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You Can (Not) Replay: Unrepeatable Experiences in Games ⠀

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Abstract

What does it mean for an experience to be unrepeatable? And, more specifically, what happens when unrepeatability is applied to games, an art form and an activity that has repetition at its very core? How does this change player experience, and how are these unrepeatable experiences different from the rest, in such a way that each may be treasured as something unique and irreplaceable? Throughout this thesis, I examine unrepeatable experiences in games, and the elements that characterize them. First, I summarize the current state of research regarding unrepeatability and other relevant topics. Next, I propose a framework through which to look at unrepeatable experiences, classifying them based on the extent of the content they affect, their effect on player experience, and the events that lead to their unrepeatability. Then, I apply this framework to many examples of unrepeatable experiences in games and play to show different ways in which unrepeatability can arise, whether intentional or unexpected. Finally, I point out some of the questions raised by the gaps in the framework, and highlight several possible avenues of further research that may prove useful in understanding what makes unrepeatability such a compelling and powerful phenomenon in play.
You Can (Not) Replay
Unrepeatable Experiences in Games
Jaime Monedero March
IT University of Copenhagen M.Sc. in Games
June 3rd, 2019 jaimemonedero@yahoo.es
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You Can (Not) Replay: Unrepeatable Experiences in Games
3 June 2019
Jaime Monedero March
jaimemonedero@yahoo.es
Master’s thesis
Supervised by Paweł Grabarczyk
M.Sc. in Games
IT University of Copenhagen
Copenhagen, Denmark
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Table of Contents
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ............................................................................... V
ABSTRACT ........................................................................................... VII
INTRODUCTION ...................................................................................... 1
LITERATURE REVIEW ................................................................................ 3
Time and repetition in games .................................................................................................................... 3
Permadeath and irrevocability ................................................................................................................. 7
Replayability .................................................................................................................................................. 10
Nostalgia .......................................................................................................................................................... 12
ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK ........................................................................... 15
Characteristics ............................................................................................................................................... 16
Lost aspect .................................................................................................................................................................... 16
Reach ............................................................................................................................................................................... 18
Replacement ................................................................................................................................................................ 19
Player awareness ....................................................................................................................................................... 20
Player motivation ...................................................................................................................................................... 21
Limiting events .............................................................................................................................................. 22
Limiting events that affect game elements ..................................................................................................... 23
Limiting events that affect metagame elements ........................................................................................... 27
Limiting events that affect individual playthroughs ................................................................................... 29
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CASE STUDIES...................................................................................... 33
Savefile deletion ............................................................................................................................................ 65
DISCUSSION........................................................................................ 67
Framework quirks and shortcomings .................................................................................................. 67
Can’t play this again together ............................................................................................................................... 67
Repeatability and speedrunning ......................................................................................................................... 68
External unrepeatability factors .......................................................................................................................... 69
Perception of the unrepeatability of sports matches .................................................................................. 70
Design and research considerations ..................................................................................................... 71
Player awareness as a tool to control player experience .......................................................................... 71
Player motivation research opportunities ...................................................................................................... 72
CONCLUSION ...................................................................................... 73
REFERENCES ....................................................................................... 75
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(…)
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank some of the people who have been with me through these past two years.
First, my supervisor, Paweł Grabarczyk, without whose ideas and guidance this thesis would be
very different. Second, the rest of the Games teachers at ITU, especially Miguel Sicart and Hajo
Backe, who have taught me even more than I expected. I think about games very differently
now.
My family, especially my mother, who made sure the rest of my life didn’t break down while I
was working on this thesis.
My classmates, especially Mads Sønderstrup, Christoffer Krakou, Chris Carvelli, Lorena Ciobanu,
Ida Broni Christensen, Sarah Grossi, Joe Osborne, Dom Ford, Marie-Louise Alexius Sørensen,
Steffen Nielsen, Lina Zerahn and Sissel Ringvad. I have learned more from conversations with
you than from many classes, and we’ve all kept each other sane and moving forward. I’m
honestly amazed at what we’ve made and done together, and I am immensely glad that I ended
up in this class.
Finally, Deanna and Keanu. You have done more for me than you know. Thanks for all the
nights, for all the chats, for all the distractions and for all the encouragement. You’re absolutely
amazing.
“Thinking of you, wherever you are. Kingdom Hearts II
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0
Abstract
What does it mean for an experience to be unrepeatable? And, more specifically, what happens
when unrepeatability is applied to games, an art form and an activity that has repetition at its
very core? How does this change player experience, and how are these unrepeatable
experiences different from the rest, in such a way that each may be treasured as something
unique and irreplaceable?
Throughout this thesis, I examine unrepeatable experiences in games, and the elements that
characterize them. First, I summarize the current state of research regarding unrepeatability
and other relevant topics. Next, I propose a framework through which to look at unrepeatable
experiences, classifying them based on the extent of the content they affect, their effect on
player experience, and the events that lead to their unrepeatability. Then, I apply this
framework to many examples of unrepeatable experiences in games and play to show different
ways in which unrepeatability can arise, whether intentional or unexpected. Finally, I point out
some of the questions raised by the gaps in the framework, and highlight several possible
avenues of further research that may prove useful in understanding what makes unrepeatability
such a compelling and powerful phenomenon in play.
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1
Introduction
Repetition is ingrained into the fabric of games. Games allow players to explore different
courses of action from the same set of starting conditions, present challenges that remain
similar enough for players to use skills and information acquired in previous playthroughs to
aid them on their subsequent ones, and offer familiar environments and mechanics for players
to come back to.
Repetition and replication are two of the most core parts of the playing experience, with some
authors suggesting that they are necessary in order to learn how to play: a process of
negotiation with the game in order for the player to familiarize themselves with the mechanics,
the levels, the hazards, the obstacles everything they need to master in order to get better at
and progress through the game. Repetition and experimentation lead to mastery, and through
repeating motions and sections of the game, players become more adept at playing it.
Furthermore, many communities become identified by their efforts to restore old games and
consoles so they can be played again, as well as playing through certain games over and over, to
achieve the level of mastery necessary for competitive play and speedrunning.
Throughout history, and especially in the last few decades, people have been trying to capture
the present and save it for later consumption. Stories, art, writing, photography and film, among
other crafts, have become instrumental in efforts to archive events, works and art for later
consumption. This effect is greatly amplified as these technologies make their way to the public
in a widespread manner, leading us to our current era, in which most everyone has access to a
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mobile phone with the ability to record, save and share any moment for posterity. This is no
different in games: players replay games even if they have already completed them, so they can
re-experience the past all over again.
The inability to repeat something, then, carries heavy implications. Unrepeatable and unique
events are recorded, saved, and treasured as well as possible; but even then, it is impossible to
capture the exact feeling of being there as it happened. Total eclipses, live concerts and
inaugurations still draw crowds and attention, even if they are recorded and broadcasted for
everyone to see.
And, as much as repetition is an integral part of games, unrepeatability can appear in them too.
Game experiences can be unrepeatable in many ways, whether they were designed that way or
whether the unrepeatability is just a by-product of their circumstances. Games that incorporate
live-action elements require an effort of organization that all but ensures that the experience
will only be available once. Certain games block off the player’s access to them after being
played once, while others self-destruct if the player fails to beat them on the first try. Playing
games with friends can create unique moments of collaboration, competition, or serendipity
that can elevate a normal play session to the status of a treasured anecdote. And some games
simply become lost to time, with their copies or the hardware needed to play them forgotten
and untraceable.
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Literature review
There has not been much research regarding unrepeatability in games, so I will approach the
topic from several different angles. First, I will explain how authors consider repetition to be a
defining quality of games. Second, through the lens of permadeath, I will explore how player
experience is affected when the pattern of repetition is broken. Third, I will delve into
replayability to better understand what makes players want to repeat a game experience.
Finally, I will look at nostalgia, to examine how players look back on experiences they cannot
repeat.
Time and repetition in games
Repetition and repeatability are a characteristic quality of games: in this section I will
summarize how authors have talked about it in relation to other elements of games, such as
learning or narrative. First, I will examine texts about how time in games and the players’
experience of time are intertwined with repetition, by virtue of the fact that players end up
repeating many of their actions through the course of play. Second, I will talk about how this
repetition and how the variations in behavior that it allows expose the possibility space that the
game offers. Third, I will look at how authors relate this repetition to narrative and to agency, as
well as the meaning of the player’s actions when these actions are reversible. Finally, I will
examine how some of these authors speculate about the effects of taking away the player’s
ability to repeat their actions.
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Nitsche (2007) summarizes the previous work done in examining time in games, and
distinguishes two separate approaches. The formalist approach, as exemplified by Juul (1999),
provides a way to map two different time frames, play time and event time, onto each other,
such that they both progress parallelly in a related but not identical manner. Zagal and Mateas
(2007) expand on this idea, distinguishing between real-world time, game world time,
coordination time and fictive time, further distinguishing the types of temporal frames that the
player experiences and the interactions between these frames.
The experiential approach, initiated by Aarseth (1999), is based on the emotional involvement
of the player and how that affects their experience of time. This approach distinguishes three
separate time scales. First, at the smallest scale, the event time represents the time that passes
in the fiction, which is experienced by the player in different manners each time they repeat it.
This repetition aggregates the different instances of event time into the second level,
negotiation time, “where the possible event times are tested and varied, until a sufficiently
satisfying sequence is reached, or not reached (p. 37). Aarseth then introduces a third level,
“the progression of the game from beginning to end” (p. 37), that the repetition of negotiation
time leads to. These three time scales encapsulate each other, with the smaller scales’ repetition
leading to the emergence of the larger ones (Aarseth, 1999). Mukherjee (2008) later echoes this
sentiment, making this repetition integral to games: “Digital games have a more complex telic
structure [than earlier forms of narrativity], characterised by multiplicity and repetition” (para.
9).
Laurel (1991) introduces the concept of the flying wedge to explain the audience’s perception of
the possibility space and how it evolves along the course of a work of narrative. The flying
wedge models the evolution of the audience’s expectations over time regarding the possible
actions that may take place in a narrative work as they consume the work, using the viewing of
a theatre play as an example. Before the start of the work, the audience could expect anything to
happen: before the curtain is raised, anything is possible. Laurel defines the potential as the set
of actions that may occur in the course of the play, as seen from the perspective of any given
point in time. As the work proceeds, actions take place and more information is revealed, the
audience starts ruling out options from the potential ones, narrowing possibility into
probability. Towards the end of the work, the probability narrows down to a point: “At the
climax of a play, all of the competing lines of probability are eliminated except one, and that one
is the final outcome” (p. 84). This final outcome becomes necessary, the only remaining causally
logical outcome.
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Laurel (1991) then goes on to apply this concept to computer programs: on different executions
of the program, because the user’s actions are different, the wedge evolves towards different
necessary points on each session. At the beginning of each session, any outcome and any
incidents are still possible, but the user’s choices narrow down the space of possibility until the
end product (the necessary point) is reached, which may be a completely different one from the
ones reached in different sessions (Laurel, 1991, pp. 8587).
The ability to play the game differently and achieve different results depending on the player’s
execution has garnered attention among other authors. Aarseth (1999) mentions that “the
experienced sequence of signs does not emerge in a fixed, predetermined order decided by the
instigator of the work, but is instead one actualization among many potential routes within
what we may call the event space of semio-logical possibility” (p. 33). This thought is similar to
what Salen and Zimmerman (2003) call the space of possibility: “the space of all possible actions
that might take place in a game, the space for all possible meanings which can emerge from a
game design” (p. 67). Their definition, however, includes not only the possible events that may
transpire in the course of play, but also the possible interpretations that the players may draw
from the act of playing the game.
The dichotomy of virtual actions and actualized actions that Aarseth talks about is described by
Boluk and Lemieux (2017) as “[limiting] the player to one isolated, incomplete perspective
among an enormous (but finite) set of possible playthroughs” (para. 3). They also describe the
player’s exploration of this repetition along time, without Aarseth’s nuance of learning and
progression: “even the convention of multiple lives built into games like Super Mario Bros.
reinforces the mass repetition of videogames” (para. 1), and “[p]layers do not experience the
multiplicity, but rather the singularity of each engagement as past playthroughs vanish,
disappearing in time” (para. 3).
Mukherjee (2008) echoes the same concept: “In a computer game, the actions do not happen
once, but both as one and many at the same time” (para. 23). He frames this concept in the
Deleuzian model of multiplicity, with each single moment of gameplay being considered a point
in a manifold. “Of the multiplicity that a digital game is, each played instance becomes an
actualization while the other possible instances remain part of the virtual” (para. 38). The
choices that the player makes are influenced by the entire visible possibility space, not just the
intended action. “In computer gameplay, too, any particular instance is influenced by the
possible others. [Players] are simply choosing to actualise one possibility, which is constantly
influenced by others as the game progresses. [...] All of these potential moves determine the
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player’s decision to actualise one of them” (para. 42). Mukherjee puts the player’s view of the
entire possibility space in the center of the gameplay experience: the choice-making.
This view of the possibility space, and the ability of the player to restart the game and actualize
a different course of action, allows the player to repeat what they have done, and change their
actions to reach a different outcome. “The save game function is a node from which innumerable
possible futures can result or which allows a return to various saved instances of pasts”
(Mukherjee, 2008, para. 14). In order to explain this return to the past and modification of the
course of action, Nitsche (2007) takes Laurel’s flying wedge and expands it in the context of the
game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. The game allows the player to return to a previous state in
the game, with new knowledge of how the session may evolve. To reflect this, Nitsche (2007)
adds re-entry points to the wedge, showing how the player returns to a point where the
probable outcomes are more varied than the point in time they just left. In doing so, he also
maps this concept onto Aarseth’s (1999) negotiation time (in which the player learns about and
explores the possibility space), with each retry sending them back to a re-entry point on the
wedge, until they find a course of action that allows them to progress.
Some authors consider this ability for repetition and course-correction to be detrimental in
certain cases. For example, Juul (2004) claims that there is a clash between the repeating game
structure and the narrative structure present in the game. He explains that “the moment of
gameplay has a basic sense of happening now, when you play. Pressing a key influences the
game world, which then logically (and intuitively) has to be happening in the same now (p.
134). Juul considers that this constant “present” state of interaction with the game is
incompatible with the chronology of narrative, which he claims, “conveys a basic sense in which
the events do not happen now(Juul, as cited in Mukherjee, 2008, para. 19). He also posits
another dichotomy: in stories, you continue because you want to know the ending. In games,
you already know the ending, and you play in order to actualize it (Juul, 1999, p. 5). Mukherjee
(2008) disagrees with this dichotomy: while many games do have predictable plots, many
others do not, and they can provide just as much narrative depth as traditional storytelling
media.
