The Demon’s in the Details

As a teenager, I had a few run ins with Nippon Ichi’s strategy RPGs, but I never really paid much attention until their PSP port of Disgaea 1. For a kid who was a college student in name only, more interested in ditching class than doing homework (a decision that would ultimately and predictably bite me in the ass, hard) it was the perfect fit. Portable, easy to get into, long, and with lots of grinding, it ensured I was never bored when playing hookey. I’m now a huge fan of the series, and I’ve completed the story mode on 1, 2, and 3- I’ll get around to 4 someday!

Fans of the series, however, will be able to tell you how little that means. In a Disgaea title, clearing the story mode is just the beginning. By the time you beat the story in Disgaea 1, your characters should be around level ninety. The level cap, however, is nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine.. and even then, you can use a system called Reincarnation to reset to level one with a new class and better stats. The number of hours you can spend in the game seeing new content is easily in the hundreds, if not the thousands.

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I have never seen most of this content. I stop pretty quickly after beating the story mode, and that’s still after dozens of hours, the full arc of a narrative story, and an enjoyable test of my tactical skill and character raising ability. It’s a full game’s worth of content, with so much more waiting in the wings that the average player will never see.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? According to data collected by publishers, the majority of gamers don’t finish games- they don’t see most of the content. Even the content you put right along the single straight corridor that is your big budget FPS campaign, most players won’t travel far enough down it to see what you’ve made. Conventional wisdom is that creating optional content and side content is a waste of resources because it won’t be seen, but if all of it won’t be seen, what difference does it make?

Compare that to what it adds- the sense of a world and a system far grander than you can comprehend. When playing Disgaea, I always know there are systems and levels that I don’t have any idea about, and if I want to get deeper, they will be there. In Grand Theft Auto V, there are games of darts, golf, jetski races… and I will never play them because they don’t interest me, but that kind of attention to detail and breadth of content makes the world and game richer by their very presence.

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It’s the little touches, too. GTA V also incorporates a remarkable level of detail into the most mundane things. The beaches in Los Santos are controlled by an actual simulated tidal system, controlling the waves and swells of the virtual ocean. The flip flops on the feet of boardwalk NPCs actually flip and flop with physics. The fidelity and texture this adds to the world makes it feel really alive, a place you can get lost in. It’s the difference between good and great- the games that sell and then fade away, and the ones that leave a lasting mark on the industry.

It’s important to note that these details have to be worth experiencing, however. Simply adding content to add content gives you games like Assassin’s Creed III. While stuffed with things to do, so little of AC3 was actually worth experiencing that it just felt like an extended waste of time. Similarly plagued is Mass Effect 3, with innumerable sidequests that are so bland and pointless that their presence damages the overall product.

But done properly, they can be the key to greatness. If you want people to talk, if you want the kind of experiences people remember, it’s the little things that stick with them. Not everyone will discover all of them- and it’s possible, even, that no one will discover some of them. But the moments when people find that unexpected detail, they cement your game in the history of this industry as something truly special.