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.