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Exploring the Breakspace

I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age: Origins recently and I’m still trying to figure out why I’m enjoying it. I’ve gotten far enough in the game to hit the point that I hit in nearly every 80+ hour RPG, the point at which I stop really caring about sidequests or character arcs and I’m basically holding down the escape key to skip past every conversation with a character not related to the main plot. The point at which I lose the patience to read about bandits robbing the town or the cave infested with spiders. So I must be playing because of the gameplay. Except I’m not really that interested in the battles – I feel like the important decisions I’ve made were choosing my talents in the level up screens, and the way I handle the battles has only a slight effect on the outcome. That said, there are some battles that are interesting, battles where that slight effect is the difference between winning and losing, but the vast majority of the battles are the standard slog through minions to get to the boss. The other main part of the gameplay, the character progression, is mostly a guessing game about the exact numbers behind text descriptions.

So what am I enjoying about Dragon Age? I think it’s this: there’s a system, and I want to break it.

Like most RPGs, Dragon Age is made up of several sets of rules which are distinct but still interconnected. The main ones in Dragon Age are battles, character progression, and conversation trees. Together, they form a complex system; the backbone of the game. Within this typical RPG system, there’s an interesting interplay between character progression and battles: the better you are at character progression, the less interesting the battles are, for the most part. That is, the stronger your character is the easier the battles are and the fewer difficult decisions you have to make in each battle, to the point where if you make really good characters the majority of the battles become trivial.

Which seems like it might be a bad thing at first. Why would you want to trivialize the main form of gameplay by succeeding at another form of gameplay? However, I think that a lot of the time, trying to make the battles trivial is interesting, and that process, not the battles themselves, is the core of most RPGs. After all, the ability to grind already trivializes most RPGs, basically making it so that the only obstacle between you and the end of the game is time. It’s not hard to beat an RPG – in the ones with random encounters, all you have to do is tape the dual stick forward, tape the X button down and leave the game on overnight.

So I’d argue that, instead of the battles themselves, the interesting part of an RPG like Dragon Age becomes breaking the system efficiently. The most interesting part is making the rest of the game less interesting. It’s fun to get Dragon Age on lockdown, as if it were a string of World of Warcraft instances you were trying to make simple so anyone could beat them. Maybe it even becomes the goal of the game: trying to break the system; trying to become so powerful that you just slice through bosses like a hot knife.

Which brings me to my point. I’d like to posit a new way of looking at “content,” or an entirely new type of content altogether. Instead of just the traditional form, I’d argue that there are two types of content – the first is the standard content we all know and love: the plot, the characters, the art, the number of encounters, everything that fills the space between the beginning screen and the game over screen and leads to a count of total hours that is often on the back of the box. Measured in standard content, Dragon Age is an 80 hour game, less if you don’t do the sidequests. Crackdown is 12 hours. Assassin’s Creed is 15.

But I think there is a second type of equally important content: the distance between learning the system and breaking the system – ‘breakspace’, for lack of a better word. Like the first kind of content, breakspace has a beginning and an end and it can be measured almost in hours. Like the first type of content, breakspace’s beginning and end are set in stone as soon as the game goes gold: your first shot and the optimal strategy.

So what am I talking about? What is the breakspace, and why is it interesting? It’s easier to explain by example and then come back to abstraction, so let’s talk about a simple form of breakspace, Tic Tac Toe. When you first play Tic Tac Toe it’s hard to understand the strategy and you end up moving more or less randomly. However, as you play more and start to think about it, you get better and better and move closer to the optimal strategy. Then, because Tic Tac Toe is pretty easy, you find the optimal strategy quickly – game over, you broke the system. That was the end of the breakspace in Tic Tac Toe.

In some ways, the breakspace of Tic Tac Toe is a lot like any other type of content. It has a beginning and an end. Like reading a book, part of the point of Tic Tac Toe is getting to the end and part of it is the journey that takes you there. You can spoil the end of Tic Tac Toe like you can spoil a good book – you can say: here’s the optimal strategy, it always ends in a draw. But a lot of the breakspace in Tic Tac Toe is understanding why that’s the optimal strategy, and going through the train of thought that led up to that optimal strategy, which is slightly different for everyone. Similarly, someone can spoil the ending of a great book without ruining the point of that book – a large part of the “point” of reading that book is not only knowing the ending, but appreciating how the author got there.

