Characters in stories play games just like you and me.* But what do they play? Some stories can use real games, but strange fantasy cultures should have strange fantasy games. Unfortunately, most writers aren’t game designers, and many of their creations fall flat. Others fall a lot farther, and that’s what we’ll be talking about. These games make Pro Bending look like Go and 3D Chess look like regular Chess. They’re the bottom of the barrel and so poorly thought out that no one would play them.
Back in the ancient past of 2001, Squaresoft published their tenth Final Fantasy (FF) game.* The last two entries in the series featured in-universe games played by the characters, so number ten needed one as well. That’s right, we’re talking about a game within a game. I promise it won’t be too confusing.
FFVIII and FFIV both featured card games, but this time the designers decided to do something different. For FFX, they designed an underwater sport called Blitzball. The main character, Tidus, is a professional Blitzball player, so it features heavily in the story. Problem: it’s terrible in every way.
Blitzball is played in a sphere of water suspended in midair somehow.* Players are completely submerged the entire game. It’s not clear how long each game lasts, but certainly far longer than any human could hold their breath while swimming about trying to kick a ball. So how do they breathe? The game doesn’t say. Magic is never mentioned, nor do we ever see any kind of breathing magic employed at any other time, even when it would be really useful.
Even stranger, how are they kicking and throwing a ball underwater? Try kicking something underwater. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You’ll notice it doesn’t go very far. Water is about 800 times denser than air*, so it doesn’t matter how strong a player is – that ball is going nowhere. The characters also have a bunch of special moves that look like they’d accomplish absolutely nothing. Tidus does something called a Sphere Kick, where he somehow gets more kicking power by doing a flip? It makes him look like a show off.
Worst of all, Blitzball gives us the character Wakka, who uses a ball from the game as his weapon. Other characters use swords or guns or magic staves; this guy throws a ball. That’s certainly what we all wanted in our epic fantasy story about the ultimate fate of humanity.
What could be more fun than zooming around on your broomstick, competing for the Hogwarts Cup? A lot of things, it turns out.
For one thing, this game is incredibly unsafe, even by Harry Potter standards.* Players fly high into the air at incredible speed, with only their grip to keep them on the broom. You might assume there are safety charms in place, but that’s not the case. We know because in the first book, Quirrell tries to kill Harry by knocking him off his broom during a game.
Any player, many of whom are children, who loses their grip will plummet to the unforgiving earth. Hogwarts has an impressive infirmary, but even they can’t treat a case of “died immediately upon impact.” Then consider the special “bludger” balls that fly around deliberately trying to knock players off their brooms. Apparently, wizards haven’t invented the liability lawsuit yet. I wonder how high the body count is each year?
Safety aside, quidditch needs some equipment regulations. In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry shows everyone up on his top-of-the-line Nimbus 2000. The next year, House Slytherin ups the ante by getting their entire team Nimbus 2001s. Then Harry continues the arms race by arriving on a Firebolt.
Speed and maneuverability are paramount in quidditch. Each broom is better than what came before and gives their rider a major advantage. The Gryffindor team defeats the Slytherins’ 2001s, but it’s a victory against long odds. A competently managed sport would never have let such such an imbalance appear in the first place. A cash-strapped soccer team might not have quite as nice shoes and shin guards as their opponents, but any advantage granted is minimal. In quidditch, paying to win is A-OK.
Finally, the golden elephant in the room: the snitch. Catching this thing is worth 15 goals and ends the game.* Scoring goals is useless because you’ll never get enough of them to matter. Everyone’s eyes are on the seeker, because that’s where the real action is. On a team of seven, only one player matters. Three if you include the beaters, because they can at least try to hit the seeker with a bludger.
In seven books, there’s only one game where the team that catches the snitch doesn’t win. That result is so rare that the Weasley twins make a small fortune betting on it. In no real sport is one player so heavily emphasized. Not even the much celebrated quarterback in American football. Team games are supposed to require every player’s best effort, and that’s not the case in quidditch.
3. Duel Monsters
Taking a break from the exhilaration of broomstick flying, let’s look at a good old-fashioned card game. Duel Monsters is the primary game played in the Yu-Gi-Oh anime, full of monsters and spells and traps. Pretty exciting, right? Also completely incomprehensible.
In the anime, cards have no text on them beyond a monster’s name and basic stats, yet the players are always pulling out fancy effects and combos. How does everyone know that the Time Wizard ages every other monster on the field, giving them major stat penalties? It doesn’t say that anywhere on the Time Wizard’s card. Adding another layer, how do they know that some monsters actually benefit from this effect, becoming older and more powerful?
Has everyone memorized the effects of every card from some rulebook? That can’t be, because the characters are constantly running into cards they’ve never seen before. Are the characters just making effects up and hoping their opponent buys it? That’s what I would do. “Ah yes, my baby rabbit card plus my green grass card means my rabbits multiply out of control and eat all your food. I win.”