Frasca (1998, 2001) examines a different aspect of repetition. He considers this ability to erase
the past as a way for the player to avoid the consequences of their actions: “Therefore, there is
no room in them for fate or tragedy” (2001, p. 175). He also claims that this frees the player
from moral responsibilities, by exploring what-if scenarios and experimenting rather than
acting. “Actions become trivial, and the feeling of agency can lower. The player can easily
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become lazy and take decisions without considering consequences” (1998, para. 14). Because of
this, he claims that games are not equipped to deal with serious topics (1998, 2001).
Frasca’s position of repetition engendering trivialization seems to contradict Aarseth’s view of
repetition as a learning tool that is necessary for the player (Aarseth, 1999). Furthermore,
Mukherjee (2008) stands in stark opposition to this thought: “There are many instances in so-
called ‘serious’ literature and films that constantly point to the possibility of the multiple within
texts. [...] To conclude that texts which do so are trivial is therefore not tenable” (Mukherjee,
2008, para. 18).
What happens, then, if a medium that is “characterised by multiplicity and repetition”
(Mukherjee, 2008, para. 9) has repetition taken out of it? Frasca (1998, 2001), claiming that this
is the only way that games can tactfully treat serious topics, offers up the concept of OSGON, or
One-session games of narration: narrative-driven games that would only allow any given player
one single playthrough. He speculates that, by not allowing the player to restart, they would
take their actions (and the possibility of their character’s death) more seriously and with a
greater deal of emotional weight.
Frasca (1998, 2001) explains that this format of game would lead to drawbacks, too: his
proposed method of achieving unreplayability would be logistically complex to organize; critics
would have a hard time reviewing the game, having only their own, singular experience to go on
(echoing Aarseth’s (1999) thoughts: “the ergodic work is individualized or quasi-individualized
on the audience level”); and the game may be “awkward to the public: “The idea of replayability
may be too powerful to be challenged” (Frasca, 2001, p. 180).
Permadeath and irrevocability
Frasca, with the proposition of OSGON and his exploration of death as final, touches on although
does not name a topic that has become more explored after his initial papers: permadeath.
Permadeath is a game mechanic that entails making the player lose everything: making the
character actually “die” and not allowing the player to continue playing with that character,
forcing them to start again from the beginning or, in other cases, having the plot go on without
the dead character. Copcic, McKenzie and Hobbs (2013) organized the current thoughts on
permadeath and how it has been studied, so I will be leaning on their research to point out
authors who have talked about this topic.
Before the advent of saving systems and data that persisted between playthroughs, permadeath
was the default: death was simply a vehicle for repetition to “extend the playing time of a game.
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The ability to save the progress of a [player character] was impractical in the public space of the
arcade, where payment in small increments per game was a suitable model” (Copcic et al.,
2013). As saving functionality became more and more common among games, a death or a
failure did not entail as large of a punishment, allowing the player to “start over from a certain
state of events, instead of at the beginning” (Aarseth, 1999). In games in general, death is most
often “a punishment for the player’s failure (Khaw, as cited in Copcic et al., 2013, p. 1), which
leads only to an inconvenient loss of time, and to the exploration of Aarseth’s (1999) negotiation
time, so that the player may explore new courses of action and try again.
However, “the possibility of death generates tension, but not meaning” (Grossman, as cited in
Copcic et al., 2013, p. 5): “If [death is to generate tension or meaning], it needs to be less
frequent, have more narrative credibility, and in realistic gameworlds, fit the reality of the world
it is in” (Klastrup, as cited in Copcic et al., 2013, p. 5). Both of these authors agree with Frasca
(1998, 2001) in that videogame death does not carry the same amount of weight as real-world
death, and that it does not have enough meaning attached to it. White and Grossfeld (2012), as
well as Rousse (as cited in Copcic et al., 2013) and Copcic et al. (2013), echo the sentiment that
only having one chance, unrepeatable, irrevocable, is closer to the original concept of life and
death. Rousse continues this thought by offering a sort of definition for permadeath: “the
character must be important to the player, it must be unique (i.e. no clone), and at risk of being
permanently lost” (Rousse, as cited in Copcic et al., 2013, p. 3).
Bartle (as cited in Copcic et al., 2013) agrees with Frasca (1998, 2001) regarding the finality of
players’ decisions lending more emotional weight to their play: “Every player has a chance to
correct past mistakes, to try again. Bartle notes that once the player realises this, the heroic acts
by which he could identify his [player character], his self, from others lose their value. That is, if
everyone is so easily a hero, then no one is. According to Bartle, [permadeath] brings new
weight to courageous acts; aware of the possibility of [permadeath], the player risks significant
in-game progress, and if it is a success, the action is deemed more memorable and meaningful,
and the player more heroic” (Copcic et al., 2013, p. 2).
According to Copcic et al., (2013) “[this finality] is significant when we consider successful video
games which have delved into deeper philosophical ideas and the realm of art; a deeper
exploration of death, and dying, is within the capabilities of the maturing game industry, and
may pave the way for unique in-game (death) experiences” (p. 1). This means that, in
disagreement with Frasca (1998, 2001), Copcic et al. consider that it is perfectly possible for
games to successfully treat more serious topics, even in the absence of OSGON: they consider
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permadeath simply another tool to achieve a deeper and more nuanced exploration, but not as
indispensable as Frasca claims.
White and Grossfeld (2012) do however explain that “there are few games that implement
permanent death because games are a form of escapism for players players do not want to be
constricted by the rules of life” (p. 4). Copcic et al. (2013) agree: “A small mistake made by the
player in the pursuit of a small reward that results in a major penalty is not a popular model
used in the games industry, as this can inhibit player motivation and progression” (p. 1).
The reticence of players (and publishers) to abandon replayability (as pointed out by Frasca’s
(2001) “the idea of replayability may be too powerful to be challenged” (p. 180)) can be seen in
the publishing process of Sub Mission: A Matter of Life and Death (Tom Snyder Productions,
1986), a game which rendered itself unplayable if the player failed a mission under certain
circumstances. “The publisher, Mindscape, only bought the game under the condition that it
could add a few more safety nets to the title’s staunch approach to in-game death. Mindscape
bundled emergency instructions with the game that let players resurrect each of the human
captives once before the disc was rendered unplayable. If these extra lives didn’t help, players
could fill out a petition to the Space Commissioner in the game’s instruction booklet and send it
in (along with seven dollars) for a replacement disc and a second shot” (Bertoli, 2006, para. 24).
This kind of reticence leads many players to attempt to bypass the measures preventing them
from playing again. “What is designed to be a singular, irrevocable gaming experience for the
player is instead actively replaced by the more familiar gaming experience of replayability (and,
essentially, character immortality)” (White & Grossfeld, as cited in Copcic et al., 2013, p. 6).
We can, however, find games in which non-repetition is not only built into the game, but also
almost impossible to bypass. The design of tabletop RPGs does not focus on repetition, unlike
many digital games: this means that decisions are irrevocable, and death is permanent by
definition. Furthermore, players react strongly when confronted with death in these games: “the
player becomes frustrated upon realisation of the inevitability of [permadeath]; the chance to
finish tasks set out for her character are lost, and the character’s journey seems incomplete”
(Rousse, as cited in Copcic et al., 2013, p. 3).
This idea is similar to Heidegger’s (as cited in Copcic et al., 2013) thoughts on death: “The
experience of anxiety is associated with conceiving of death. Anxiety is what we feel when we
are confronted with the closing down of all options, the possibility that there are no more
possibilities” (p. 4). It is not necessarily death itself that players are averse to, but rather the
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inability to keep experimenting and exploring, which are great sources of pleasure in games:
“Fun is the desired exploration of uncertainty” (Mandryka, 2014, para. 16).
Even as some players try to escape permadeath, others embrace it in order to make games with
non-permadeath more challenging and emotionally charged. The Nuzlocke Challenge, for
example, is a challenge in which players play any Pokémon game, with the mandate that they
must release Pokémon that faint in battle: “Many players, therefore, realized the benefit of
considering fainted Pokémon dead and losing a battle to mean losing the game lay in the
interesting stories that they gave players to trade” (White & Grossfeld, 2012, p. 28).
In order to create a game whose irrevocability will sink into the players, White and Grossfeld
(2012) posit that the irrevocability must be supported both mechanically and narratively: “a
delicate balance is essential in order to be truly irrevocable” (p. 5). In addition to this, they also
place great importance in creating a sense of ownership of their particular playthrough in the
player: “In order to be a truly irrevocable experience, the game should seek for the player to
have a sense of ownership over the ending, such that any other difference would ruin it for
them” (p. 51). The varied response of players to permadeath and irrevocability, however, makes
it clear that creating a sense of ownership may not be all there is to irrevocability. Little is
known about what motivates players to play (or avoid) [permadeath] games” (Copcic et al.,
2013, p. 7).
Replayability
Although, as Copcic et al. point out, little is known about what motivates player to play
permadeath games (2013), there has been research on a topic that may elucidate why players
may want to avoid games that don’t allow them to play again: replayability. Replayability
describes how well-suited a game is to be played again after its intended ending: “Replayability
is a quantifiable measure to the enjoyability of a game. That is, a measure of how long a person
can enjoy a game before it becomes boring” (Krall & Menzies, 2012, p. 3). Thus, if a game is
highly replayable (in the sense that players would want to keep enjoying the game beyond a
first playthrough) but the player is unable to play again, in a manner similar to Frasca’s OSGON
(1998, 2001), we could expect at least some amount of player frustration.
Developers attempt to make their games replayable as a value proposition to their players (and
potential buyers): a game that is enjoyable beyond the first playthrough offers more
entertainment for the same amount of money (Adams, 2001b). However, this can be a double-
edged sword, since “[f]rom a purely mercenary standpoint, replayability isn’t always a good
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thing. If a game is endlessly replayable, our customers have no reasons to go buy another game”
(Adams, 2001a, para. 3).
Frattesi, Griesbach, Leith and Shaffer (2011) acknowledge this possibility, but note the tendency
of players to move on to new games with newer technology often, “abandoning” the old games,
regardless of their replayability. In addition, they also note that players do not necessarily buy
games with replayability in mind. Furthermore, they offer three scenarios in which replayability
works directly towards the developer’s financial interests: downloadable content (DLC) that the
players must pay for after having already bought the game, repackaging old games for newer
consoles in order to re-offer a replayable experience with updated technology, and live or
subscription-based games like World of Warcraft in which the player needs to play a
subscription in order to take advantage of the replayability (Frattesi et al., 2011).
The reasons why players replay games are varied. Smith (as cited in Krall & Menzies, 2012)
proposes four aspects that explain what drives players to replay a game: playing for the
experience itself, in the same way that people may reread a book or rewatch a movie; playing
for mastery, to become better at the game; playing for impact, to enjoy the level of control over
the events of the game; and playing for completion, to reach all of the goals offered by the game.
Krall and Menzies (2012) add two more: playing for social reasons, to connect with other
people; and playing for challenge, to chase the euphoria of overcoming obstacles.
Where these two studies approach replayability from the side of player motivation, Frattesi et
al. (2011) approach it from the side of game design: they examine five elements of games that
have an impact on repeatability. These are difficulty (and particularly, multiple difficulty levels),
completion, social factors, randomization (to offer the player a new experience each time) and
“the experience” (the unique feel that a game provides that other games can’t replicate). Of
these, they acknowledge “the experience” as being the most subjective element, being
dependent on narrative, gameplay, aesthetics and other factors depending on the particular
game (Frattesi et al., 2011).
These two lists of elements that drive players to replay games are similar and overlapping, since
they study the same phenomenon from two different viewpoints. Krall and Menzies (2012), as
well as Frattesi et al. (2011), acknowledge that each genre of games must utilize different game
elements, and will appeal to different player motivations, in order to most effectively improve
the game’s unrepeatability. Adams (2001b) also claims that there is a difference between what
different types of gamers want: core gamers willingly replay games that are largely unchanging
as long as there is an entertaining challenge to overcome; while casual gamers replay games if
they offer variety through chance, non-deterministic opponents, or varying initial conditions.
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Nostalgia
Unrepeatability, player motivations, and player-attributed meaning to experiences that are not
available anymore all point to a well-known phenomenon: nostalgia. In this section, I will
examine Garda’s work (2014) in applying Boym’s (as cited in Garda, 2014) model of restorative
and reflective nostalgia to videogames. I will at the same time examine topics such as
restoration and revival efforts outside of games (Egberts, 2014; Guffey, 2006), the challenges
that games face to avoid being lost to time (Barwick, Muir, & Dearnley, 2009; Lowood et al.,
2009), and how indie games have attempted to recapture the past by developing a retro style
(Juul, 2014).
If not a motivation per se, nostalgia is a good indicator of players’ desire to recapture an
experience that has been lost: to repeat the unrepeatable. Garda (2014) explains that “nostalgia
is not the property of the object itself but rather it is generated in our innerly experienced
relation with it. However, this does not necessarily imply that nostalgia is a highly personalized
emotion, because it often reflects collective memories of a certain generation or subculture” (p.
2). She applies Boym’s (as cited in Garda, 2014) two types of nostalgia, restorative nostalgia and
reflective nostalgia, to the context of retro games.
Restorative nostalgia focuses on replicating an experience or an artifact exactly as it was. It
entails both collecting and “keeping the retro titles alive in the collective memory” (Garda, 2014,
p. 3), so that new generations that did not experience the artifact first-hand may have that same
experience. This is related to the experience-based restorative efforts in other fields, such as
what Egberts (2014) explains in relation to historic revivals: “The term revival is used [...] to
stress the necessity of bringing a part of our past back to life in order to become part of a shared
identity” (para. 3). According to Egberts, revivals are about creating meaningful experiences, to
involve the individual fully, so that they may feel “emotionally connected to what is happening
and [be] in contact with the environment through active participation” (para. 4). This would be
very helpful in getting new generations to appreciate these experiences how they were
appreciated originally.
