart of what made One Step From Eden so compelling.

By contrast the same hasn’t really held true in Dicey Dungeons. The initial difficulty curve is far lower, but both success and failure rarely feel as though they were earned. You can, in practice, make all of the correct moves based on what dice rolls you received and still lose. There isn’t much of anything to learn or master for future runs. Success is based on a combination of your ability to adapt and the whims of the dice.

Due to this difference in design, I haven’t felt compelled to play Dicey Dungeons. I’m still chugging through it because I don’t find it offensive to where I’d stop playing outright, but the experience has been pretty muted compared to Eden, or frankly most of the rogue-likes I’ve played. There just isn’t anything to latch onto and improve with each run so as to increase my odds of success in future.

I don’t think that makes either of these experiences better or worse in comparison to one another, but One Step From Eden is certainly a lot more compelling, at least for my money it is. The more random nature of Dicey Dungeons may have put me off, but it is certainly a lot more approachable and people have certainly taken notice.

So that’s my opinion, but where do you stand? Do you prefer when a game’s systems allow you to slowly improve overtime like Eden, or are you a bigger fan of more chance driven systems like Dicey? Or do you despite rogue-likes in all forms? Chime off in the comments so we can have some argumentative discussion.

10 thoughts on “System Mastery is my Jam

  1. Frostilyte: *plays Fighting Games competitively*
    Also Frostilyte: *enjoys mechanically-focused games that put mastery over learning the layout*
    Also also Frostilyte: *surprised Pikachu face*

    In retrospect, looking at your top and bottom 5 games from 2019 is rather funny. Top 5: Sekiro – super hard, mechanically driven game; Obra Dinn – focused on making deductions on your own instead of “presented” clues; Baba – master a completely new “ruleset”; Slay the Spire – Focused on learning about combinations, enemy types, and much more; Fantasy Strike – I dunno about that, you…barely…play that as far as I know 🙂
    There’s a very common theme there – learning about the inherent and sometimes subtle rules of the game. Tactics, Timings, Problems…it makes perfect sense if you think about it.

    On the other hand, let’s take a look at your bottom 5: Goose – more of a meme game than having anything to do with mechanics; Valkyra and Danganronpa – story focused from what I’ve seen. You didn’t even mention gameplay with them; Tiny Metal – you have an entire review where you start by praising the elements that have you react to the game’s systems, and then drift off complaining about how everything starts bleeding together; Grimshade – like you said “[…] a streamlined experienced. The focus here is the writing […]”

    I’m starting to see a trend here 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah hahaha. So maybe I don’t take enough time to be introspective and actually think about what makes me tick when it comes to games.

      Though that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy stories in games at all. If you go a year back to 2018 my favourite game was Danganronpa (the first, as opposed to the second) and that is an almost entirely story driven experience. OneShot and Va-11 Hall-A are both experiences driven by narrative over any form of gameplay mastery, and stuff like Animal Crossing and Stardew are games I’ve poured far too much time into despite how they ask nothing from the player on a skill based level (though I have been complaining a lot about New Horizons recently).

      Though yes – generally speaking I do seem to respond the strongest toward mechanically focused experiences and that probably should have been obvious to me. But this did give me an opportunity to write about One Step From Eden as I didn’t really want to write a full out review for it. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I knew you were going to say that. In fact, I had typed the first part of my answer before yours xD

        Of course you can (and do) enjoy good stories in games. Everyone loves a good story, even outside of video games. In recent years, there have been a lot of games that are less “traditional games”, and more like interactive stories. They started with “Walking Sims” and start to come around full circle, and implement more gameplay-y stuff and different game modes to keep people engaged, but they still remain stories for the most part. These are not the ones you have “problems” with.

        But let’s take a look at more traditional games, in which the story is pretty much only a framework used to give us context. Don’t get me wrong, they can have a great narrative, which is always a good thing, but if you think about it, the story itself is very often more in the background. For example, strategy games. They can have amazing lore or details, but the actual story most often is just an excuse to have your army beat the crap out of the differently coloured army. Or Dark Souls. Yes, the lore may be well-written, but the actual story is only “you are the chosen one. Retrieve/use the artifacts and save (or doom) the world.” Story =/= narrative and world building

        Here’s where designers sometimes have to make a trade-off. Do they want a cohesive, engaging and interesting story? Then that could mean that there might be some tedious parts in gameplay, mechanics can’t be as deeply explored, or the pacing of the game modes has to be “forced”. Or do they want to deliver the most efficient and exciting gameplay experience? Then you’ll probably have to deal with some plot holes, weird story pacings, ludonarrative dissonance (I love that term…it sounds so bullshitty), weak characters etc.
        And from what I’ve seen (mostly during my short research today) you can forgive shoddy writing far easier than unimaginative gameplay.

