What exactly makes you want to play through a game more than once? What makes it “replayble”? I will use 5 games to answer this question and analyze the replayability factors.
“Replay value” is defined as “the entertainment value obtained by playing a computer game more than once”.
Generally there are 10 types of replay value:
- adding constraints on the gameplay
- branching story where player might play again to get different endings
- character customization that will allow the player to play using a different play style
- achievement completion
- perfromance grading — perfectionism
- playing again with new insight giving you a new perspective
- unlockable characters and items
- ability to replay missions
- an atmosphere that makes the game feel like home
Let’s first have a look at a game that is being listed as one of the most replayble and as the most popular game to speedrun of all time.
Dark Souls is so unique that it created a whole genre of games, so called souls-likes. The main reason for that is the game’s unforgiving nature, tough bosses, the need to explore on your own, absolutely no handholding, and having to fill the gaps in the story, that you have to piece together by yourself.
The game is deeply mythological and philosophical —the story stands on the fight between nihilism and existentialism and uses classical archetypal stories like the Hero myth. The final boss, Lord Gwyn, is a direct representation of Thor. Your “guide” in the game is a snake Frampt, with two heads, and he represents Ouroboros, the symbol of eternal recurrence. Of course there are other variations of archetypal stories — i.e. St. George, the story that inspired even J.K.Rowling in the Chamber of Secrets — Hero defeats the dangerous unknown and gets the virgin princess. In case of HP it’s Harry, Basilisk and Giny; in case of Dark Souls it’s you, Chosen Undead, Lord of the abyss Manus and princess Dusk. Then there are other psychological concepts like facing your Shadow self (even prince of persia did that in 1999), J.K. did that with the Shadow being part of Harry Potter (Voldemort), that’s what allowed Harry to defeat Voldemort.. and Dark Souls did it with Knight Artorias. He tried to face the darkness, integrate it to become stronger, but it overcame him and he fell into the unconscious abyss.
But enough rambling about the mythology. The point is, every mythological story stimulates the deepest psychological structures of our characters, so it inherently becomes popular. If you don’t believe me, look at Avengers, Thor, Loki, Odin, Thanos… Red Riding Hood, Witches, oh, and the Witcher, which made the CD Project the second biggest gaming firm in Europe.
Dark souls has extremely rewarding gameplay. When you have been trying to beat a boss for 2 hours and you finally defeat him, you literally gain his power through consuming his soul (same concept used in Skyrim, Dragonborn consumed the souls of the dragon — another mythological concept — when you defeat the unknown, you become stronger than it). And you feel rewarded, endorphins and dopamine flood your brain.
So, it is obviously a challenge oriented RPG. There is also a perfect level design. The world is entirely interconnected — newer Souls games lack this, you can teleport around since the first bonfire. But what made the first Dark Souls truly magical is the interconnected world. You can get from any place in the world to any other place only by foot! So you can descend into the Hell and fight literal Death and get back up to the godly Anor Londo. It will take you a lot of time, but you can.
Then there is the invasion system. Revolutionary. Before you enter the fog gate to a boss fight you can summon a player who is on a similar level as you. Then there are invasions. Red phantoms invade your world and try to kill you. They are other players that feel like hurting someone, and sometimes they are really cruel. But it is only meant to make you tougher and get good at the game. The player itself can get emotionally attached to the “brothers in fight” — one of these is a famous NPC, Solaire of Astora who helps you in a jolly cooperation. The invasion system is very complex, and I will keep the analysis for another article.
As I said, the game has a story that you have to discover and piece together with your own imagination. It is so deep that players were discovering secret connections in the story and secret items even 7 years after the release. That itself is a huge contributing factor in the replayability. Hidetaka Myazaki didn’t care that players could miss whole areas of the game if they were not observant, he did not provide any hand holding, and it paid off.
The game has also a messaging system, that allows you to leave messages written on the ground to other players. You can troll them, and write “Imminent treasure. Try jumping!” on the edge of a dark hole which will lead to their death. Or you can point out a secret path or illusory wall to them. The game is full of secrets. And some some of them get unlocked only after you have finished the game.
That’s right! There is a New Game+. Each time the bosses and enemies get harder, get more HP, but you get to keep the gear you found each time and also get to find the rare items only available to NG+ players.
The hero also has a clear goal — to link the fire and avoid the age of darkness, or to let the fire fade and let the darkness reign.
Dark Souls II did not have such a strong mythological story, that is why it wasn’t as successful as dark souls I. Dark Souls III used scandinavian mythology and drew a lot of style from the Lovecraftian Bloodborne (which is also by the same author, Hidetaka Myazaki).
Binding of Isaac
Binding of Isaac is a game created by Edmund McMillen. He created it right after Super Meat Boy, because he wanted to try something smaller, using procedural generation, but he didn’t anticipate how successful the game will become.
Isaac is a top down dungeon crawler with procedurally generated levels. Randomness plays a huge factor in this game. Everything is generated procedurally, random items, levels, enemies… only the bosses stay consistent.
