Objectives: How Games Tell Us What to Do
by ZackC on April 3, 2013 at 02:11 PM EST

One of the smallest things that games do is display an objective. Some games make this display very simple; others put a bit more effort into showing players what they have to do. The interesting thing about objective displays is that they will almost never make the game worse. The only time it takes away from the game is when a player can’t understand what they are supposed to do. This means that objective displays are the small things that make good games great, and make great games amazing.

Briefing room

There are three parts to displaying objectives, one, how the game tells you initially, two, how the player checks up on the objectives, and three, how the player knows what to do on screen during the mission.  During the first part, this is normally where a mission is given or updated. This could be a briefing room like in Starcraft, or a quest giver in World of Warcraft. The second part is typically in some sort of pause menu, where more detailed instructions about exactly what to do are given to the player. The third and final part is the on screen indication of what the player needs to do, this could be in the form of symbols on a mini map, or an on screen icon to indicated to the player what they need to do.

Each portion of the objective system and how it works is based off of what type of game the developers are making. For a portion to be successful it needs to fit with the esthetic of the game. In Dead Space your objective is given to you through a conversation with one of your comrades, and the way that you access it is by opening up your inventory. The on-screen indication is a lighted path that your suit will create with the touch of a button. The way this all fits into the games esthetic is that it is done in real time, and through holograms generated by the suit, thus making it almost impossible for the player to be free from enemies when they are dealing with inventory or objectives. This all leads to a more suspenseful game, which is what the developers were going for.  DeadSpace objective path

Another game that doesn’t break the fourth wall is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In Skyrim, quests are given to the character by a person, and then when the player wishes to see what they have to do, the way the quest is written out it is as if the player wrote it, it does not say “you” instead it says “I”. This sort of not suggesting that it is a game makes the player feel as though they are the character, and not some puppet master.

Skyrim and Dead Space are examples of games that keep the player engaged in the story as much as possible, but there are other games that simply try and get the player from point to point. These games are much more direct in telling the player what needs to be done. Most of these games are shooters, or games that are extremely complex. The Call of Duty and Halo franchises have always led the player along, and given them very direct instructions, such as “push this button” or “get to point B”. The reason for this is because the goal of shooter is to keep the player in the action as much as possible, and this can only occur if the player is moving in the right direction.

Starcraft is another game that keeps the objectives obvious, which is fine, because the player has so many options of what to do. The simple instructions allow the player the freedom to accomplish that goal in any way they see fit.

A problem arises when the games objective system does not match up with the esthetic of the game, or the player cannot understand what they have to do. The not understanding what the player has to do is sometimes due to a lack of clarity on the games part, I found Bioshock to suffer from this on occasion.  There were areas where I could not understand what needed to be done and several minutes had to be spent back-tracking to figure out what needed to be done. splinter-cell-conviction objective

The other issue where the objective system doesn’t seem quite right is a harder one to nail down. Splinter Cell: Conviction is  one game that comes to mind that almost always has this happen. In previous Splinter Cell games, the player was given objectives through a small wrist mounted computer. In Conviction, the objectives were displayed in the environment; meaning words would appear on the walls telling you what to do. This is almost a problem because it didn’t go along with what was previously established in the franchise, but it did fit with the current game because Sam Fisher (the player’s character) did not have that awesome wrist mounted computer. This system did not detract from the game, but I don’t feel like it added anything to the game either.

There are many ways for games to give the player their current objective. The only thing that the game company has to keep in mind is does the system make sense. If the system does not make sense it can hurt a game. However, there are ways for the objective system to add to the game. Dead Space 2 and Skyrim are great examples of objective systems that draw the player into the game farther. Developers are doing a great job, because they keep the objective systems with the esthetic of the game, which adds to the fun of the game.

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