But not every game is as simple as Tic Tac Toe – most are incredibly complicated, and have optimal strategies that will probably never be truly understood. These are games like Chess, Go, Starcraft, Counter-Strike, etc. Because these games are more or less unsolvable, they have two forms of gameplay – the moment-to-moment decisions in the games and the breakspace, which is often called the “metagame.” However, the term metagame typically refers to the current realm of strategies and counter strategies that people use, whereas the breakspace of Starcraft is more like a story. The beginning is the first time you sit down to play Starcraft and fumble around with the units and the end is the unreachable optimal strategy.

So the sum “content” of Starcraft is both the high-level play itself and the journey towards the thought that creates these high-level games; the story about how we got to where we are now. Like most multiplayer games, some people start somewhere in the middle. Instead isolating themselves and taking the entire journey from the first game of Starcraft to where it is now, they read forums and jump right into the game a little bit behind its current level.  They find value in Starcraft by seeking out high-level play, by trying to get to the frontier.

However, there are many people who do start at the beginning and get value out of a different part of the journey. They play offline with friends who are also just starting and so they climb up a whole different section than those who are aiming for the top. Because, ultimately, the value of Starcraft is in both the peak and the climb itself. It’s interesting to be at the top, but how you got to the top is also interesting. The people who start out online are at the peak, trying to get higher than anyone’s ever gone. The other people are way below, studying history – but in many ways, there is beauty in the history. Those who jump to the top do not experience the hundred strategies that failed, only the one that succeeded.

It is not only deep games like Starcraft and Chess, but every game, every set of rules with a goal which have breakspace.  Many of these games have optimal strategies which will probably never be solved but which do exist theoretically for an infinitely powerful computer, e.g. Go, and their breakspaces are therefore theoretically finite but realistically infinite. However, there are plenty of games, like Tic Tac Toe, that have finite breakspaces.

One of these is Dragon Age. Dragon Age has tons of traditional content – a 60-80 hour plot, plenty of sidequests, deep characters, art, atmosphere, cutscenes etc. But this is only one variety of the content you’re experiencing when you play Dragon Age; the other is its breakspace. Like many games, Dragon Age’s breakspace is similar to its traditional content or a book or a movie.  It has a beginning, the character creation screen, and an end, the optimal build or battle plan for every battle. It is likely very finite and if you sat down and solved it as a big math problem it would probably be significantly less than 60 hours worth of math (to get close; it’d probably be a lot more to prove that that was the optimal strategy). Like the game’s story, someone can spoil the end for you, and they often do. Go to any Dragon Age message board and you’ll see people jumping you ahead – “Dual wielding does better damage than two-handed,” “The game is easy if you get a lot of mages with crowd control,” etc etc. But even though you might know the end, it’s still fun to explore the breakspace, it’s fun to see why the other strategies are inferior, and it’s fun to see the story the breakspace tells. It’s a great story, created by a haphazard combination of developer intention and player discovery. You may know the end and the beginning, but the value of any story – the real content – is often how you got there.

7 Comments

  1. I’m going to give you a criminally short reply, but I just wanted to thank you for this post. Optimization is the *only* thing that interests me about western RPGs, and they’re my favorite genre. Yet, whenever I try to talk about how I couldn’t sleep because I was trying to figure out how to min-max my party, nobody wants to have it. So, again, thank you.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Oh and I should add that I’d love to see a piece on what happens to a 60-hr videogame when the breakspace is something like 10 hours. Or, perhaps, what happens to an 8-hr game (Bioshock) with a breakspace of thirty minutes.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  3. Tom Cross wrote:

    Like Simon, I like this idea a lot. I’m actually really bad at getting through the breakspace. The only way I ever reach high-level play is through outside help (unless I love a game, in which case I get to high level quickly, and then coast, contentedly through the rest of the game).

    I’d also be interested in a post about how people confuse/replace play breakspaces with story breakspaces (and which of the two, if not both, is what makes certain games fun). As Simon says, games like Bioshock have short breakspaces, but most people obviously only count that as part of the learning, “breaking” experience. The story and its solution/consumption are (in a holdover from our non-play narrative training) considered to be just as important.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  4. James L wrote:

    Hey guys, thanks for commenting!

    @Simon: Yeah, I totally agree, that’s a great topic for a follow up post. I was thinking about something similar when I was writing this article – the breakspace is only one kind of content (the second being the more traditional story/plot) so, as Tom pointed out in his comment, I imagine a lot of people just contentedly cruise through the actual story once they finish the breakspace’s story.

    However, I bet a lot of people slightly alter the game so it has an entirely different breakspace – for example, if mages are slightly better than any other class in Dragon Age (which I’m not sure is true, but just for argument’s sake) then you might finish the original game’s breakspace with the optimal strategy of 3 mages and then say “I wonder how well I could do with a rogue instead of a mage” or something similar, essentially changing the goal of the game and consequently altering the strategic space.

