Player Agency and 60 Seconds!

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We previously looked at 60 Seconds!, a game I described as a combination between a point and click adventure and a sticker book. I criticized the game for being based around discovering random events, but not having enough to avoid repeating them in a single session. You’ll see the same few events over and over and over again, the only difference being whether or not you have the item needed to succeed. The more I thought about this element of game design, the more I thought that I had seen it before. Today, we’ll pitch the event-based gameplay of 60 Seconds! against two games with different settings, but similar design.

Repetition in 60 Seconds! was bound to happen as a consequence of basing the gameplay entirely around a limited number of events. You’ll get a note saying “we should have taken that trip to Nevada” 10-20 times per game. After two years of DLC, 60 Seconds! only has 40-50 events. However, I want to look at another 2015 title which has more in common with 60 Seconds! than anyone might initially suspect.

Hand of Fate is a game about progressive DnD questing in the style of a tabletop card game with interactive combat encounters, a card collection mechanic, and rougelike elements. If you haven’t played Hand of Fate, I recommend giving it a try or at least watching some Let’s Plays because it is quite innovative.

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In Hand of Fate, each event is portrayed by a card, whose nature is only revealed after landing on that square. This is similar to how, in 60 Seconds!, you won’t know your daily event you until you’re reading it. The point is that events in 60 Seconds! might as well have been drawn from a deck of cards. Once a card is used up, it goes back into a shuffled deck, meaning that it might be two turns or 20 before you see that card again.

Now here’s where it gets interesting, like 60 Seconds!, Hand of Fate has a limited number of event cards, yet both games are based around these events. So how does Hand of Fate keep players engaged while 60 Seconds! comes off as repetitive? The answer is threefold:

  • First, penalties and rewards in Hand of Fate are drawn from a deck of cards. You can get the same event dozens of times and receive a different reward for each success. These rewards, one way or another, help you reach your ultimate goal of defeating the boss.
    In 60 Seconds! item based events always have the same outcome. Kill that bandit with an axe? +4 Water. Every time.
    The best ending for 60 Seconds! is achieved through slightly different parameters each time, so you’re never sure what you need. Imagine that you were tasked with building a rocket during a previous session, so you start gathering metal and fuel. Then the game asks you to bake a cake instead.
  • Second, Hand of Fate has events and quests. Quests are progressive across your career. In other words, each event is like completing an objective for a larger overarching quest. You’ll never get the same story event twice because once an objective is completed it upgrades into a new quest until that encounter has been won.
  • Third, Hand of Fate has smaller events which guarantee some kind of reward, then increases the occurrence of these item events. You might take damage, you might lose food, but there will be something which will ultimately help you in the long run. In Hand of Fate, there’s always a balance of reward and loss. You rarely have one without the other.

60 Seconds! has the last two elements, but only in tiny, sparsely placed amounts. As previously stated, most event outcomes are random. Hand of Fate similarly made event outcomes random, but it added player agency with a kind of 4-card monte that determined success or failure. Hand of Fate succeeds here because it keeps players engaged, even when the choice is nearly identical to throwing dice. After the initial scavenging section, 60 Seconds! could be played by a drinking bird with the same proficiency as a human. 60 Seconds! is unable to keep its audience engaged because it doesn’t give them anything to work with.

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To its credit, 60 Seconds! has three progressive quests. The first quest is part of your ultimate goal to contact the military for rescue. This is achieved by having a radio, having the random item of the day before the event, and bringing it to an outpost. This is followed by another item requirement 20-30 days later. The second quest involves giving mutants gifts. The third quest is to meet a stray dog, Pancake. Earning the dog requires having the right tools at the right time for every scenario.

There are no second chances, if you don’t have an item on the right day, you’ve failed the quest for that run. Already you can see an immediate problem with this quest as you have no control when the dog will appear at your door again. Could be three days, could be five, but when he does you better have the item he needs or you lose him for that playthrough.

The glaring design error in all of this is that you cannot win organically. You need multiple items on consecutive days and luck of the draw to succeed. You can collect all the possible quest items in the scavenging section, but another random item is required to be rescued after 40-80 days. You cannot prepare for this as you will gain and lose most of your inventory throughout the course of the game. The only way to get fresh supplies is to either send an expedition to the surface or wait for random events.

Event content is only the first part, we also have to look at outcomes. In 60 Seconds! using an item to complete an event guarantees a particular outcome. Some are slightly different, using poison on spiders is more beneficial than using poison on rad-roaches. If you don’t have the item, you draw from a list of neutral or negative options. Most events only have one “no item” outcome, a few have negative outcomes based on other items in your inventory,  and a tiny number of negative outcomes are random.

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This system of using items to reach the best possible outcome reminds me of Darkest Dungeon, a party-oriented turn-based dungeon-crawler which also has an emphasis on stress and insanity. In Darkest Dungeon, you’ll pass game squares called curios. Each curio causes an event, either positive, negative, or neutral. However, there are a few differences in player engagement.

  • In Darkest Dungeon having the correct item is a matter of preparation. If you don’t have the item needed to achieve the best outcome, its your own fault.
    While 60 Seconds! allows you to prepare for the early game, many items break after using them to complete events. Additionally, there is no guarantee you’ll be able to find that item again as scavenging expeditions and event frequency are random. This takes control away from the player. Wasteland expeditions in 60 Seconds! could have been like a hidden object game, giving the player agency. Instead, nothing happens. You either have the item and get a bonus or you don’t and suffer a penalty.
  • If you don’t have the correct item for a curio in Darkest Dungeon, you can calculate your chances for positive/neutral outcomes to help decide if you want to use the curio. This allows the player to make an informed decision and weight their options.
  • Perhaps the biggest difference is that Darkest Dungeon allows you to bypass curio events altogether. Unless one of your characters has an obsession or the kleptomaniac quirk, you can always just ignore curios. This is beneficial because some curios have no correct response at all.
    60 Seconds! drops players into a sealed bomb shelter then forces them to interact with every event that comes their way. The family opens their door for every trader and mutant that visits their shelter. The result is that you’re always using up supplies just to keep the team alive and you’re always using up event items either from failing other events or by using an item to complete the event.
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See this? Not in the game.

There’s an illusion of choice here. The fact is that after the scavenging portion of the game, you have almost no control over your shelter. A lot of it is luck of the draw with small amounts of control in that sending an expedition with a particular kind of item always has the same outcome, if they survive. Yet you have no control over whether the expedition lives or dies, it all happens off screen.

A lot of rougelike games have an illusion of choice, but many of them keep control in the hand of the player. Hand of Fate gives the player an illusion of choice with the four card monte, but it keeps players engaged. Darkest Dungeon gives players a true choice in whether or not they interact with a curio, but the curio is just one item along the dungeon crawl. Other rougelikes, like FTL, keep control in the hands of the player at all times, always giving them some kind of option, no matter how desperate.

The point is that 60 Seconds! only has a handful of events, many of which the player can’t prepare for. You have some control over feeding and hydrating your family, but you overwhelmingly rely on wasteland expeditions and events. The problem is that there’s no player input in either of these. You either have the item and succeed…or you don’t. It didn’t have to be this way, by inserting some minigame or player choice into the expeditions, the game could have had a smooth curve of player interactivity and retention. Instead, nothing happens. 60 Seconds! offers far less choice and interactivity than rougelikes with similar design methodology. If a drinking bird can play the game with the same proficiency as a human, is it really worth playing?

What do you think about the illusion of choice in 60 Seconds!? What could have been better? Would you like to have seen an expedition minigame? Tell us in the comments!

 

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