The theme of the game is very catholic, as Edmund himself had catholic upbringing and talks about the morbidity of the catholic symbols he experienced in his childhood. You can find mini bosses in the game created after each of the deadly sins — gluttony, greed, lust etc.
“People wonder why there’s a lot of violence in my work. I grew up with a picture of a bloody dying man who is suffering for everybody, a martyr, and it’s the whole idea of self-sacrifice. Your exalted God, your God, rips his body to shreds for the good of the world. Violence becomes holy. And in a lot of ways, in the Bible and Catholicism, violence and gore is considered holy. You drink the blood of Christ, you eat his flesh. How does that not come in to me?
“There’s recurring themes in everything in my work, and they’re usually things where I think it’s so odd that people think they’re gross. I tend to focus on the fetal stages of birth, life and death — but mostly birth — the development process, and dying and decay. It’s life, but it’s these parts that are interesting. After and before, the development and the decay. Those are the mysterious things. Guts. The stuff that’s inside. That sort of stuff. Religion and sexuality and… genitals.”
Before developing his previous game, Super meat boy, he planned to commit a career suicide with the game “CUNT”, which is centered, well, around genitals.
So it comes as no surprise that some of the levels of Isaac take place in the vagina. But even then, the graphics are widely considered to be cute, because the game features big-eyed enemies and characters, and everything is hand-drawn.
Recurring theme in Edmund’s work is a defenseless main hero, who makes the best of the situation he finds himself in. So, Isaac uses his tears and power-ups he finds, Super Meat Boy relies on his precise movement and Edmund’s basement collections features also a number of child heroes.
Isaac has a clear goal — to get away from his mother, whom he fights in the final level. The story is inspired by the biblical story of Binding of Isaac
At some point in Isaac’s youth, his father Abraham took him to Mount Moriah. At God’s command, Abraham was to build a sacrificial altar and sacrifice his son Isaac upon it. After he had bound his son to the altar and drawn his knife to kill him, at the very last moment an angel of God prevented Abraham from proceeding. Instead, he was directed to sacrifice a nearby ram that was stuck in thickets.
The game features beautiful soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky, who also created the OST for Super Meat Boy.
Replay value of Isaac is pretty much infinite— there are multiple endings, as each game is completely different (depending on the randomized seed). The items influence your play style, and you can also choose either holy or satanic buffs. The items and their effects are obscure, so players had to create an extensive database on the game’s wiki. This trait is shared with Dark Souls. You can also unlock new characters with unique starting gifts. The price/fun ratio here is insane.
Fallout New Vegas
Fallout New Vegas is post-apocalyptic action RPG and same as the other games, you have a very clear goal right from the start — you have to find the guy who stole a chip with crucial information from you and then shot you in the head. Unbeknownst to him you survived, all thanks to Mr. House, who had his spy robot look after you and dig you up from the grave.
The game let’s you choose your perks and character traits, same as any usual RPG. But I date to say this model is way more sophisticated than take Skyrim. For example, if you choose the “Black widow” perk and play as a female character, you can have sex with the guy who shot you (after you meet him again) and then kill him in his sleep. There is countless possibilities — you can put zero points into your intelligence and charisma and go through the game like an absolute idiot, who gets also treated like one. Or you can put EVERYTHING in intelligence and charisma, and talk your way out of anything, even when you face a group of enemies who would absolutely obliterate you with laser machine guns. You can play it as a stealth game, where you max out your lockpicking and hacking skills and turn robots to your side when you explore the RobCo ruins. You can choose to make a “no killing” run, where you solve everything diplomatically by using your charisma to manipulate people or just get through the game guns blazing.
Exploration here is greatly rewarded, and there is so much to explore.. you can become a detective for people, finding what happened to their families, who stole from them etc. An early game quest comes to mind — Boone is a night guard in Novac town and his wife has gone missing. Later you find that a local hotel owner sold her to the slavers. Boone then takes the justice into his own sniper sights. This quest alone has multiple input and output scenarios — if you do a bad detective work, and find a random person, whom then Boone kills, he will pretty much tell you to go fuck yourself and never show up there again. But if you bring evidence, then he will become your companion for the rest of the game. And having a skilled sniper by your side is really useful in the wasteland.
There are sometimes bizarre but incredibly memorable quests, like when you save the underground ghouls whose dream is to travel to the moon. So you help them fix a space rocket and fulfill their destiny. There is incredible amount of interesting side quests with cannibal hotel owners, corruption, hookers, hitmen and street gang wars.
But the most important part of the game is the story. There is a war going on, and it was the “war never changes” quote, which the Fallout became famous for. You also have to constantly make moral decisions which boost or lower your karma. Karma then unlocks more specific quests and companions.
You can also join various factions like the NCR, Caesar’s Legion, Boomers, Brotherhood of steel , Omertas, White Glove society, Great Khans, Mr. House himself or stay independent. Each of these choices give you unique advantages in the story progression.
For example Caesar’s legion is famous for their use of Roman torture methods, like crucifixion of those who defy them and using throwing spears and bare fists. NCR is military based faction aiming to liberate the wasteland.
Atmosphere also contributes to the replayability. I find myself returning to the game about every other year, to relive the New Vegas experience.
