Whether you’ve noticed or not, you end up playing games within games a lot of the time. We find it fun to play games, so playing games within those games should be great shouldn’t it? But like any form of media, how fun a game is can vary. You can have your medium defining games like Super Mario Bros. or Metal Gear Solid, or you can have your bargain-bin games like the most recent Duke Nukem game or Aliens: Colonial Marines – fun fact, both are made by Gearbox Studios! You never truly know how different your experience is going to be when playing a new game compared to everyone else’s. You may hate some part of the game that a review you read may have praised.
That part could be anything. It could be a cutscene that you think was rushed, or a mechanic that you disagree with, or it could be a prevalent mini-game within the main game you are playing. These “games within games” seem to be one of developers’ favorite tools. Whether it be to artificially lengthen their game or to actually challenge the player and mix things up. Either way, these features can make or break a game for some players, it all depends. Sometimes the rest of your game can be so good that the player will deal with the shitty mini-game in order to progress, or they can be so frustrating that the player ends up getting rid of the game out of anger and frustration.
No matter how you may feel about these mini-games, they are here and they are here to stay. Is this bad? Not exactly. There are some developers that go above and beyond with their little side-projects such as CD Projekt Red and their card game Gwent, distracting players from the already massive amount of tasks they have already taken on in The Witcher 3. How about Minecraft? A whole community has built up around designing or adapting games to be played within Minecraft’s world such as the famous Hunger Games mode or the more original game, Spleef. These and other mini-games have increased the longevity of certain games by ridiculous amounts, hell, Gwent is now becoming its own game due to how popular it was.
Though we can talk about the best examples all day, it is important to note the less-appreciated ones and why players don’t enjoy them as much. One of the first that come to mind for me is Bioshock’s hacking mini-game. Now, I am certainly not the first (if I am, what is wrong with you?) to tell you how good Bioshock is, and I will not be the last. However, no game is perfect and this one is no exception. As players travel through Rapture, they are constantly being forced to play a little game where they have to put pipes in a certain order to allow water to flow from one end to the other. Sound fun? Spoiler: it isn’t. It is bearable at first, but as the game progresses it becomes grating on the player. I have a friend who would frequently rage-quit due to this little feature, greatly impacting his enjoyment of the game.
Now of course there are players who don’t mind the mini-game or who even enjoy it, but they are in the minority here. There is nothing wrong with including a hacking mini-game, loads of games have them, but this one probably could have went back to the drawing board before being put in-game. Why doesn’t it work? Well first off, let’s ask ourselves this: does the mini-game enhance or take away from your enjoyment of the game? If you are absolutely dreading the next time it is coming up, it is definitely taking some of that away from you. Does it compliment the actual game? Or is it just a random side-project thrown in to make the game feel longer? In this case, it feels more like a half-baked side project.
Could Irrational have done better with their mini-game? Absolutely. Did it affect them in the long run? Not much, no, but there was still a bad taste left in the mouths of some gamers. I like to think they could have taken a page from Bethesda’s book here, and made a very simple mini-game that was more reliant on improving your skill by learning and eventually mastering the task, like the lock-picking in The Elder Scrolls or the hacking in Fallout.
Speaking of Bethesda, what were they thinking with the Speech mini-game in Oblivion? You click on a wedge to judge what the NPC likes and dislikes, and then continually choose that? I think? They even lock you out of the proper choices sometimes. The game simply would have been better without the little mini-game and been better off with just a basic speech skill like they opted for in Skyrim (thank Talos for that one).
Like I mentioned before, not all mini-games are awful. Let’s pick on Undertale. Toby Fox took the idea of a mini-game and made it into the entire combat system in his indie hit. Every encounter, whether you are fighting or trying to play peacefully, you are forced to play a mini-game where you are a little dot dodging the attacks thrown at you. It is simple, yet very effective and at it’s core it is fun. In order to keep it fresh, each enemy has their own version of attack to dodge, so the player never knows what to expect. Enhancing the gameplay? Check. Is it a clever take on the established gameplay? Well, technically it is the only type of combat in the game, but Toby cleverly expands upon it as the game progresses, so yes. As if you needed another reason to play Undertale.
Mini-games can make or break games, they can be one of our favorite memories of our favorite games, or take a game we thought passable, and bring it to unplayable, as well as everything in-between. Just because they are prefixed with “mini”, that does not mean a developer should skimp on these games within games.
What are your favorite mini-games? Let us know in the comments below.