To reach this goal, Garda (2014) explains that “the aim is to achieve the impossible, the perfect
port, that would give the accurate experience of the original gameplay, including all of the
technological and inner game details” (p. 3). This is visible in emulator developers’ efforts to
introduce effects such as scanlines and bleeding in order to achieve a look closer to the CRT feel:
both in pursuit of objective accuracy, and in order to recapture their original memory as closely
as possible (destructor_rph et al., 2015). Guffey (2006) talks about his phenomenon: “Entire
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subcultures devoted to outmoded technological apparatuses have developed: the adherents of
retro gaming, for instance, reconfigure obsolete video games to play on today’s computers,
while others restore the old computers to enjoy the ‘original’ game experience” (p. 10).
However, “[r]egardless of tireless pursuits of historical accuracy, it needs to be acknowledged
that a complete restoration is never possible(Garda, 2014, p. 4).
There has been research about the difficulties of achieving just that, as well as the importance of
game preservation beyond nostalgia. The problems game restorers face include media
deterioration, hardware and software obsolescence, legal problems standing in the way of
emulating and migrating games, server-side DRM authentication, limited installs, digital
distribution restricting access to games, and the maintenance of company and studio archives,
among others (Lowood et al., 2009). This is especially true of physical games, and especially
experimental and ad hoc endeavors such as pervasive games or LARPs: “Individual games are
usually run just once, and they are rarely documented well” (Montola & Stenros, 2009, p. 36).
Lowood et al. (2009) defend the importance of preserving games for future generations for the
purposes of historical documentation, respect of property, usefulness in design education, and
artistic, cultural and entertainment value. Barwick et al. (2009) also defend the relevance of
games as cultural and historical artifacts. They make the point that games have cultural
significance; and also that they are inextricable from the life experience of many people in
current society, and thus instrumental in shaping contemporaneous collective identity. This also
reflects the thoughts of Papargyris and Poulymenakou (2009) who, in the contexts of massively
multiplayer online games, establish a connection between collective memory, community and
collective identity.
Reflective nostalgia refers to the recreation of an experience, not an object. This experience does
not need to be based on personal memories: it can be based on collective memories transmitted
by the media. In this case, the objective is to capture the feel of the experience, rather than to
attempt to replicate it exactly: it produces a stylistic metaphor of the era it calls back to. It is
supposed to look retro, but not accurate to the original material: rather than restore an artifact,
it attempts to recapture a feeling (Garda, 2014). Some games introduce mechanics or use
technology that did not exist at the time: it is nostalgic for the past not the way it was, but the
way it could have been (Boym, as cited in Garda, 2014, p. 6). An example of this is the Pokémon
GO (Niantic, The Pokémon Company, 2016) phenomenon, which had two major audiences:
children and nostalgists reliving their childhood experience (Keogh, 2017). The game, however,
did not reproduce the game they remembered from their childhood, but rather their childhood
fantasy of living in the game’s world, going out and catching Pokémon.
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Reflective nostalgia “combines fascination for the present with longing for another time” (Boym,
as cited in Garda, 2014, p. 7), “viewing the past with trendy detachment” (Guffey, as cited in
Garda, 2014, p. 7). “Retro suggests an admiration for the past, but is also mingled with a sense of
detachment that separates it from the high-minded seriousness of nineteenth-century
revivalism, where the present was seen as the culmination of a progressive evolution of human
knowledge” (Guffey, 2006, p. 21). In contrast to this, “People are disillusioned by what’s going
on today, and they are returning to history for ideas about how to get out of this mess”
(MacLeish, as cited in Guffey, 2006, p. 18). This is what Howard (as cited in Garda, 2014) calls
the poverty of the present, exemplified, in the case of video games, by hardcore gamers growing
dissatisfied with the market after casual gaming led to its diversification (Juul, as cited in Garda,
2014).
This reflective nostalgia attempts to recapture the time when games were different and, in the
eyes of a certain community, better. This effect is very visible in the indie scene, where
developers lean into certain outdated visual styles to both cut costs and appeal to this nostalgia.
Jesper Juul (2014) describes how independent games have developed this so-called Independent
style: “A style that uses contemporary technology to emulate visual styles from earlier times.
This visual style is meant to invoke a type of authenticity and ‘honesty in materials’ that marks it
as distinct from the alleged realism of bigger-budget titles” (p. 1).
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3
Analysis framework
The Oxford English dictionary defines unrepeatable as “not able to be done or made again
(“Unrepeatable,” n.d.). When applied to an experience, this definition implies a certain timeline:
an initial experience took place; until some sort of event made access to that original experience
impossible. After this event, which I will henceforth call the limiting event, the original
experience is unrepeatable.
Note how this does not necessarily imply uniqueness: unique is defined as “being the only one of
its kind, unlike anything else” (“Unique,” n.d.). Before the limiting event took place, some of the
unrepeatable experiences that I am going to examine were repeatable and replicable without
problem and, in most cases, it would not be correct to claim that there are no other experiences
that resemble them. If an experience is considered unique, that is not sufficient for it to also be
unrepeatable either: a one-of-a-kind magic act that no other magician performs, but that is
repeated every night at the same theater by the same magician, would be both a unique and a
repeatable experience.
The type-token distinction is a concept in philosophy and linguistics used to clarify the
difference in meaning when talking about general concepts, called types (e.g. “chair”), and
instances of those concepts, called tokens (e.g. “this chair”). Tokens can show difference from
each other and be distinct, while still being part of the same type (Wetzel, 2018).
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Following the type-token distinction, we can say that each single playthrough (or play session)
is a token, and each qualitatively different kind of experience is a type that the token may belong
to. Different games offer different types of experiences, as do different modes of play in the
same game, different narratives presented as chapters, etc. Within a given type of experience,
different playthrough tokens are effectively interchangeable (i.e. not qualitatively different).
Throughout this text, I will use the word experience to refer to a type, and playthrough to refer
to a token. For the most part, I will focus on types of unrepeatability that cut the player off from
certain types of play experiences, but I will also talk about how tokens within a type are
different from each other and how this smaller degree of unrepeatability works.
In the previous section, we have seen how unrepeatability can make players think differently
about the experience of playing the game, and how some designers use it intentionally to affect
the emotional weight felt by the player. However, unrepeatability is not always harnessed
intentionally: in some cases, such as large games that need a major labor of organization, the
unrepeatability is simply a by-product of the way the game is designed rather than a focus of its
design; in other cases, such as games that have been discontinued or online games that have
shut down, the unrepeatability may not have been intended at all.
In this section, I will propose a series of characteristics to describe and distinguish different
types of unrepeatability. Following these, I will identify different limiting events that cut off
access to the original experience, and examine which range of these characteristics each of them
allows for. Finally, I will examine how playthroughs within the same type can be different and
unrepeatable to a smaller scale.
Characteristics
Lost aspect
The amount and type of content that is lost upon replay (if replay is even possible) is a large
factor in the type of unrepeatability a game presents. I am going to separate these types of
content into two categories: game elements and metagame elements.
Game elements
In these cases, the limiting event cuts off or significantly changes a part of the game itself.
Game: At the most sweeping level, the entire game is made entirely unreplayable.
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Mode: Some games add or subtract ways of playing the game that affect it in a sweeping
way (e.g. multiplayer co-op, capture the point, single-player campaign…). A mode
significantly changes the goals or the mechanics of the game.
Scenario: Within modes, content can be added or subtracted, in ways that are more
significant than balancing or tweaks: missions, story chapters, areas… These offer the
players new challenges and new content to play through. DLC, expansions and patches,
as well as consecutive chapters of episodic games, add (or, in some cases, subtract)
narrative content and different scenarios to a game without changing the rules of how it
plays.
Content: Game updates can add, subtract or rebalance items, mechanics, attacks,
characters, weapons, gear... and make it so that playing the game feels different than
before. The most evident examples of this are cases in which changes to the balance of
certain mechanics cause outrages from the fanbase, claiming that “the latest patch
ruined the game.”
Playthrough: Each singular playthrough token can be different from the rest of its type:
for example, random elements in games like Tetris can mean that it will be impossible
for a player to ever be able to repeat a specific configuration of pieces on the screen,
with the exact same amount of points and identical upcoming pieces. There are several
ways other than randomization to make playthroughs unrepeatable.
These categories represent the granularity at which content can be made inaccessible. If an
event renders an experience unrepeatable at a certain level of granularity, all the levels below it
are lost as well. For example, the loss of a scenario actively makes it impossible to recreate any
playthrough that involved playing through that scenario, making the subsequent playthroughs
part of a different experience.
Metagame elements
In addition to these, there are two more types of loss that affect the player experience: while
they are not part of the game per se, they affect the way the player experiences the game.
Periphery: Something surrounding the game is lost, such as a community or a claimed
prize. While the game itself may be replayable and may not have been lost itself, playing
it does not feel the same way, or does not have the same results in the real world. For
example, once a treasure book is solved by anyone in the world, the competition and the
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hunt for the prize end, and later attempts to solve the puzzle carry less weight without
the thrill of trying to claim the prize before everyone else.
Uncertainty: There are games that don’t cut the player off from any of the content;
however, by virtue of having already played the game, the player is already aware of
certain details (plot, advantageous strategies, solutions to puzzles…), meaning that
playing the game again can result in a very different experience. We will be using
Costikyan’s (2013) classification of uncertainty in games to identify the specific types of
uncertainty that are lost (see Spoilers below).
Reach
One of the most significant divisions to consider is the reach of the limiting event: the players
for which access to the original experience becomes restricted.
Session: Many of the games in this study can be played at any point in time, by anyone.
However, during play, something happens that makes that play experience unrepeatable
for the involved player or players. This can be experienced by different players
independently, at any point in time: even though the experience was rendered
inaccessible for one player or set of players, others can still go through it on their own.
Universal: On the other hand, there are games that, once they have run their course, are
lost for everyone, regardless of whether they managed to play or not. These games tend
to be based around limited-time events, and the time span in which they are playable is
the same for everybody. Limiting events with session reach still make it possible for
players who had not gone through the original experience to go through it; whereas
limiting events with universal reach make it so anyone who didn’t get to experience the
original experience loses the chance to do so: they miss it.
Session-reach limiting events are, in most cases, easily circumventable. A player can buy
another copy of a game that self-destructs after being played; they can change computers,
consoles or accounts depending on the way the game records each specific player or session.
Regardless, these types of unrepeatability are most often intentionally designed and can have a
great deal of impact, both on players that respect the designer’s intentions and on players that
go out of their way to repeat the experience.
To a lesser degree, limiting events with universal reach are not necessarily final. An MMOG
(Massively Multiplayer Online Game, a type of game characterized by large online worlds
populated by many other players) may be relaunched, or kept alive in private servers. Events
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originally advertised as one-time-only may be brought back. However, in most of these cases,
they require specific intention from the game developers to resurface, while most session-reach
events are circumvented by players themselves.
Replacement
It is important to analyze the relationship between the original experience (which becomes
inaccessible when the limiting event takes place) and the new experience that replaces it and
that the player still has access to, if there is any. A limiting event may not cut the player off
entirely from playing the game: for example, a roguelike game may not allow the player to play
through the same level twice, but allow them to play levels that would be effectively
interchangeable.
This relationship can take one of four forms:
None: There is no experience available as a replacement for the lost original experience.
Dissimilar: The new experience is qualitatively dissimilar from the original, be it
because it cuts off access to certain content, or because makes the play experience feel
significantly different. The playthroughs that follow the limiting event are of a different
type than the original experience was.
Similar: Other playthroughs are similar enough that the loss of a specific one does not
matter: they all form part of the same experience and, while the lost experience is not
available anymore, new content comes to take its place, and the loss of the original
content is not ultimately important.
Identical: This relationship lies outside of unrepeatability, as it is possible to have the
same experience again, possibly even a near-identical playthrough. In this case, there is
no limiting event and no unrepeatability. I will examine this case when talking about
savefile deletion.
This relationship is closely interlinked with the aspect of the game that was lost. If the entire
game is unrepeatable, then there is no replacement experience at all. After a patch that affects
only the content level, however, the gameplay may have changed so much that the game feels
different to play, or it may have made smaller changes and not significantly changed the
experience; similarly, an update may remove playable content from the game without replacing
the removed missions with new ones. Because of this, even within the same lost aspect, the type
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of replacement may be different depending on the specific case: this table shows the possible
levels of replacement that each lost aspect may display.
Game
Mode
Scenario
Periphery
Uncertainty
Content
Playthrough
Player awareness
The player may be made aware of the fact that their experience is going to be unrepeatable at
very different times. It can be useful to study how players play differently when confronted with
unrepeatability, their reactions when informed of it, and their feelings toward it (Consalvo &
Begy, 2012).
Informed: The player knows from the beginning, either by being told explicitly or
through implicit knowledge (such as in puzzle games), that the experience is going to be
unrepeatable. They, as Frasca (1998, 2001) suggests, may be more careful with their
actions and put more weight on their decisions.
Sunset: The player is informed of the unrepeatability while in the middle of playing the
game. This may completely shift the way they play or even lead them to stop playing
entirely, as evidenced by the work on Faunasphere (Big Fish Games, 2009) carried out
by Consalvo and Begy (2012).
End: The player is confronted with the unrepeatability very shortly before or very
shortly after the end of the playthrough, just as the original experience becomes
inaccessible. Games that reveal their unrepeatability as a surprise at the end of play can
be rather jarring to the player: the game The Day the Laughter Stopped (Flor, 2013a),
for example, uses this shock to push its underlying message. The player has no chance to
reconsider the way they are playing in light of the unrepeatability.
Nostalgia: While the game was repeatable for a period of time, it is only long after the
fact that the player realizes that they are not going to be able to experience it again, due
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to the loss of access to some integral part of the experience. This can happen, for
example, with retro games for which the hardware required to run them has become
obsolete.
Depending on the type of limiting event that is used, the designers have a certain degree of
control over when the player is informed of the unrepeatability, which can greatly change the
way they experience the game (Consalvo & Begy, 2012).
Player motivation
This characteristic is the motivation that makes the player want to re-experience the original
experience, despite being unable to. We will be relating these to the motivations for
replayability put forward by Smith (as cited in Krall & Menzies, 2012) and Krall and Menzies
(2012). Because they were examining motivations for replay after already having experienced
the game without any limitation, but we are examining motivations for replay without
necessarily being able to experience the game fully, our motivations will overlap with theirs but
not match completely.
Explore: Uncover the world, the narrative and other content beyond what the player
was able to experience before the limiting event. This can lead to the players feeling like
their experience was cut short. It is averted by games where the limiting event happens
at the end of the known content: all the content has already been uncovered, so there is
nothing further to explore. We can relate this to the player wanting to play for the
experience as well as for completion: they may be trying to extend the time during
which they are experiencing the game; or they may consider their journey unfinished, in
the same manner that Rousse (as cited in Copcic et al., 2013) described players of
tabletop RPGs feeling upon the death of their character.