        Also, all I have said is pretty much besides my point. I think you’re not focused on gameplay as much as the learning experience itself. You want to untangle a game’s mystery, be it from an intricate narrative, or a vast amount of viable options during an encounter. You want to dive deep, and learn (about) the game.

        I may be completely wrong, but I’d say that games like the original Doom would get boring pretty fast for you. Yes, they’re fun for a while, but not all thirty-somewhat missions that play out in exactly the same way: more demon-shooting.

        My guess would be that both OneShot and Va-11 Hall-A (I haven’t played those games yet) have a somewhat weird premise (aren’t you a cyber-barkeeper in Va-11?) and an entangled story you can “decypher”. Most importantly, with a satisfying conclusion and no loose ends left?

        Apart from being generelly signs of a good story, that’s where I come from. I can much easier forgive tedious game design if it means that the narrative makes sense and all questions are answered (or there’s at least sufficient hints in the game so i can theorise). I once said that I won’t lose sleep over the story of Doom. That was a lie. I very much tried to bring all the games into one coherent timeline for my headcanon 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah I see what you’re getting at now. Despite what you said in discord, this comment actually did make some degree of sense even if you did take a bit to get where you were going. 🙂

          And you’re probably right on that assessment of Doom. I found Doom (2016) fun enough for what it was, but I didn’t have much interest in sticking around after I’d finished it. Plus I regularly had to take breaks from it and play something else between sessions. It’s fun, but it didn’t grab me as much as it seemed to grab the overwhelming majority of people. That’s also why I’ve been so hesitant to pick up the sequel, though from what I’ve seen and read the sequel might be a bit more involved beyond “shoot bad thing dead”.

          Aside:

          OneShot is a meta-narrative game where you have to guide the hero through several worlds so that they can save the known universe from collapsing. You, as the player, are a part of the game’s narrative and are an active participant in it as yourself. There isn’t necessarily anything deep to sink your teeth into. What I liked so much about the game was how it got me, an emotion-less robot who hates feelings, to care about the main character Niko on our journey together. OneShot is the kind of game that I think really highlights how interaction can and should be utilized in games to tell unique stories that simply aren’t possible in any other medium.

          VA-11 Hall-A is a trip to the local pub. You sit down, you enjoy a beer (or a martini), and you listen to the stories of the regulars. Sometimes they’re going through some shit and just need someone to vent to. Sometimes they had a really good day and want to share their joy in celebration. Sometimes things just are what they are. VA-11 Hall-A is a game entirely driven by the extremely mundane nature of its characters as their stories are familiar. And it is through that familiarity that there is comfort and enjoyment in listening to their stories.

          In both cases it was strictly the narrative that kept me engaged. In the former’s case it was because I was part of the cast, and in the latter’s case it was because of how familiar the setting and characters were. Turns out if the wider game’s industry focused less on stories about empowerment and instead made some about depressed, afraid, or anxious characters they’d have an easier time winning me over. 😛

          Oh god. I feel like you could write an entire post about that in and of itself. “The full canonical timeline of every Doom game – shut up I am correct!”.

          Edit: forgot to acknowledge it, but I generally agree with your overarching assessment of my tastes. I think games like OneShot and VA-11 Hall-A are the exception, not the rule and that is plain to see from what games I tend to respond to.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I don’t want to buy those two games. I don’t want to buy those two games. I NEED TO BUY THOSE TWO GAMES! (insert Spongebob meme here)

            Ad Doom: While I did not manage to stitch together the timeline while also having the same guy as the main character in Doom, I am currently putting to words my headcanon of Serious Sam being about Earth’s staunchest defender slowly but surely losing his sanity.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. One Step From Eden got my attention just because of the art and character designs at first. I’ve seen complaints about its difficulty, but the way you put it makes sense to me. Sometimes I like to play a more skill-based game that forces you to learn its system. More chance-based games are fine, but they don’t usually hold my interest so much probably for the same reason you brought up — if there’s really nothing to learn from the battles and no mechanics to get down then it ends up feeling a bit boring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be fair I still feel like the initial impression of the game is a bit poor because of how difficult it is. Takes a while before all of the incoming information can be parsed accurately so that you’re able to make the best decisions rather than it being visual diarrhea.

      Sounds like we’re in a similar camp then. I think the one thing that gets me is that usually chance driven stuff is more bombastic and exciting so as to keep things entertaining. Maybe it’s just the way I’m wired, but I very infrequently found Dicey did any such thing. The only notable time I could think that I was laughing at how silly something was occurred when I stole a move that cut an enemy’s health in half earlier in the run and used it against the boss to almost defeat it in one turn. Outside of that combat played out pretty ordinarily.

      Anyway, I believe I remember you saying you were planning on getting around to Eden at some point so a) I hope you enjoy it and b) I am curious to read what you think of it when you do.

      Liked by 1 person

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