Sometimes games are played with giant hologram projecting computers, so it’s possible those have a database of every card’s effect, but they play regular games across a table from each other, too. That sounds like a nightmare.
If you weren’t already confused, the game’s rules are inconsistent. Monsters are supposed to have a “defense mode,” wherein their defense stat protects their player’s life total. In a number of key matches, players forget about this rule, even when it could have kept them from losing. And the show can’t decide if players take damage when their monster dies or only if players are attacked when they don’t have a monster.
Making matters worse, the game has no balance whatsoever. There’s no equivalent to mana or gold cost, so players can just pack their decks with the strongest cards available. This is the ultimate pay to win situation. At the show’s beginning, the world champion player holds his title because he has three of the rarest and best cards in the game. He never demonstrates any skill, but he’s got the best cards. Of course, he gets beaten by the main character thanks to even more powerful cards – not because of skill.
This problem persisted into real life when the Yu-Gi-Oh card game came out. Only the top five percent or so of the cards are worth using, which means most of the packs you buy are filled with nothing but garbage.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a show about war, relationships, intergalactic diplomacy, and occasionally, really bad games. In the episode Move Along Home, our characters meet the Wadi, their first alien species from the Gamma Quadrant. The Wadi are all about games, and when they get tired of playing around in Quark’s bar, they bring out their own game: Chula.
At first, Chula looks like a giant rat play structure, but it’s much more complicated. Somehow, the Wadi create little pocket dimensions inside that machine. Then they kidnap four of DS9’s senior staff and beam them into these dimensions to play the game.
Right off the bat, this game requires kidnapping in order to work. The Wadi act like this is fine, but it’s crazy to think they’ve never encountered another species that objected to being forced into strange pocket dimensions. The Dominion, for example, who live in the same area of space. If the Wadi tried that with some Jem’hadar, there would be trouble.
The gameplay is awful, too. While the crew are navigating through challenges in their pocket dimensions, all the player and spectators on the outside see is a handful of playing pieces moving along a track. In fact, there’s almost no input from the player at all. We only see one instance of the player making an actual choice, when Quark chooses a high risk, high reward option over the safe path. Instead, random die rolls usually determine what happens next, so it’s basically a high tech version of Snakes and Ladders.
Inside the pocket dimension, our heroes are subjected to a series of tests. Each time they pass a test, they advance to a new room, and outside the pieces representing them are moved as well. Unfortunately, the tests are insultingly easy. Most first time dungeon masters could do better. In one room, they have to get through a force field by copying a silly jump routine. In another, they escape poison gas by drinking something they’re told to drink.
Other challenges are impossible to defeat. At one point, Quark rolls badly on the outside, so Dr. Bashir is swallowed up by floating lights. The characters had no way of stopping it, which makes you wonder why the Wadi bother to use living people.* Even if they hadn’t been kidnapped, it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying this game.
5. Sword Art Online
Speaking of strange parallel dimensions, we come to Sword Art Online (SAO), from the anime of the same name. This massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMO) uses such advanced virtual reality technology that the players are effectively on a holodeck. They see, hear, and feel everything in the game world as if they were actually there.* Of course, the game rebels and tries to kill them, but that’s not the problem. Everything else is.
Since SAO is a full virtual reality, players control their characters just as they control their own body. When you swing a sword, you’re using your own hand-eye coordination, not just telling the computer to swing a sword for you. At last, we can dispense with all the elaborate game mechanics that exist to simulate a real fight! Or not, apparently.
Despite its advanced technology, SAO uses all the same mechanics as a modern MMO. Players need to level up by killing stupendous numbers of local wildlife, a process known in the trade as grinding. No one likes grinding. It’s a weakness in video games, and it isn’t necessary in a game like SAO. Players should get better at sword fighting by getting better at sword fighting.
Instead, your ability in the game is determined mostly by your character’s level. In one scene, a bunch of lower level characters attack a higher level, and they can’t hurt him because their damage numbers aren’t high enough. He doesn’t even defend, just stands there letting them hit him for a while.
No matter how good a player is, they can’t overcome a level difference. This game design is baffling. Surely the entire point of such advanced virtual reality would be to make the experience more realistic; otherwise why bother? It’s depressing to imagine a designer using such advanced technology to recreate a modern MMO.
Designing games is hard, and not every writer is good at it. That’s ok! Authors aren’t usually stone masons either, but they write about castles pretty well. The lesson for designing games is the same as any other element of world building. Be vague, or do your research. If a game in your story is merely set dressing, then you don’t need to know much about it. But if the game is central to your plot, then you need to do the work of creating one that functions. This is second nature for subjects like warfare or medicine, and you can do it for games, too.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.