    It’s also interesting to note that most games’ goals are designed to make it fairly easy to “beat” the game – to find a strategy that allows you to get through the game fairly easily. However, I bet a lot of people set casual extra goals when they’re playing a game. In other words, it’s fairly easy to beat Dragon Age, even on hard. There are dozens or hundreds of strategies that allow you to beat Dragon Age easily, so which way do you go to find the “optimal” strategy, i.e. what’s your goal? To beat battles as quickly as possible? To die as little as possible? All of these goals branch out into different optimal strategies.

    @Tom: Definitely a great topic, thanks for bringing it up. I’d echo a lot of the stuff I said above here – but I totally agree, it’s interesting how the two forms of content interact to create the overall experience, i.e. what is it you’re really consuming. My first thought is that you’re rarely consuming both at once – you’re generally playing the game and then sometimes getting into the story through cutscenes or dialogue outside of the gameplay. I’d be really interested to hear more about what you think about confusing/replacing the two.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  5. extralife wrote:

    To do this is to go down a road I’m not sure you want to go down. If “breaking the system” is the goal of the game, then the game you are playing is bad, by definition: it is breakable. It is not strong. That the playspace of the RPG as a genre is so narrow that we can dismiss the entirety of the game’s overt design as so much fluff, as some obstacle in front of time–and you are correct in this thinking, in this observation–then the RPG genre needs a serious rethink. It has failed. To argue anything else is to become an apologist, which video game critics, commentators and players certainly have a collective nasty habit of.

    As you point out, if the actual game is the manipulation of the spreadsheets behind the veneer, of the code on which the ostensible “content” operates, then the competition of Dragon Age is Starcraft, and chess. Can it possibly hope to compete with these games, on those grounds? Obviously not. To make that claim is laughable. And it is here that we get to the heart of game design, which has nothing to do with the fluff of narrative and aesthetics that so populate our commentary and notions of quality. Instead, we are left with rules and systems, the operations thereof, and the complexity and flexibility they offer. In Dragon Age, or in nearly every other RPG, “strategy” title or other game loosely labeled as for the brain rather than the gut, these systems are never in doubt. Boil off the fancy names, the manner and number of statistics, the positions of obstacles (“battles,” in this parlance), and systems as disparate as those behind Bioware, or Final Fantasy, or, Warcraft become exactly the same. Some peculiar, dissonant, irrelevant nuance to mercilessly exploit and power up in the name of progress. In the name of breaking the game.

    This is not game design. I say this not because it lacks the depth or complexity of chess, or, dare I say, video games like Starcraft or Street Fighter. I say this because it is no accident on the part of those that create these titles. The “content” I have mentioned is fluff–a moneysink for publicity and hype. The root is the system, forged long ago in Wizardry and Ultima, and before that in D&D, and to this time fundamentally unaltered. The only alteration is to encourage the brokenness of which you speak. To tickle some psychological tick that marks the gamer, that allows for the flourishing of achievements, mini-persistence and “system wars” style fanaticism. The goal is empty addiction. Not through a deep, rewarding system of advancement, or an endless world of new content, as the popular press likes to describe, but through a base, unthinking path through the code that we’ve all ingrained on a subconscious level. Games are code on a disc, and code can only give you a yes or a no. The systems always distill down to the same thing. The trick is for designers to keep asking the questions.

    The point of all this, I guess, is to prove that a game like Dragon Age is a bad video game. One could perhaps argue that the superfluous aspects of its design–such as, say, the narrative–are well done, but these are unrelated to the nature of the video game.

    (and no video game executes them with any of the accrued mastery of, say, 3000 years or literature, for example)

    Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  6. Xeno wrote:

    Good read, concise explanations of an aspect of game-playing.
    Interesting to think about the scale of breakspace, too. eg. The first 30 minutes are tutorial-styled, very simple strategies and the player’s mastery of the (current) game vs possible skill level (is the game complicated enough to be interesting throughout, or do you learn all you need to within a few minutes of playing the new mechanics).
    Cheers

    Friday, February 26, 2010 at 4:00 am | Permalink
  7. Haversack wrote:

    Thank you for coining such a great term.

    It seems to me that endgame MMOs are all about breakspace for whatever boss/raid/dungeon you are currently completing.

    Its interesting to think that most of the continued value after cap level in MMOs is searching for a breakspace in the endgame content. Till the next patch or expansion anyway.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

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