Experiment: Try out courses of action to see what will happen in response to the
player’s different inputs. The game prevents the player from reaching a particular
known state from which to explore different branches. This is the player motivation
responsible for the frustration in games with branching narratives that do not allow the
player to go back and make different choices. In this case, the player wants to play again
for impact and for mastery: they are chasing the feeling of experimenting with and
affecting the game’s world, as well as seeing different situations that will let them learn
and get better at the game.
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Change: Retroactively change a course of action to reach a more desirable outcome,
from a specific known state which would have allowed for different choices. Unlike the
Experiment motivation, this implies the player has a stronger preference for a course of
action that would lead to a more favorable outcome, rather than wanting to see the
different results. The player wants to replay for challenge: they seek the euphoria of
overcoming the obstacles that they initially failed to best.
Relive: Re-experience the feelings, sense of community, atmosphere, discovery,
challenge, etc. that the player experienced while playing the game. Best exemplified by
games whose players mention their desire to “forget about the game completely and
experience it for the first time again.” This motivation relates to playing for the
experience, as well as playing for social reasons: the players want to extend their time
immersed in the experience the game provides, which in the case of some games is
deeply linked to interacting with its community.
Limiting events
The limiting event responsible for cutting off access to the original experience is the most
representative characteristic of each type of unrepeatability: in this section I will examine all the
limiting events I have identified, and what values of the parameters that I have explained above
each of them allows for.
Not every limiting event can accommodate every value for all parameters: for example, if the
limiting event is a patch applied to the game, it would not make the entire game unrepeatable
(not intentionally, at least); likewise, no game would be able to tell its players from the start of
play that it would eventually become unrepeatable due to all of its copies being lost. For each of
the limiting events, I have indicated the possible values that I have identified may occur in that
category. Because the replacement parameter is so strongly linked to the lost aspect parameter,
I have decided to omit it in each case. All but one of the limiting events I have identified can be
related to a similar event with the opposite type of reach.
The lost aspect parameter in particular allows us to roughly classify the identified limiting
events. I will categorize them based on the type of lost aspect they affect. We will first explain
events that affect game elements, then events that modify metagame elements, and finally
events that only cut off access to a specific playthrough rather than an entire experience.
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Limiting events that affect game elements
One-shot
Lost aspect: Game, Mode, Scenario
Player awareness: Informed, Sunset, End
Player motivation: Explore, Relive, Experiment, Change
In this type of event, the player only gets one chance at playing through the original experience;
or, alternatively, there are mechanics in place that stop the player for continuing once a certain
state is reached. The limiting event is triggered by the player, even if involuntarily.
Universal reach
Some game experiences are organized once and played simultaneously; once the playthrough
ends, it is not organized again. They are designed to run the players through a single
playthrough in the way that an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) such as I Love Bees (42
Entertainment, 2004) would. It is possible for the game to continue after the planned ending, if
multiple seasons are run.
Session reach
Some games actively prevent the player from replaying them, whether by destroying
themselves physically, or by placing a block that the player cannot get around without buying
another copy, playing on another console, erasing their cookies, or some other way of tampering
with the game memory. Because the game can treat each player individually, it is interesting to
consider when the cut-off takes place:
End: In some cases, the cut-off point is at the end of the game or at the end of the
narrative, so that the player will have experienced enough content to consider it the
entirety of the game. Some of these games do not even have a failure state, to ensure that
the end will eventually be reached (as in, for example, The Day the Laughter Stopped).
Failstate: Many other games place this block when the player reaches a fail state such as
death (as in Free Will (Raitendo, 2009)), so that the player is not able to finish the game
and experience the rest of the content. This implies that these games would allow the
player to replay them through to the end as many times as they want, but cut off access
as soon as the first fail state is triggered (Russian Roulette: One Life (Salvi, 2018) could
be argued to fit this pattern).
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Both: By combining these possibilities, we can also identify games that place the block
at the end of the content or on first failure, whichever happens first (e.g. elusive targets
in Hitman (IO Interactive, 2016) and Hitman 2 (IO Interactive, 2018)).
Window of opportunity
Lost aspect: Game, Mode, Scenario, Content | Periphery
Player awareness: Informed
Player motivation: Explore, Change, Relive
Much like the One-shot type, this is an experience designed to only be available for a certain
amount of time. However, this limiting event allows for repeated play within the set time period
in which the experience is available, instead of only one playthrough that ends when the player
reaches the end or a failstate.
Universal reach
The most obvious example is special events in multiplayer games where special game modes or
objects are available, such as seasonal events in Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment, 2016). It is
possible to play through the game as many times as desired within this window. Companies that
set up limited-time competitions of usually repeatable games set up this type of unrepeatability,
by making the prize offered or the community around the competition “disappear” after a set
amount of time. This case of the Window of opportunity limiting event could be seen as
belonging to the metagame elements category rather than the game elements category, since it
affects the Periphery around the game.
Session reach
This type of unrepeatability can be achieved by a game that offers players the chance to play
only between very specific times, with the loss of access to the experience for one player not
affecting other players’ ability to play. This could be a game where play can start at any time, but
that only allows the player to play for the following 24 hours, until they are locked out of play
forever. Another example would be a game that includes special content available only for a
single day or week, with this day or week being a different one for each player (for example,
although not unrepeatable since it is a yearly event, the Animal Crossing game series (Nintendo
EAD, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2012) asks for the player’s birthday, and the characters in the game
celebrate it only during that day).
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End of service
Lost aspect: Game, Mode
Player awareness: Sunset
Player motivation: Explore, Relive
Many live games that require some continued infrastructure to function are lost once that
infrastructure becomes unsupported, or a player loses access to that infrastructure. As in the
Window of opportunity type, this means that the experience is available to be repeated during a
certain time window, but in this case the closure was not intended as part of the game’s design.
Universal reach
The closure can affect an entire game as in an MMOG such as Faunasphere (Big Fish Games,
2009) (shut down on March 15th, 2011), or it may only affect one of the modes in that game by
closing a service it depends on, such as the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection (shut down on May 20th,
2014). The closure, although it is an expected outcome that needs to be planned for while
designing the service, is not an intended effect, nor is it integral to the experience.
Session reach
This category entails that only the affected player is unable to access the services necessary to
play. Examples of this would be internet problems, or allowing a membership to lapse (for
example, a World of Warcraft membership).
Artifact loss
Lost aspect: Game
Player awareness: Nostalgia
Player motivation: Relive
Closely related to the End of service type, in this case the limiting event is not just unintended
and not designed for, but also unplanned, undesired and involuntary.
Universal reach
Through time, hardware obsolescence, loss of physical materials or corruption, games become
obsolete, unplayable, and in some cases lost to time as copies become impossible to track down.
The desire of some people to relive their childhood games as they used to be can lead some to
recreating obsolete hardware, building arcade cabinets, and creating emulator software, among
many other restoration efforts. In addition to this, others create new games that try to recapture
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the feeling or the mechanics of the lost classic titles; these are what Garda (2014) would call
neo- games (such as neo-8-bit and neo-16-bit games).
Session reach
The player breaks or loses their copy of the game or the hardware necessary to play it,
rendering themselves unable to play.
Patch
Lost aspect: Mode, Scenario, Content
Player awareness: Sunset, End
Player motivation: Explore, Experiment, Relive
Changes are made to the game after it is launched: these changes are intended to be relatively
permanent, rather than only being active for a set period of time (temporary events, like special
seasonal events, would fall under the window of opportunity type).
Universal reach
Many games, especially online games based on competition and live games, receive updates in
the form of patches. They might affect the game’s balancing, remove or add items and content,
add or remove more quests or storylines for the players to play through, etc. For example,
missions or quests could disappear from an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-
Playing Game, a type of MMOG that follows RPG conventions such as leveling up and combat),
preventing new players from experiencing them; or characters may be rebalanced in a fighting
game, changing the way they feel to play.
Session reach
Installing a mod on a player’s game, be it a standalone program, a client, or a server they
connect to, changes the experience for them. While this is probably the easiest of the session-
reach limiting events to circumvent, a mod installed on a server that the player connects to but
has no administration privileges on would hold more weight.
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Limiting events that affect metagame elements
Single reward
Lost aspect: Periphery
Player awareness: Informed
Player motivation: Change, Relive
A prize that can only be won once, either as part of a competition or individually, allows for a
player-determined timeframe during which the original experience is available. This category
and type of prize differs from the type of contest found in the window of opportunity type in
that the timeframe of this kind of competition is entirely player-determined, and impossible to
predict.
Universal reach
Some game companies offer prizes for the first person to clear a game or achieve a certain
milestone: the most obvious example is treasure book games such as Masquerade (Williams,
1979). The hunt for the prize can be absorbing and, in some cases, players wish that they had
worked differently, or found the correct meaning of a clue faster, if they are not able to procure
the prize in time. Once the prize is given out, the game can still be played solo, but the
community of puzzle hunters and the promise of the prize at the end both disappear.
Session reach
Achievements, and trophies such as the ones offered by games on platforms such as Steam or
PlayStation Network exemplify this category: they can only be unlocked once per player, after
which they cannot be attained again; they exist outside of the game itself; and the timeframe
during which they can still be unlocked is entirely player-determined.
Loss of community
Lost aspect: Periphery
Player awareness: Nostalgia
Player motivation: Relive
Some games, while they remain available, lose traction with their community, due to player
burnout, loss of novelty, or many other reasons. While the game may still be playable, it doesn’t
feel the same as it once did, because the community made the play experience feel different.
28
Universal reach
This section is where games that are labeled a social phenomenon fall into: one of the most
visible examples of this was the game Pokémon GO on the summer after its launch, during
which it was common to go out and find that most people on the street were playing the game.
Online multiplayer games are also sensitive to this, with the gain or loss of players deeply
affecting how lively the world feels.
Session reach
This is a common occurrence, especially with players of MMORPGs: a player’s in-game friends
may stop playing for any reason, making the player’s experience different without them.
Because socialization is a large part of the enjoyment of many players (especially the group
Bartle (1996) termed socializers), they may make it a priority to find another group to play with,
or stop playing entirely if they are unsuccessful.
Spoilers
Lost aspect: Uncertainty
Player awareness: Informed, Sunset, End
Player motivation: Relive
Reach: Session only
Many games rely on an interesting plot or narrative to keep players engaged; others use puzzles
as an integral part of their challenge; in others, exploration is a large part of the appeal. There is
no hindrance to playing these games again, exactly as they were played the first time. However,
on subsequent playthroughs, the player will already know the plot, and the solutions to the
puzzles, and what there is to discover. They are going to be spoiled, and the foreknowledge can
lead them to read the narrative differently, and clear puzzles without needing to solve them
again, and visit familiar location instead of discovering new ones, leading to a completely
different experience than that of the first playthrough, even if the game itself proceeds in exactly
the same way.
This spoiling can be seen as the loss of uncertainty, which we will dissect using Costikyan’s
(2013) classification of uncertainty in games. Puzzle games make the solving of a puzzle a lot
easier when the player knows the solution, eliminating solver’s uncertainty (or, in some cases,
hidden information uncertainty). Narrative games are not as surprising when the player already
knows everything that is going to happen, eliminating narrative anticipation. The uncovering of
more game content such as areas, items or mechanics is not a surprise to the player anymore,
29
since there is no hidden information uncertainty. Some games, such as Train (Romero, 2009),
introduce a twist at some point in their playtime that recontextualizes the player’s actions in
such a way that the player cannot consider them the same way, making use of Malaby’s semiotic
contingency to change the player’s mindset. On repeat playthroughs, all these games feel
different to play; and the first playthrough itself is the limiting event that renders that first
experience unrepeatable.
I have not been able to find an equivalent of this type of limiting event that supports universal
reach, most likely because the limiting event itself about learning information, which means that
there is no event that will make the original experience unavailable to everyone in the world at
the same time. However, there is another interesting element to point out: while this type of
limiting event only cuts players off in an individual basis, it is possible for it to come to pass
without actually playing the game: being spoiled before the first playthrough. If a player comes
in contact with a part of the plot beyond what they have played, is told the solution to a puzzle,
or has a semiotic twist revealed to them (such as reading about Train before playing it for the
first time), they are “robbed” of their chance to play through the original experience.
This happens to a different degree based on the relative importance of the revealed information
to the overall experience: while having the solution to a puzzle will make solving it completely
uninteresting, learning about a late-game plot development may still allow the player to enjoy
going through the game to learn how that event ends up coming to pass. It is also possible for
the player to attempt to not believe the information they have been given, and play trying not to
take that piece of information into account. This is, however, nigh impossible if a semiotic twist
such as Train’s is revealed to the player: because it has to do directly with the actions the player
takes, as well as the goals of the game, it is not possible to play on as if nothing had been
revealed.
This makes the Spoilers limiting event interesting in yet another way: it is the only type of
unrepeatability I have found that affects players individually (session reach) and yet makes it
impossible for them to circumvent it in any way. While a lost game may be replaced, or a lock on
an account may be eluded by making a new profile, until safe and precise memory editing is
discovered and made available it will remain impossible for players to intentionally recover that
lost first experience.
Limiting events that affect individual playthroughs
Within the same experience, separate playthroughs are differentiated. Whether by the game’s
design through randomization and multiplayer play, or by the player’s changing attitude and
30
knowledge towards the game, up to a certain point each playthrough is different and feels
different (I will examine this inflection point, in the context of speedrunning, in the discussion
section). While these mechanisms prevent the player from experiencing the exact same
playthrough again, this type of unrepeatability does not fit within universal (the experience is
available to everyone until an event makes it unavailable for everyone) or session (the
experience is available to everyone, and it is rendered unavailable to players on an individual
basis as a result of their play) reach. This is because experiencing that particular playthrough
was not available for anyone: given a sufficiently randomizable challenge, or given any set of
human players, each session will produce a unique or nearly unique playthrough that was only
available to those players at that moment, and that will not be repeated again.
Randomization
Lost aspect: Playthrough
Player awareness: Informed
Player motivation: Experiment, Change
In order to avoid the disappearance of solver’s uncertainty and hidden information uncertainty,
games have been using randomness to vary their challenges since the beginning of gaming:
challenges are identical in the rules, but vary in the details. Whether it is a game like Tetris
(Alexey Pajitnov & Nintendo R&D1, 1988), which gives the player different pieces on each run;
or games of the roguelike genre, which change the space to be explored on every traversal; the
specifics of the challenge are varied within a fixed ruleset so that the player can avoid this ludic
spoiler. Players may learn the rules and interactions and get better at the game, but they are
stopped from memorizing the solutions to specific puzzles. It is interesting to note that some
roguelike games add the functionality of visible and editable seeds, so that the pseudo-
randomness will yield the same play session: this would make the unrepeatability in those
sessions more similar to the Spoilers type.
