So recently I’ve been spending a lot of time “relaying” games, and even the husband, who does not understand my penchant for rewatching movies, rereading books, and (especially) replaying games, has been replaying Bioshock Infinite, so a post on the theme of replaying seems appropriate.

I’ve been replaying Mass Effect (the whole trilogy), in part to catch myself up on some DLC from ME3 that I haven’t gotten to play yet, and in part because I love the series. But here’s the thing. Games like ME are designed to be “replayable” because the player can customize the gender, appearance, and class of their avatar. The player can also play as a Paragon, Renegade, or mix of both styles, and make any number of gameplay choices that alter the narrative of the game. In essence, the player can replay the same game and find new conversations, new gameplay content, and so on, even with the same master narrative.

But here’s the thing – having played the ME series three times (this is my fourth go-through), only once have I opted to create a character who was different from my first run-through in any substantial way, and then only for a playthrough of ME3 (not ME1 or ME2). I have swapped out classes (Soldier, Adept, Sentinel), but not the gender, rough appearance, or Paragon-ness of my Shepard. I keep replaying essentially the same narrative over and over, because it’s the narrative that I like.

The same is true of my third replay of Dragon Age II, which I’m replaying for work, rather than play, this third time… which means that I’m forcing myself to play a different kind of Hawke. And she’s not my Hawke, but, rather, an experimental Hawke I’m enduring for the sake of the book chapter I’m writing. My Hawke is a different class, a different gender, and has a different ethos. I am enjoying the possibility of exploring some of the different gameplay and narrative elements introduced by this new Hawke, but it just isn’t the same.

I have a friend – Todd – who often refers to his playthroughs (especially of Bioware games) as One True Canon, and I have to say that is one of the most accurate descriptors of my feelings about my “original” characters. They are the way the game is “supposed to be,” even though I’m fully aware that other people don’t make the same choices I do.

I have also played through other games more than once – Bioshock, for instance, I have played eight times (some by choice, some because I teach it) – that don’t have the replayability factor of a customizable avatar or multiple narrative threads. Certainly, I’m not bothered by the repetition of a good story, even though I do lose the “surprise” elements of the game, but I have to confess that the ability to “tweak” even the same narrative by making slightly different choices does make a game more fun to replay.

Because, here’s the thing. My Shepard makes mistakes that I discover much, much later. I do something in the wrong order, or don’t have a specific companion, or whatever, and I want to replay those missions the way I think “Shepard” (the one I’ve created and imagined) would want them to play out. I want to reconstruct her as a specific person, and sometimes that means wanting to go back and alter things, major or minor, to reflect that person. As a player, I want to create a “master narrative” for this character that I’ve imagined using the tools that Bioware has provided for me.

I can’t do that in Bioshock or Arkham Asylum, even if I can take on the challenge of new achievements (which does add “newness” to a replay). And I think that actually says more about me as a player than it does about the games. I love narrative, character development, the ideological questions that are intrinsic to complex narrative structures. I like rediscovering (and, even better, discovering something new the second time through) the arguments and allusions contained in these narratives, even small things, like the commercial in the elevator in ME1 for an Elcor Hamlet. I like the mental challenge of considering what a production of Hamlet would be like spoken by aliens with no tonal inflection, relying instead on a pronouncement of emotion before every sentence.

I care far less about achievements. About getting 100 kills with a specific weapon or finding all the little boxes in a level (although I do try to do them when I’m playing, an achievement or two will never motivate me to replay a game I didn’t already want to replay). The allure of playing the same level as a Renegade isn’t enough – I have to want to replay the story. But I know that there are gamers out there who are far more interested in replayable mechanics than story elements – they want the challenge of new weapons, a harder difficulty, a different style of play (non-lethal vs. lethal, as in Dishonored).

So why write about replaying games? Because I think it’s important to note that games, like good novels and good movies, have the capacity (when they’re well-made) to be just as important to us as those other forms of art… and they are art. And it’s important for us to recognize that games, like films or books, are complex and carefully crafted – that the backgrounds, the posters, the placement of loot drops, etc., are important, not only to our “play experience,” but to the possibilities of meaning contained within the games.

We’re still developing a full understanding of what that really means – we still have games that give us health for eating food off the floor or out of trashcans, for instance, things that “break” the narrative fourth wall because they aren’t realistic. But we’re starting as players and as developers to understand that the devil, as it were, is in the details, because that’s where we find the difference between a game with something nuanced to say about race and inclusivity, and a game whose Chinese gunsmith is actually yellow in the Crayola sense (yes, I’m looking at you, Infinite). We’re getting there, but we shouldn’t throw up our hands and say that things are “good enough.” Films and novels still aren’t “good enough” and we’ve been working on the latter for about 500 years or so. The development of games as a genre isn’t an achievement that we can say “Hey, games are now art! 50 points!” and be done with it. We need to keep going, keep innovating, and keep striving to create the kinds of games that people want to replay because they feel like they just couldn’t absorb it all the first time (mechanically or narratively or both), and not just to get those few extra achievement points.