Super Meat Boy
Super Meat boy is a successor to the famous 2008 hardcore retro platformer “Meat Boy”. The player controls Meat Boy, a sort of a boy with no skin, attempting to rescue his girlfriend Bandage Girl from the evil Dr. Fetus. The game is known for its hardcore difficulty and an insane number of retro easter egg and secret glitch levels, featuring more than 300 levels.
The juicy and energetic soundtrack completes the fast-paced feel of the game, as each of the areas gets its visual and audio style, along with the traps and enemies getting tougher and tougher.
You begin in the “Forest”, which is pretty much a tutorial area, where you will for sure learn how to control the game. You will also come to contact with the basic traps and you learn that they have different levels of difficulty (saws, moving saws, rotating saws etc.).
Each of the levels has a dark version, which is simply a hardcore version of the same level, along with darker version of the awesome soundtrack. There are also area bosses you have to “defeat” — defeat in quotes, because you are defenseless, you just get away or let them take themselves out.
As you progress through the various levels, you end up in “The End”, an area with a strong dystopian feel and the final boss battle. After that you unlock the bandage girl as a playable character.
There are dozens of playable characters, which you unlock by finishing the secret glitch levels and by collecting bandage placed across the levels in various hard-to-get locations.
The game has a very clean feel, and many details that support the immersion. Squirrels run away from you and get killed by the saws, you leave a trail of meat juice behind and when you finish the level, you can replay all your attempts at beating the level along with all of your deaths.
The story is short and simple, but well implemented — for example — the area boss whom you try to help in the second area comes to your rescue at the end as a friend. Overall, the game is very friendly and feels like home. And that is a trait that many of the games I list here share. For example in Dark Souls it’s the Firelink Shrine and the bonfires you sit at and refill your Estus healing potions that you inevitably emotionally attach to. The game feel is also a very important aspect of replayability. The main premise of the story is the same as in mythology, “saving the princess” and it mirrors Edmund’s feelings to some extent, and as he says “bandage girl and meat boy complement each other”, as you can hear him say in Indie Game: The movie, while he is sitting next to his girlfriend. In the upcoming Super Meat Boy Forever you can see a kind of “child” meat boy, which again, mirrors Edmund’s life, because he recently became a father.
The main factor of replayability in this game lies in the achievement completion and performance grading. The faster you complete a level, the better you grade will be. Your best times are recorded into a global database of players, so you can compare your skill and strive for the perfect level time.
Hotline Miami is a pixel-art top-down shoot-em-up full of visceral gore. It was made with Game Maker Studio, which is often (wrongly) considered to be an immature game engine, but some great games like Spelunky or Undertale were also made in it.
The game is centered around traversing the levels as fast as possible. That is supported by showing you how efficient in killing others you were at the end of each level. And similar to Super Meat Boy, you get a grade. In SMB it’s A+ or nothing, in Hotline Miami it’s A+ through F-. The scoring system is based on your actions and playstyles. The most rewarded playstyle is the “Invisbile man”, where you stay undetected the whole level. Then you have combo-centered playstyles like Combo master for 13+ combo, Door Master for killing with door kicks or Chiropractor by mercy killing wounded enemies on the ground.
Your level record times and scores are stored in a global database of players, so you can also compare your efficiency and skill with others.
The soundtrack of Hotline Miami is one of the best ones I’ve heard perhaps in any game. The game pretty much introduced me to the retro synthwave genre, with artists like Carpenter Brut, M.O.O.N, Pertubator or Jasper Byrne. Each of the levels uses a unique track, which you will no doubt remember, as you will repeat the level multiple times before you get it right without dying.
The gore in the game is very prominent. As you traverse the level, you leave a trail of bleeding bodies behind you, and they stay there when you return through the level, so you can really feel the message the game is trying to convey. You can execute your enemies, slit their throats, pick their eyes, do the “Only god forgives” and “Watchmen” move and kill them with a boiling oil, bash their heads in, use a samurai sword to cut them into pieces or make them into a bloody mush with a double barrelled shotgun.
Main hero is able to wear masks that give him special powers, like the ability to kick doors to kill or to one punch enemies and dogs.
Story of this game is told through a number of trippy cutscenes, where you meet with the terrorists wearing animal masks, who are manipulating you and blackmailing you into doing all the things you do, ultra violence, killing members of mafia and cleaning a whole lot of other underground groups, of course for the benefit of the animal masks.
There is also the “saving the girl” part here, same as in Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, Limbo and Half Life 2. The story is somewhat inspired by the 2011's Drive, where the main hero wears a scorpion jacket, kills people to defend his girl and drives into the sunset at the end. You can find the scorpion jacket as an easter egg in Jacket’s flat.
There are collectibles in the game, which, when collected, unlock a secret ending that changes your perspective quite a lot.
So, the replay value here is derived from the achievement completion (there is even an achievement called “Achievement whore” that unlocks only when you complete every single one), then from performance grading, unlockable characters and weapons, definitely the game feel and atmosphere and also from the ability to replay mission — I found myself replaying certain levels purely for the awesome soundtrack.