Multiplayer unpredictability
Lost aspect: Playthrough
Player awareness: Informed
Player motivation: Experiment, Change, Relive
Multiplayer games, much like games with randomized content, make it very complicated to
replicate a given playthrough, since it is not possible to predict other players’ strategy or future
actions. Games like football or chess exemplify this: without a consensus between the players to
31
play a specific way, it is not possible to repeat a given moment or play, much less an entire
match.
Notes on playthrough unrepeatability
Playthrough uniqueness and imparted meaning
Certain game sessions can stand out in a player’s memory as particularly funny, fulfilling, or
unique. Events like the 1986 Argentina v England World Cup football match, with player Diego
Maradona scoring the goals that became known as the Hand of God and the Goal of the Century
(“Argentina v England (1986 FIFA World Cup), n.d.), do not have any more unrepeatability
designed or introduced into them than any other match, but the rules of the game and the
interactions available during play can result in memorable incidents that are considered out of
the ordinary by players and spectators. This can also happen in games that offer a method of
communication with other players, and more so in games that allow friends to play together
with some degree of creativity, such as Minecraft (Mojang, 2011): it allows for antics and
socialization to take place, in a manner that is impossible to predict and with just as much
probability of creating memorable moments. At the same time, these memorable moments
make the playthroughs qualitatively dissimilar from others in the players’ minds, elevating them
to a different type of experience. It is only after the fact that the players comment “we’re never
going to be able to do something like that again”: these sessions are “given” more
unrepeatability than other playthroughs, by virtue of ascribing them special meaning.
Savefile deletion
Savestates in emulated games, or savefiles in games that allow for them, can give players the
opportunity to go back to a previous gamestate. Mukherjee (2008) describes the save game
function as “a node from which innumerable possible futures can result or which allows a
return to various saved instances of pasts” (para. 14). This gives players the ability to more
easily pursue the Experiment and Change motivations: by going back to one of these nodes, they
can explore different futures.
Some games feature mechanics that gamify the save system, introducing the risk of their save
data being deleted and being forced to start over. Steel Battalion (Capcom Production Studio 4 &
Nude Maker, 2002) deletes the player’s savefile if their player character dies; Enemy Zero
(WARP, 1996) only allows the player to save and load their game a limited number of times,
after which their savefile is likewise deleted. Although this is a hindrance to the ease of
repeatability that the player had access to, it does not imply unrepeatability in itself: while it
32
forces the player to put more effort in and go through an already-experienced part of the game
(with the uncertainty spoiled for them), it does not cut off access to a previous experience by
itself.
This can be found in combination with actual unrepeatability, especially playthrough
unrepeatability: in some cases, like roguelikes, the same playthrough will not be possible
anymore due to the randomization of the game’s levels. In other cases, such as Enemy Zero, the
game is deterministic enough that the player can reach the same node they lost access to and
continue playing from there.
33
4
Case studies
In this section, I will examine games with different types of unrepeatability, to show how the
proposed framework can be used to identify these types. I will explain the particularities of each
game and how they are made unrepeatable; as well as point out and describe games in which
multiple types of unrepeatability are present, and how these interact. In the interest of
readability, I will not identify every single type of unrepeatability for each game, but rather only
point out the most significant ones. In addition, where relevant, I will explain how players
attempt to recover the lost original experience and bypass the unrepeatability.
34
BS The Legend of Zelda
St.GIGA shuts down
the satellite service.
Event
End of service
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Sunset
Motivation
Explore, Relive
The game is only
playable while it is
being broadcast.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore, Change,
Experiment, Relive
In 1995, Nintendo partnered with the broadcasting company St.GIGA to release the Satellaview
peripheral for the Super Famicom. With the appropriate hardware and a subscription to the
service, users in Japan could download content and games through satellite, directly to their
Super Famicom, to be saved to special cartridges equipped with 8Mbit Memory Paks. Games
could be downloaded only at the times when they were being broadcast; they were then saved
to the Satellaview unit or to the Memory Pak attached to the special Super Famicom cartridge.
Once downloaded, the games could be played a limited number of times at the player’s leisure
before the system required them to download the game again.
Some of these games were more restrictive on how they could be played. SoundLink broadcasts
featured live sound, music and voice-acting being transmitted and played in real time; this was
because the 8Mbit Memory Paks could not hold such a large amount of data. Thus, SoundLink
games had to be downloaded and played between very specific hours, with all the players
starting and ending their play sessions at the same time. As they played, the game would offer
them live voice-acting ranging from hints and advice, to full-fledged audio dramas with multiple
voice actors, acting out the plot of the game and exhorting the player to hurry from one goal to
the next. Once the broadcast time was over, the game was rendered unplayable, despite the data
remaining on the Memory Pak. Many games took advantage of this TV-broadcast-like nature
and were formatted in an episodic form, most often in four parts: each week, a new episode
would be broadcast, and the saved data from the Memory Pak would allow the players to keep
playing from where they left off.
BS The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo R&D2, 1995a), as well as its sequels BS The Legend of Zelda:
MAP 2 (Nintendo R&D2, 1995b) and BS The Legend of Zelda: Ancient Stone Tablets (Nintendo
R&D2, 1997), were such episodic SoundLink games, with the first being broadcast for the first
time in August 1995 (between 6 PM and 7 PM on four consecutive Sundays, one Sunday for each
35
of the four episodes of the game), and all three versions being featured in multiple re-runs as
the experiment resulted in huge player acclaim.
All players began playing simultaneously at the scheduled time, and they had one hour in which
to beat the dungeons available for that episode (each episode used blocks on the overworld in
order to change what portions of the map were accessible, so the developers had a finer control
over the pacing). At set times during this hour and simultaneously for every player, voice acting
would play over the gameplay, giving the player hints or granting them help. In BS The Legend
of Zelda, this help came in the form of temporary power-ups or access to items; in Ancient Stone
Tablets, it would start raining (triggering the appearance of certain enemies), ammunition
would become infinite for a short period of time, certain areas of the map became accessible,
and parts of the plot played out in the form of an audio drama, among other effects. Once the
hour elapsed, the players would be pulled out of the game, with their progress recorded onto
the Memory Pak so they could start the next episode with the same items and rupees they had
acquired over previous episodes.
The fact that these games were only playable for a short amount of time and at the same time
for everyone who owned the console made them into a sort of event that was designed to
resemble a “pseudo-multiplayer experience. In 1999, Nintendo and St.GIGA ceased their
collaboration, and St.GIGA kept broadcasting alone until June 2000, when it discontinued the
service with one last broadcast of BS The Legend of Zelda: Ancient Stone Tablets.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
Once the service was discontinued, playing the games was not possible anymore. Small
communities of fans have found memory packs still containing the games whose owners did not
overwrite, and have made copies fit for emulator. However, the SoundLink data was not stored
in the memory pack, so it is not recoverable: in some cases, the sound has been reconstructed
through recordings of the original gameplay, while in others no sound source has been found
and fan projects have created their own dub to replace it (“The BS Zelda HomePage,” 1999).
36
Faunasphere
Big Fish Games shuts
down the game
servers.
Event
End of service
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Sunset
Motivation
Explore, Relive
Faunasphere was an MMOG launched in 2009 and shut down in 2011. The players took the roles
of “Caretakers,” taking care of animal-like “fauna,” which they were tasked with breeding and
leveling up. In 2011, Faunasphere publisher Big Fish Games announced the impending closure
of the game with a one-month advance notice. Consalvo and Begy (2012) examined the
relationship of the players to the game as the sunset (industry term for the shut-down process
of an MMOG) was announced and executed. They organized the sunset in four stages: the
reactions to the closure announcement, the players changed behavior leading up to the closure,
the closure event itself, and the decline of the community after the game was shut down. The
players reacted with shock and outrage, some of them so upset that they couldn’t bring
themselves to play anymore; others were determined to reach achievements such as maxing out
the level of their fauna before the game was shut down.
During the closure event, some players stayed in their private space to “be with their fauna,
demonstrating an emotional connection with their “pets”; while players sook each other out in
public spaces to be together until the plug was pulled, similarly to how Uru players stood
together at the end of their own game (Pierce, as cited in Consalvo & Begy, 2012).
Bypassing the unrepeatability
After the game ended, the players moved on to other games, many of them considering their
status as “Faunasphere refugees” as part of their identity in the new games. They sook each
other out and maintained a sense of being part of a continuing community, while also keeping a
forum and a Facebook group to maintain contact and share screenshots and memories of the
game.
Other MMOGs have better chances of surviving such an end of service event depending on their
infrastructure: games whose communities maintain private servers such as World of Warcraft
(Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) legacy servers could keep going (legal issues aside), with the
players themselves maintaining the playing spaces after the official servers are shut down.
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Reaper Reaper Game
No more games are
organized after the
fourth installment.
Event
End of service
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Sunset
Motivation
Explore, Relive
The game is only
playable while the
event is running.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Scenario
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore, Change,
Experiment, Relive
The interactions
between the
characters are
unique, dependent on
the players.
Event
Multiplayer
unpredictability
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Playthrough
Replacement
Similar
Awareness
Nostalgia
Motivation
Relive
There exist many online communities where users engage in text-based roleplaying: “group
story creation, involving anywhere from two to several hundred people, utilizing public forums,
private message boards, mailing lists, chatrooms, and instant-messaging chat clients to build
worlds and characters that may last a few hours, or several years” (“Role-playing,” n.d., para. 7).
Among these sites, the microblogging site Tumblr allows for personal spaces dedicated to single
or multiple characters in the form of customizable blogs (blogs used to roleplay as more than
one character are referred to as hubs), interaction with other characters through “asks” and
“reblogs”, and threaded storytelling. These characters may be related to a specific work (such as
characters directly taken from games or TV shows) or completely original (termed OCs, for
“original characters). Readers can also interact with the characters by sending them questions
to answer through Tumblr’s ask box feature, and some communities organize events with
special characteristics to encourage continued activity and provide some diversity in play.
The Reaper Reaper Game (“Reaper Reaper Game,” 2013) was a series of such events, run in
August 2013, December 2013, August 2014 and December 2015. They were community-
agnostic, allowing any blogs to take part regardless of the originating work of the character
represented by the blog (none, in the case of OCs). The event was an adaptation of the plot of the
game The World Ends With You (Square Enix & Jupiter, 2007): the characters come to find
themselves in a version of the Tokyo borough of Shibuya separated from the real world, and
discover that they must complete seven missions assigned to them by mysterious game-runners
and antagonists called “Reapers” in order to beat “The Reaper Game.” Should they fail to
38
complete a mission, the character is “Erased”, and effectively deleted from existence. During the
Tumblr Reaper Reaper Game event, these missions were given out to the participating Tumblr
blogs (some acting as Players, and some as Reapers) by the organizers of the event (the
Administrators), with a 36-hour time limit to complete them, and a 12-hour rest period in
between missions to allow the players and organizers time to rest. The missions were
completed by roleplaying with other Players and Reapers, narrating through the actions that
each character would take to complete the in-game task. Blogs would need to rack up
participation points by interacting with others during their missions: if a certain blog didn’t
achieve a required number of points or failed to complete the in-universe mission, they would
be informed of their impending Erasure and would need to roleplay the death of their character
to be taken out of the game. After completing the seven missions, Players still in the game would
win.
This Tumblr game was run four separate times, with the rules changing slightly each time in
order to accommodate rest periods (the first instance had mostly random time limits and
mission start times, while the second and following instances made every mission the same
length of time and introduced rest periods) and players from different time zones (the fourth
game had two missions each day, the day shift and the night shift, with the latter starting 12
hours after the former).
This series of events rejoins three types of unrepeatability. Firstly, the fact that the games are
not being run anymore: anyone who would have found out about it after 2015 and intended to
play on the next installment would find that there would be none organized after that point.
Secondly, the missions for each day on each of the runs were completely different, giving even
players who had played through previous events a completely new scenario to explore. Finally,
any player interactions would obviously be unrepeatable: each event had a different set of
players signed up for it, and the relationships developed among the characters on one run
would be unreplicable through another.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
A “God Mode” run of the game, in which players wouldn’t need to be partnered up and missions
would only last for 24 hours, was announced, but it was later cancelled due to low interest.
Many players continued roleplaying with their newfound partners. In private conversations,
some of the RRG administrators have expressed their desire to run a game again (Kelpy,
personal communication, March 28, 2019).
39
I Love Bees
The game is only
playable while new
information and
puzzles are being
discovered /
revealed.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Sunset
Motivation
Explore, Relive,
Experiment
Major breakthroughs
and moments of
collaboration depend
on the users that are
online.
Event
Multiplayer
unpredictability
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Playthrough
Replacement
Similar
Awareness
Nostalgia
Motivation
Relive
Once solved, the
puzzles don’t offer
any additional
challenge to players
returning to the
archives.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(solver’s)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Informed
(implicit)
Motivation
Relive
ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, provide very clear examples of unrepeatable experiences.
Under the common pretense of “this is not a game,” ARGs drop mysterious clues of their
existence in non-game-related environments, leading the would-be players to discover the
games in a way that makes it seem like the conceit and plot of the game are real. Players solve
challenges and puzzles, and interact with the game in real time, with new information and
challenges being revealed as the community advances. These games require a large effort of
organization, and advance through the efforts of a community rather than those of a single
person, with advancements and breakthroughs being disclosed to the community at large rather
than to single players.
I Love Bees was an ARG that ran through the summer of 2004, as a viral marketing campaign for
the release of Halo 2. It involved, like most ARGs, reacting to new information as it was
published, and solving puzzles together with the rest of an active community. At the height of its
run, it involved players physically seeking out specific payphones at specific times to receive
and send messages to and from the game’s characters; as well as players being contacted
directly and sharing the new information with the rest of the community. Once the game ran its
course, it was never organized again, and eventually the community dissolved and moved on to
other ARGs. The community-solving of the puzzles meant that there was a limited amount of
time to solve a puzzle before someone else solved it first, after which the puzzle became
40
obsolete. In addition to that, the opportunity to complete certain challenges was severely
restricted in time and space, as was the case of the payphone challenge.
41
Masquerade
The prize can only be
claimed by the first
person to solve the
puzzles.
Event
Single reward
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Periphery
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Change, Relive
Returning players
already know the
solution to the
puzzles.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(solver’s)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Informed
(implicit)
Motivation
Relive
Masquerade is a book written and illustrated by Kit Williams, with a complex puzzle hidden in
its illustrations. Armchair treasure hunts involve collecting a grand prize by being the first
person to ever manage to solve the puzzles hidden in treasure books: once claimed, the prize is
rendered unavailable for every other player. Players most often have to go out and find the
physical treasure buried in the ground, or call a certain phone number with a specific answer,
and communities form, much like they do around ARGs, in order to solve the more complicated
aspects of the puzzles. Once a certain book gains enough fans, the chase for the prize can
become frantic and down-to-the-wire. These chases can lead to periods towards the end of the
game with players digging in spots close to the goal within days of each other, making some
games extremely competitive. After the game is over, new players would not have the incentive
to search for the treasure, and returning players would have lost their solver’s uncertainty, as
they would already know the solutions to the puzzles.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
Even without the promise of a prize at the end, players can still attempt to solve treasure books
after their prize has been claimed; even though peripheral elements, such as the thrill of the
chase and the communities that form in order to attempt to solve books together, will be lost.
42
Pokémon GO
The phenomenon of
“everyone is out on
the streets playing
Pokémon GO” comes
to an end after the
player base shrinks.
Event
Loss of
community
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Periphery
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Nostalgia
Motivation
Relive
Pokémon GO is a location-based game released in the summer of 2016. To play, players must
walk around in the physical world to find Pokémon, capture them, retrieve items at geo-locked
Pokéstops, and battle each other’s Pokémon at geo-locked gyms. The summer of its release, the
game was a runaway success, engaging a number of players that far surpassed expectations,
reaching many players who had not previously had any interest in the series. For many of these
players, Pokémon GO was their first Pokémon game. For most of the summer, the Pokémon GO
player base was very large and, because the game is designed to be played outside, very visible,
leading to the impression that it was impossible to walk out on the street without seeing
everyone playing the game. A few months after launch, the player base shrank down, with fewer
and fewer people playing it daily, until December of that year, where the daily unique users
were around 5 million, compared to the 25 million at launch (Farooqui, 2017). The game still
has a large player base, but the runaway success that led to the game being dubbed a social
phenomenon has not been repeated.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
Pokémon is at a unique position in the modern world as the highest-grossing intellectual
property of all time. No franchises have as much pull or are as entrenched in popular culture as
this saga of videogames. Because of this, it is extremely unlikely that a social phenomenon like
this will be repeated: the combination of the novelty of AR and geo-location mechanics in a
mainstream game, the visibility of these two mechanics, and the marketing pull of the Pokémon
intellectual property made it so the game’s runaway success was not just a popular
phenomenon, but a highly visible one. The experience of “everyone is outside, playing Pokémon
GO” may well stay unique for a very long time.
43
Twitch Plays Pokémon
Each game is only
playable while the
TPP Twitch channel
is hosting its
playthrough.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Scenario
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore, Change,
Experiment, Relive
The behavior of the
player character is
dependent on which
of the myriad
commands is being
input at the time the
game reads the next
input.
Event
Multiplayer
unpredictability
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Playthrough
Replacement
Similar
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Experiment, Change
The worldbuilding
created around the
game is dependent
on the community.
Event
Multiplayer
unpredictability
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Playthrough
Replacement
Similar
Awareness
Nostalgia
Motivation
Relive
Members of the
community trying to
replicate story beats
from the previous
installment make
certain actions feel
“forced.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(narrative)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Nostalgia
Motivation
Relive
Twitch is a social streaming platform on which players can livestream themselves playing
games, and interact with their audience by means of a live chat. Streamers can add bots to their
chat: dummy automated accounts that provide functionality through text parsing.
On 2014, the Twitch account TwitchPlaysPokemon (“TwitchPlaysPokemon,” 2014) started up a
playthrough of Pokémon Blue (Game Freak, 1996), and set up a bot on the channel’s chat, which
would convert the viewers’ commands (up, down, left, right, b, a, start) into actual inputs on the
emulated game. With thousands of players sending inputs at a time (simultaneous participation
peaked at 121,000 players (“Twitch Plays Pokémon,” n.d.)), it was impossible to predict which
inputs would make it into the game; still, players were able to coordinate their strategies and tilt
the “randomness” towards beneficial outcomes, with the most popular communication forum
being the subreddit /r/TwitchPlaysPokemon. The game was beaten in 16 days, and with over
1.1 million players inputting commands and about 36 million views (“Twitch Plays Pokémon,
n.d.), the game has been dubbed a cultural phenomenon (Twitch, 2014).
44
Two days later, a new playthrough started, this time of Pokémon Crystal (Game Freak, 2000).
However, the novelty had died down, and this playthrough had significantly less success.
Players tried to recapture the emotion and drama of the original playthrough by attempting to
replicate key high-stakes events from the original run (Ramirez, Saucerman, & Dietmeier, 2014).
In Pokémon games, only six Pokémon can be in the player’s party, with any excess Pokémon
being sent to the PC. It is necessary to use the PC to retrieve these Pokémon and place them in
the party; however, the PC also allows for the release of Pokémon, letting them go and never to
be seen again. This made the use of the PC extremely high-risk and high-reward, as the players
may manage to place a powerful Pokémon in their party, or they may release it by chance.
During the Pokémon Blue playthrough, two such moments happened, with one of them being
referred to the community as “Bloody Sunday due to the extent of the losses incurred, as
twelve Pokémon were released (“Bloody Sunday,” n.d.).
However, during the Pokémon Crystal run, players trying to steer the player character towards
the PC in order to replicate high-stakes moments like this were opposed with complaints that it
felt forced, an artificial attempt to recapture the feel of the first iteration (Ramirez et al., 2014).
This was also felt in the creation of lore around the playthrough. During the Pokémon Blue
playthrough, the players made sense of the non-sensical gameplay by creating a sort of crowd-
generated “religion”, centered around notable items and the Pokémon captured and used in the
game. Art and lore were created to support these stories, shared mostly on the aforementioned
subreddit, and the community was enthusiastic about partaking in and accepting this creation
process. During the Pokémon Crystal playthrough, however, the community rejected ideas and
was generally discontent with the way the lore was shaping up (Ramirez et al., 2014).
Bypassing the unrepeatability
Today, there are still Twitch Plays initiatives, including new Twitch Plays Pokémon
installments, but none have managed to capture the sheer success and the depth of
worldbuilding that was generated during the first one. “[T]he target audiences have diminished
rapidly. There has not been a Twitch Plays X game yet that reached the same numbers of TPP
(Lindsey, 2015, p. 134).
45
DELETE
Games are only
playable for 5 hours,
after which they are
completely deleted.
Event
Window of
opportunity
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore,
Experiment, Relive
Some of the games
only allow for a
single playthrough
that spans these five
hours.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore,
Experiment, Relive
DELETE is a game jam and game exhibition, started in 2016 (Rayfield, 2016, 2018). A small
number of game developers make a game throughout the day that will be playable for five
hours, from 7 PM to midnight; after which the game is completely destroyed. All physical
elements are smashed or burned, and all code and artwork is deleted. Many of these games are
experimental, as well as being themed explicitly around the theme of destruction or deletion.
While some of them allow for replayability during the five hours during which they are playable
(unnamed sculpture band; unnamed word game; OBLITERATE; Horse, The Hungry And
Revered), making their playtime a Window of opportunity, others only allow for a single
playthrough (Moon Golfing, Body of Play, Dicks Of Destruction, The eCheese Zone, Washing
Machine), making them a One-shot experience.
46
Overwatch
Certain modes of play
and certain items are
only playable or
obtainable while the
event is being held.
Event
Window of
opportunity
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Mode, Content
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore, Relive
Overwatch is a first-person shooter team game, in which teams of players choose different
heroes, each of which allows for a different playstyle, in order to perform a different kind of task
depending on the chosen mode. The seven modes usually available in the game include, for
example, escorting a payload while the defending team attempts to prevent the payload’s
movement; or capturing points of interest in the map by staying close to said point, while
preventing the other team from doing the same. Completing matches rewards players with,
among others, access to lootboxes that contain random cosmetic items. During certain time-
limited seasonal events, special lootbox rewards such as skins and emotes appear, and they
become unobtainable after the three-week event ends. In addition to that, special game modes,
different from the always-playable seven mainstay modes, become playable only during the
time of the events, completely changing the rules of how the game plays, from introducing new
goals to complete to limiting the selection of heroes. While some of these modes become
available again during new instances of similar events, others have not been featured again.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
Seasonal events happen six times a year, and each of them releases new game modes and
lootbox items, or brings back some from previous events. Ultimately, whether any one game
mode will be playable again depends on Blizzard’s plans for each event.
47
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
The Nepal
government bans the
game completely,
citing concerns of
addiction and
aggression.
Event
Window of
opportunity
Reach
Unclear
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
End
Motivation
Explore, Relive
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG Corporation, 2017) is a survival shooter in which up to
100 players see their characters airdropped onto an island, tasked with finding supplies and
weapons and killing the other player characters until there is only one left. On April 11th, 2019,
the Nepal government directed all ISPs in the country to block access to it, citing concerns of
addiction and heightened aggression in teenagers. A week later, on April 19th, the Nepal
Supreme Court lifted the ban, considering it unreasonable and unconstitutional (Prescott &
Brown, 2019; Sinclair, 2019).
Had the ban stayed in place, this event could be classified as End of service, with the caveat of
the agent responsible for terminating the service being the Nepal government and ISPs, rather
than the company responsible for the game’s development and maintenance. However, it does
pose an interesting edge case when it comes to determining the reach of the event.
In this classification, I only consider cases in which the limiting event affects the players who are
playing the game, individually, as a result of their play (session reach); or in which the
unrepeatability affects everybody in the world, regardless of whether they have played the
game or not, and leading those who have not yet played to miss their opportunity to go through
the original experience (universal reach). Nepal’s ban does not fit either of these possibilities:
while it cuts off access to people who have not played the game, causing them to miss the
experience, it does not affect every person in the world, making the playing of PUBG outside of
Nepal perfectly repeatable.
48
Blade & Soul
A patch removes a
large amount of non-
story missions.
Event
Patch
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Scenario
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Sunset
Motivation
Explore,
Experiment, Relive
Blade & Soul (Team Bloodlust, 2012) is a Korean MMORPG, with a heavy focus on martial-arts-
based combat. Players explore a fantasy world, with quests to complete in each area leading
their progress. On October 16th, 2008, the Blade & Soul 4.8.1 patch was released and applied to
the game servers: among other updates, the patch “[r]emoved a large amount of side quests in
Viridian Coast, The Cinderlands, and Moonwater Plains” (“Blade & Ghoul Event Now Live!,”
2018). The developers explained their decision citing their concern over players thinking that
these optional quests were necessary in order to gain the levels needed to progress, leading
them to getting stuck; they were removed so that the remaining quests, mostly story quests,
would provide a “more clear path” (CyanCC, 2018). This move was not received well by some
parts of the community, with some players voicing their discontent at the loss of content, as well
as the loss of worldbuilding and lore that these quests laid out and that made the world feel
more “alive” (Griffeyon et al., 2018; Renkin42 et al., 2018).
49
We the Giants
The servers (and
Twitter accounts)
supporting the game
are no longer up, so
the unique mechanic
cannot be triggered.
Event
End of service
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Mode
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Sunset
Motivation
Explore, Relive
After a player
“sacrifices” their
player character, they
are stopped from
playing again.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
End
Motivation
Explore,
Experiment, Relive
We the Giants (Groeneweg, 2012) is a 2009 experimental Flash game. In it, the player controls a
“giant,” a creature who can only move around and sacrifice themselves to turn into rock. The
final objective of the game is to reach a star high up in the level, but no one player is able to do
so on their own. Instead, players must sacrifice their characters to build a tower so that the
players that follow them may build closer to the star. Once a player sacrifices their giant, they
are not able to play again, instead only being able to see the final screen as the tower continues
to be constructed. In the end, only the player who reaches the star can see the ending, after
which the final screen is reset to allow for a new group of players to start building again.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
The game is no longer playable in its original form. The server that provided the connectivity
functionality, both in terms of recording the users’ messages and recording and communicating
the giants’ death positions, has been taken down, which means that the sacrifice mechanic does
not work anymore. Even the Twitter accounts associated with the game, which tweeted the
messages that players input upon sacrificing their giant, have been deactivated.
50
Hitman
After the release of
Hitman 2, elusive
targets stop being
released for the
previous game.
Event
End of service
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Scenario
Replacement
None
Awareness
Sunset
Motivation
Explore, Relive
Elusive target
missions are only
playable in the real-
world-time window
when the missions
are “active,” whether
it is the first time
they are so or during
the period when they
are “reactivated.
Event
Window of
opportunity
Reach
Universal
Lost aspect
Scenario
Replacement
None
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore, Relive
Once the contract is
completed (whether
by success or failure),
the mission is not
playable again.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Scenario
Replacement
None
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore, Change,
Experiment, Relive
In the game Hitman and its sequel Hitman 2, the player takes the role of an assassin, tasked with
killing certain characters in a large level and escaping undiscovered. The regular missions can
be repeated as many times as the player wants, and the levels offer many different
opportunities and methods to kill the targets. Every time the player plays through a level, they
play through the exact same “day”: the player can replay to learn about the victim’s behavior,
the security around them, and the level itself, so that each success or failure makes the player
better at that particular scenario. For skilled players, a special challenge is available: elusive
targets. Elusive targets are announced as limited time events, and can only be attempted within
a limited time (initially 48 hours, but later targets have become available for a whole week)
before the mission is removed from the game. It is set on one of the existing levels that the
players already know, but features a completely new target to assassinate, as well as heightened
security in some cases. Players only have one chance to dispose of these elusive targets: once
they have attempted the mission once, whether it ended in success or failure, it disappears and
cannot be attempted again. This means that, even though they can memorize the layout of the
level and the behavior of every other element, players do not get the opportunity to learn the
victim’s behavior, and only have one chance to succeed.
51
Bypassing the unrepeatability
The elusive target missions in Hitman (except for one, for copyright reasons) were
“reactivated,” each for about ten days, to allow players who did not manage to play the original
missions a chance at completing them. Players who had already played through the respective
original mission would not be able to access the reactivated version.
In addition to this, players came up with methods to bypass the one-chance-only mechanic by
disconnecting their console from the internet before the game servers could register the failure.
52
The Day the Laughter Stopped
The game saves its
state to the browser,
and does not allow
any choices to be
reverted or the game
to be restarted.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
End
Motivation
Explore, Change,
Experiment, Relive
The Day the Laughter Stopped is a text-based game made during the Ludum Dare #28 game
jam. It deals with sexual assault, and it puts forward the message that victims are not at fault for
getting assaulted. The player plays through the story from the point of view of the victim, and
the choices are set up so that, no matter what the player chooses, the story still follows the same
course. At times, choice is completely taken away from the player, by presenting options that
cannot be clicked. At the end, the player is given the option to restart from the beginning, only to
be met with the message “There is no starting over. This happened.” The game saves
information on the user’s browser that prevents the player from restarting the game, but allows
them to read through the choices they made.
This game directly addresses and challenges the usual assumptions of repeatability and agency
in games. It introduces choices that make the player want to see if they could avert the ending
by taking other paths, a common mechanic in similar works of interactive fiction; but then
actively references the player’s desire to try again and cuts it short. It uses the unrepeatability to
imitate the way that victims of abuse will go over the story in their heads, trying to find out if
they would have been able to avert what happened to them by acting differently.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
The author acknowledges the possibility that a player may “figure out how and where it saves,
delete it, and actually do it again” (Flor, 2013b, para. 26). However, he considers the message
embedded in the unreplayability mechanic to be clear enough to not be muddled by this
possibility.
53
Sub Mission: A Matter of Life and Death
When a mission is
failed outside of
practice mode, the
disc edits its own
programming to
render the game
unplayable.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore, Change,
Experiment, Relive
Sub Mission: A Matter of Life and Death is a 1986 game for PC and Apple II. In it, the player takes
control of a submarine to carry two captives to safety. However, should the player fail any of the
missions, the game disc would delete one of the two characters from the game, completely,
rendering it entirely unplayable. There were several measures in place to reduce the impact of
this mechanic: the game allowed for the characters to be resurrected once and, in case of a
second failure, players could ask for a replacement by sending a letter to the developer. In
addition, it was possible to practice any mission with “robots” taking the place of the humans:
while this option would not allow the player to progress through the game if they succeeded,
they would not lose the ability to play the game if they failed.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
The game has been copied onto more permanent media, and today it is possible to download
and play emulated versions without risking the deletion of the game.
54
Free Will
Once the first
playthrough of the
game is over
(through success or
failure), trying to
start the game again
results in viewing a
non-playable
recording of that first
playthrough.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
End
Motivation
Explore, Change,
Experiment, Relive
Free Will is a 2009 platforming game. It appears as though it follows the conventions of the
genre exactly; upon death, it offers the player the possibility to “try again.” However, instead of
allowing the player to play on this second attempt, it simply plays back a recording of the
player’s first attempt, up to and including their failure, after which the player is again presented
with the “try again” option. The game replays the player’s decision to try again, and the
recording restarts. This continues until the page is closed or refreshed. Much like The Day the
Laughter Stopped, it provides commentary on the assumption of repeatability in games, and
directly challenges it.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
The unrepeatability mechanic is not hard to best in this case; if the player refreshes the page,
the game forgets about the previous playthrough and allows the player to play again.
55
OneShot
The game saves
automatically,
including when the
player closes it, and
does not allow access
to save slots,
restarting, or going
back to a previous
point.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Game
Replacement
None
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore,
Experiment, Relive
OneShot (Velasquez & Gu, 2014) is a 2014 PC game, re-released on Steam on 2016 (Little Cat
Feet, 2016). Despite its non-combat, exploratory nature, the game warns the player (through a
dialog box that appears outside of the game window, and using the player’s real name) that they
only have one shot at completing the story. Throughout the course of the game, the player is
addressed directly, and considered a completely different character from the player character.
Only a few of the decisions made in the game are final; the game has several points of no return,
most notably towards the ending. Clues and necessary steps to reach certain achievements can
be missed if each area is not thoroughly explored. In addition to these mechanics, the game
creates files in the player’s computer, and at one point changes the desktop background, to
drive home the feeling that the game has a certain amount of control beyond its own limits. The
final decision in the game is an unsolvable moral dilemma, and it carries a tremendous amount
of weight, in part because of its irreversibility.
The game offers the players the possibility to save and close the game by resting at certain beds
that can be found in the game. If the player attempts to close the game on the Steam version,
progress is saved automatically, and starting it up again puts the player right where they left off.
There is no option to go back to a previous saved state. The original non-Steam version is much
harsher: if the player closes the game, upon reopening it they are presented with a destroyed
main menu, and they are informed that they killed the player character.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
During gameplay, in the Steam version, it is possible to avoid saving by forcibly closing the
program through Task Manager; doing so returns the player to the last spot where they saved.
In the original version, this is not possible, and triggers the “death” outcome.
At the end of the narrative, the game acknowledges the desire of the player to restart and do
things differently, and provides them with an opportunity to do so by providing access to a file
that the player can delete. This save file is a dummy: while it allows the player to start again, the
56
game remembers the previous playthrough, and the Solstice update adds a new route that is
only accessible after the player completes and “resets” the game at least once.
57
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
The game requires
the players to
permanently modify
its physical elements
as they play, making
a replay from the
beginning with the
same starting
variables impossible.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Scenario
Replacement
None
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Explore,
Experiment, Relive
If a new copy of the
game is bought, the
players already know
the challenges and
plot ahead of them.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(narrative,
hidden
information)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Informed
(implicit)
Motivation
Relive
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (Daviau & Leacock, 2015) is a 2015 board game based on the board
game Pandemic. The card-and-board-based game includes instructions that permanently
modify, deface or even destroy cards or parts of the board, as well as regulate when new rules
and components are added to the game. These depend on reaching milestones such as failing a
certain number of games in a row, or reaching a certain point in the overarching campaign; as
well as the choices the players make. The game is designed to be played 12-24 times (a 12-
month campaign, with two chances to clear each month), after which the narrative for the game
ends, and a new box needs to be bought before being able to play again. The fact that the
playthroughs actively affect the game itself, changing the starting conditions, the available
resources, and the rules that apply to future playthroughs, make it so any particular session is
different when compared to other sessions; in fact, because this progression is dependent on
the players’ choices, each campaign progresses differently from other campaigns of the same
game.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
It is, of course, possible to buy another copy of the game and play through the 12-month
campaign again; however, this reveals a different type of unrepeatability: thanks to the
knowledge that the players have of the challenges that are presented during later months,
players can shape their strategy differently, leading to a different gameplay. In addition, these
58
Legacy games are released in seasons, with Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 (Daviau & Leacock,
2017) offering different mechanics and a different overarching storyline.
59
OFF
The ending of the
narrative
recontextualizes the
player’s actions
through the rest of
the game and gives
them a new meaning,
so that on a similar
playthrough the
player sees their own
actions as
qualitatively
different.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(narrative,
semiotic)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
End
Motivation
Relive
OFF (Unproductive Fun Time, 2008) is an RPG Maker game released on the internet in 2008.
The game starts off similarly to other RPGs: the main character is sent on an unclear mission
that requires them to fight enemies through several areas of the world, the player is taught the
combat mechanics, and the game proceeds by defeating any and all enemies encountered.
However, as the player advances through the game, the motives of the main character are
increasingly thrown into question, until the player realizes that they have been playing as a
sociopathic villain the entire time, and that it was through their own actions that they killed
every being in their way (Monedero March, 2017). The game leans heavily on the player’s
preconceptions of how the RPG genre games are supposed to be played, in order to ease them
into the thought that they are doing what is expected of them, to later question the morality of
these learned habits and expectations (Monedero March, 2017). The game does not allow the
player to advance through the game without this violent approach, which means that repeat
playthroughs feel completely different to the first, as the player views their own actions in a
completely different light. The player already knows the plot, and knows the way that their
actions will be judged: narrative anticipation and Malaby’s semiotic contingency are lost when
playing through the game a second time.
60
Undertale
The ending of the
narrative
recontextualizes the
player’s actions
through the rest of
the game and gives
them a new meaning,
so that on a similar
playthrough the
player sees their own
actions as
qualitatively
different.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(narrative,
semiotic)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
End
Motivation
Relive
The game allows the
player to restart and
go back to previously
saved spots, but the
gamestate is different
because it
remembers
previous
playthroughs.
Event
One-shot
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Scenario
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
End
Motivation
Change,
Experiment, Relive
Undertale (Fox, 2015) is an RPG set in a region of the world called “the Underground,”
populated by creatures called “monsters.” These monsters take on the roles of both friendly
NPCs and typical RPG enemies. In a manner similar to OFF, it allows its players to mindlessly
follow RPG genre conventions and fall into the pattern of violently defeating every monster that
is presented as an enemy, before judging their actions at certain points of the narrative, most
notably near the end of the game (Monedero March, 2017). Unlike OFF, however, Undertale
makes it possible to avoid the violent approach, instead befriending the monsters that appear in
a combat setting by talking to them and convincing them not to fight. This allows the player to
follow a different route, and the ending is modified to reflect their behavior. Playing through the
game again, even if the player makes the same choices (whether violent or non-violent) feels
different from the first playthrough in the same way as OFF (Monedero March, 2017): narrative
anticipation and Malaby’s semiotic contingency are absent from repeat playthroughs of the
same route.
In addition to this, there is the possibility that the player, after realizing the weight of their
actions, will want to restart the game to play non-violently. One point where the game predicts
this may happen is at the end of the first area of the game. The last enemy to be fought in that
area is Toriel, a friendly NPC that has so far attempted to be a mother figure to the player
61
character, and that fights them in order to prevent them from continuing through to the rest of
the underground, out of fear that they will be killed. The first character the player met and main
antagonist of the game, Flowey, appears in the next room. If the player has killed Toriel or any
other monsters before this point, Flowey will mock and chastise the player for being a
murderer. If the player, out of guilt, restarts the game to play again without killing anyone,
Flowey’s dialogue will change, revealing that he knows that the player restarted the game to
avoid the consequences of their actions. This can be seen as a One-shot limiting event, cutting
off access to the original scenario once players have played through it once, and leaving them
with different reactions from the characters in subsequent playthroughs than the ones they
experienced initially.
Finally, the game actively comments on the player’s exploratory desire of seeing everything, of
treating the game as a puzzle box and finding all of the available content by trying every
possible combination (more specifically, by wanting to see what happens depending on which
monsters they kill and which they spare). This sentiment is exactly replicated in Flowey’s
storyline, revealed during the “Genocide route” (requiring that the player not only kill every
monster they encounter, but also keep forcing monster encounters until there are no more
monsters left to fight), suggesting that such a desire could be seen as sadistic. The game
narratively punishes the player for their wish of wanting to explore the possibility space,
something that other games make a point to encourage.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
At the end of the Pacifist route, if the player opens the game again, they are offered the
possibility of performing a “True Reset,” with everything in the game, including Flowey’s
knowledge of the player’s previous routes, taken back to their initial state. One element,
however, remains through this True Reset. If the player completes the Genocide route they must
“sell their soul” to an evil entity named Chara in order to be able to reset the game again. Chara
seems to take over the player character’s body, and permanently changes the ending of the
Pacifist route, implying that this entity was only pretending to be nice and lashed out again after
the player completed the game. The only way to erase this consequence is to completely delete
the save file in the computer’s file system. Players have worked out and divulged a safe method
to achieve this, despite it not being intended by the game’s design (“Genocide Route,” n.d.).
Reliving the original experience is however impossible, as the players will already be aware of
the narrative and semiotic twists in the game.
62
Train
The ending of the
game gives a
meaning to the
actions that the
players have been
performing that is
massively different
from the expected
meaning.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(semiotic)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
End
Motivation
Relive
Train is a 2009 game by Brenda Romero. Through the course of play, players follow the
instructions without necessarily considering the reasons for it, by loading people-shaped tokens
into train cars; at some point in the game, they turn over a card to reveal that the trains are
headed towards a Nazi concentration camp. Like the previous two games, it takes advantage of
the player’s expectations of how games are supposed to be played, to later subvert these
expectations and force them to reconsider their actions. It is impossible to play the game again
with the same innocence as the first playthrough: Malaby’s semiotic uncertainty disappears
completely and, in this case, it makes the experience wildly different.
63
Escape rooms
Once the player has
played through the
room, they know the
solutions to all the
puzzles.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(solver’s)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
Informed
(implicit)
Motivation
Relive
Escape rooms are a type of puzzle game in which the players are locked inside a room filled with
clues, keys, locked boxes and puzzles; and are given a limited amount of time (usually one hour)
to find a way to leave the room. Once they have played through the room once (particularly if
they have beaten it), there is very little interest in solving it again: since the puzzles and their
solutions don’t change between plays, the player would already know the answer to all the
puzzles, and the challenge would disappear. In this case, solver’s uncertainty, the uncertainty of
the player’s ability to find the correct solution (in this case, to find it in the allotted time), is not
present in repeat playthroughs. This can be considered a ludic form of narrative spoilers: the
same way that people avoid hearing about plot details of a film or movie they have not yet
watched, many also ask to not be helped or told the solution when solving puzzles such as
sudoku or crosswords.
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The Binding of Isaac
Each time the game is
restarted, the
elements within it
change so that their
disposition can’t be
learned, only their
characteristics.
Event
Randomization
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Playthrough
Replacement
Similar
Awareness
Informed
Motivation
Change, Experiment
The Binding of Isaac (McMillen, 2011) is a roguelike game. Its gameplay is that of a twin-stick
shooter, with the player controlling the titular Isaac through a procedurally generated dungeon
filled with enemies. Upon death, the game erases the player’s progress, and the dungeon crawl
must be restarted from the beginning, with the dungeon being randomly generated again to
provide a different dungeon layout and different challenges on each playthrough. This makes it
so that every playthrough is unique. The random elements keep the player from learning
layouts and particular ways of clearing specific rooms, but they learn how specific elements of
the game work, such as enemies, power-ups and bosses; and get better at the game itself rather
than at a specific section of it. Player frustration can come from not being able to encounter the
same situation again now that they know how to react to it, but also from the lost progress each
time the player fails.
Although the game strays from the typical roguelike formula of completely erasing the player’s
progress by offering the possibility to unlock new items or bosses to be found or characters to
be used in future playthroughs, this does not diminish the unrepeatability present in each
session.
Bypassing the unrepeatability
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (Nicalis, 2014), a remake of the original, released for PC and
multiple consoles in 2014, introduces editable seeds to affect the random generation of the
dungeon: an eight-character alphanumeric code is visible in the pause screen, and such a code
can be entered before starting a playthrough to seed the procedural generation. Playthroughs
with the same seed will feature the same dungeon layout, enemies and power-ups, making it
possible to repeat the same playthrough as many times as desired; if this happens, however, it
could be considered that we can find unrepeatability of the Spoilers type, since the player will
already have information that they did not before the first playthrough.
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Savefile deletion
Once the player has
played through the
game, they already
know the plot and
will not be surprised.
Event
Spoilers
Reach
Session
Lost aspect
Uncertainty
(narrative)
Replacement
Dissimilar
Awareness
End
Motivation
Relive
The form of unrepeatability in the following three games is the same for all three: the loss of
narrative uncertainty that comes from already knowing what is going to happen. This occurs in
any game with a fixed story or plot. However, these games take on an element of roguelikes,
exemplified earlier with The Binding of Isaac: the player’s progress is erased by means of
deleting their savefile. Each of these games does so in a different way. In these cases, this doesn’t
add any new types of unrepeatability, but in forcing the player to re-tread known ground in
order to regain their progress, they up the stakes of play in a manner similar to some of the
games I have discussed.
Steel Battalion
In Steel Battalion, the player character is a mech pilot, controlling war machines named
“Vertical Tanks” in-game. The game must be played with a peripheral controller with over 40
buttons and three pedals, including an Eject button. If the mech is in danger of malfunctioning
during a mission the player is given a warning, and they must eject the player character from
the cockpit before it explodes, aborting the mission. This allows the player character to try
again, piloting a different machine. If the mech explodes without ejecting the pilot, the pilot dies,
and the save file is completely erased to symbolize this, forcing the player to start the game
again from the beginning. This makes players face the choice of whether they want to escape
before it is too late and not risk a major loss, or risk their “life” for a last push.
Enemy Zero
In Enemy Zero, the player character is a man with amnesia, and the save / load mechanic is
diegetic: in order to save the game, the character records his memories onto a voice recorder,
and listens to his recording in order to remember past events and load a previously saved file.
Both of these actions deplete the recorder’s battery, which is a limited resource throughout the
entire game. If the battery runs out from saving and loading too much, the save / load mechanic
becomes inaccessible, and the game must be restarted from the beginning in case of failure.
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Nier
At the end of the game Nier (Cavia, 2010), the player is offered an option: in order to take the
plot to completion, they must erase their player character from existence. If they choose to do
so, they are shown how everyone forgets them, and then how their savefile is deleted. The
player is given many opportunities to go back on their decision as they are making it, and the
game makes a point to insist that their progress will be deleted for real. As opposed to the
deletion of the savefile being a punishment for failure, as it is in the other cases, Nier treats it as
a vehicle to impart a greater weight to an emotionally charged choice and its consequences.
67
5
Discussion
In this section, I will discuss some of the proposed framework’s shortcomings, examine some of
the implications and special cases I have identified, and propose two ways of using the
framework to support further investigation.
Framework quirks and shortcomings
Can’t play this again together
In the case studies section, I examined the case of the Nepal government banning
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (Prescott & Brown, 2019; Sinclair, 2019), and how the reach
parameter was not clearly determined in that case. Let’s consider a fictional game, to explore
the boundaries of the reach parameter. In this multiplayer game, players play with their friends,
building up a team of two to four players to play several minigames together, in the style of
games like Move or Die (Those Awesome Guys, 2016) or Ultimate Chicken Horse (Clever
Endeavour Games, 2016). However, once that group plays through a session, the game places a
block on the players’ accounts: that same group will not be able to play together again. This may
mean that that exact group configuration, with every single member present, is blocked (after A,
B and C have played, A and B can play together with D, but a session with the group A, B, C
cannot occur again); or that none of the players will be able to play with any of the other players
68
present (after A, B and C have played, A will never be able to play if B or C are in the same
group); however, this distinction is irrelevant to our purposes.
This mechanic obviously introduces unrepeatability, but it is hard to say exactly of which kind,
and exactly to which extent. The players are not cut off from the game experience in general, but
rather from having a similar game experience with these particular people. While I have already
mentioned that the inclusion of multiplayer introduces unrepeatability on its own through the
Multiplayer unpredictability event, this game also adds a kind of One-shot unrepeatability (with
session reach). In a manner similar to roguelikes, it allows the players to play again, and where
roguelikes change the layout of the dungeon to crawl through, this game changes the group of
people playing it.
Repeatability and speedrunning
Our classification of unrepeatability, particularly the Spoilers type, implies that no games are
devoid of unrepeatable experiences: regardless of whether another form of unrepeatability is
present, the player’s first playthrough will be different from all the subsequent ones, by virtue of
already knowing details like plot or beneficial strategies. Extending this idea further, we could
consider that even a game like Tetris can have this type of unrepeatability. As the player learns
strategies and gets better and better at the game, they will not experience the game again as
they did when they first picked it up: stressful, overwhelming and potentially confusing.
On the other hand, this unrepeatability is limited if the player replays the game. Depending on
the genre of the game, the amount of hidden information, length of play, etc., after several
playthroughs the player will have experienced everything the game has to offer. After this point,
the experience loses the unrepeatability of that first playthrough, to instead be completely
replicable. Solver’s uncertainty, narrative uncertainty, hidden information and Malaby’s
semiotic contingency all disappear. (Note, however, that unrepeatability due to randomization
remains.)
The natural extension of this is speedrunning. Speedrunning is the practice of trying to complete
a game as fast as possible: speedrunners practice their chosen games often, playing them over
and over and over; they craft guides for new runners to get into the hobby, explaining how to
perform tricks, glitches and strategies to take advantage of the game’s quirks; and they play
through the same game many times a day, in order to improve their personal record or set a
world record. At this point, the game does not offer unrepeatability on its own, but the challenge
and uncertainty that disappeared as the runners became better at and more knowledgeable
69
about the game are replaced with the performative uncertainty of trying to execute optimal
inputs, with many exploits coming down to single-frame opportunity windows.
Other speedrunners, however, take this kind of challenge one level further to add some of the
lost uncertainty back into the game: there are several communities that modify game ROM files
(a type of file that contains the data extracted from a game chip) to create randomized versions.
In The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo EAD, 1991), any playthrough of the original
game will yield the same items inside the same chests, the same enemies in the same locations,
and the same progression through the world. However, the ALttP VT Randomizer program
(ALttP VT Randomizer, 2016) can modify the game ROM: it shuffles all the chests in the game,
such that any item may be in any location, with certain restrictions applied to ensure that the
game will still be completable (e.g. it will not place the hookshot at a location that can only be
reached using the hookshot). Other more aggressive modes of randomization also change the
positions of enemies across the game, or the locations to which each door transition leads. This
adds the hidden information and randomization uncertainties back into the game, and races are
held between runners using the same seed, adding an extra layer of performative uncertainty
and player unpredictability as they try to route their way through the modified game on the fly
to complete it before their opponent.
External unrepeatability factors
In many cases, the limitation to exploring (and re-exploring) the possibility space, as well as
repeating experiences, is not brought about by a specific, intentional limitation on the part of
the designers, but by the meeting point between the amount of content or options available in a
game and the amount of time, money or effort that a player can put into it. A World of Warcraft
player may decide to play a character of a certain class the first time they play, and spend time
leveling their character up to the level cap. If they wanted to try and create another character to
experience playing a different class, they would need to invest a similar amount of time on the
new character, and so on. While this player may have had enough time to level up a character
once, they may not be able to invest enough time to repeat the experience. There are similar
problems regarding money: a player may not be able to buy all of the gear or items they want in
a game, or all of the downloadable content, unless they pay for it with real money; and even
then, it might prove prohibitively expensive.
70
Perception of the unrepeatability of sports matches
Sporting events, including e-sports events, present an interesting combination of
unrepeatability factors. During friendly soccer matches, the most prominent source of
unrepeatability is multiplayer unpredictability, but no match is more unrepeatable than that.
School children playing soccer during recess or a professional team playing against themselves
to practice don’t give particular importance to one match over another, and any day of practice
can be like the next. This changes when professional players play public matches, and most
noticeably when they play in tournaments.
White and Grossfeld (2012), while talking about irrevocability in sports matches, make three
points related to their unrepeatability: first, that specific sporting events can be re-watched but
cannot be changed, in the same manner as Free Will; second, that while the game in general is
repeatable, specific matches of it are irrevocable; and third, that this irrevocability is due to the
spectators and participants agreeing to “accept the finality of the results” (p. 50). “It is
interesting to see that sports, physical or digital, are irrevocable because the players accept the
outcome of a play session as history (p. 50). During competitions, each match is given its own
unique meaning because it is the only chance (or one of a very limited pool of chances) to attain
a certain result or advance in a tournament.
Making separate matches uniquely meaningful would be analogous to, in this classification,
separating each match into a qualitatively different experience that is unrepeatable once it has
been played through. In this case, the most notable shift in thinking comes from the fans and
players considering each event non-replaceable by other matches, which would not fit the usual
replaceable quality of the Multiplayer unpredictability event. Furthermore, because every match
is being considered completely unique, the reach of this unrepeatability is universal rather than
just session-based: no other pair of teams could play another match that is considered the same
as or replaceable by this one. Each match can then be considered to be an instance of One-shot
unrepeatability, explaining how sporting matches are often described as “unmissable.”
This may explain why enthusiasts of a certain sport will work up almost the same level of
excitement at pre-season friendly matches with no bearing on tournament results. For gamblers
and more analytically-minded fans, these matches can provide insights into the state of a certain
team, their physical form, their strategy, and other information useful to predict or examine
their performance during higher-stakes matches. The rest of the fans may be considering the
sporting matches as episodes of an ongoing television show, in which it is important to watch
each episode in order to follow the narrative.
71
This phenomenon can be related to the way that players will remember specific playthroughs
by imparting them special meaning based on what happened during them (see “Playthrough
uniqueness and imparted meaning” above); but, in this case, the meaning and uniqueness are
ascribed automatically to every single match, regardless of whether something memorable or
notable happened during the playthrough. It would be very interesting to carry out research on
player and fan psychology, to find out what specific reasons make these matches culturally
unrepeatable and unreplaceable despite being ludically interchangeable.
Design and research considerations
Player awareness as a tool to control player experience
Changing the time at which the player is informed of the unrepeatability of the experience does
not alter the limiting event itself (with one exception, explained below). However, as shown by
Consalvo and Begy (2012) and speculated by Frasca (1998, 2001), players play and think about
the game they are playing very differently once they are informed that the experience is not
going to be repeatable. Games can use this in order to affect the way their players act and feel
during play: for example, a roguelike may take care to not advertise itself as such and hide the
fact that it will modify the layout and structure of the world if the player attempts to play again,
leading the players to be surprised when the levels they are going through are not how they
remember.
In relation to this, two notes related to player awareness are worth mentioning:
The main difference between a Window of opportunity event and an End of service
event is whether the limited time frame was pre-planned and advertised as limited,
making player awareness the main differentiator between these two event types.
A case in which the player awareness parameter is Nostalgia would make it more
difficult to change the player awareness to a different value. If the players only realize
that the experience was unrepeatable a long time after the fact (in order for it to carry
the Nostalgia value), that would mean that the unrepeatability was not enforced (and
most probably, not pre-planned), and thus would not have been announced to the
players at any point. This means that changing the player awareness parameter to any of
the other three options would entail previous planning, and would most likely make the
type of limiting event different than what it was when it carried the Nostalgia value.
72
Player motivation research opportunities
Although the player motivation aspect of the unrepeatability classification (Explore,
Experiment, Change, Relive) can function as a surface-level guess at player experience for each
of the limiting events and each of the games, I have not performed any player research to find
out exactly what drives players to want to access unrepeatable experiences again and what
drives their attempts to bypass each kind of unrepeatability. Such research would be useful to
discern what aspects of these games players consider valuable, what elements they try to
recapture and why, and especially how the unrepeatability affects how they think about and
enjoy the games.
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6
Conclusion
Throughout this thesis, I have examined the phenomenon of unrepeatability in games, both
from a descriptive angle and from an experiential angle. I have proposed a framework through
which to analyze the events that lead to unrepeatability, both at the level of qualitatively
different experiences being offered to the players and at the level of individual playthroughs.
Our framework identifies six interrelated attributes in unrepeatable play experiences: the event
that causes the experience to become unrepeatable (limiting event), the type and extent of the
content that is rendered inaccessible (lost aspect), the relationship between the original
experience and the experience that is still available after the limiting event (replacement), the
players affected by the unrepeatability (reach), the awareness the player has of this
unrepeatability (player awareness), and the high-level activities that the player is prevented
from pursuing once the original experience is inaccessible (player motivation). These
parameters are interdependent, with most notably the limiting event and the lost aspect
constraining other parameters to fall within certain specific ranges.
I have shown this framework in action by applying it to many examples of unrepeatable game
experiences, examining in each case the special points of interest of each experience and noting
the ways in which it differs from other similar experiences and how players are affected when
they encounter unrepeatability. These case studies highlight the different ways in which
unrepeatability can be used, and provide points of reference and examples for designers to add
74
to their design vocabulary, so that they may make more effective use of unrepeatability in their
own games.
Finally, I have examined some of the edge cases in which the framework does not reach a
satisfying description of the case, highlighted some of the assumptions that it is predicated on,
and identified some questions which future research based on this work may help to answer.
Unrepeatability is an extremely interesting phenomenon, and one that carries large amounts of
emotional and experiential baggage for players. The inability to replay games, rendering an
experience that once was available out of the players’ reach, with only their memories (and the
occasional recordings) to help them relive that unique experience, can cause players to
reminisce and relive their memories after the fact, and attempt to get as much as they can out of
the original experience as they are playing it, changing how they engage with and think about
the game.
Although I have provided a basic framework and a terminology to start examining these kinds of
experiences, this framework is mostly descriptive, and deals for the most part with objective
observations of the experiences themselves. It would be extremely illuminating for more
research to build on this work to examine the specific effects that unrepeatability has on players
and how it affects their engagement with games. Likewise, in much the same way that
replayability is explored and harnessed in game design, bringing attention to its counterpart
and encouraging its use in more and more games may reveal ways for designers to elicit certain
kinds of emotional responses in players that may not be possible without the weight of
unrepeatability behind them.
75
[…]
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