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Why Every Game Needs Meaningless Interactions

Why Every Game Needs Meaningless Interactions

I sat down one evening with my lovely wife to play some Final Fantasy XVI, a game we’ve both been very excited about! As we got into the swing of things, playing through the prologue and finally getting into the game proper, I noticed something: my canine companion, Torgal, had a button prompt above his scruffy head whenever we weren't in battle, and being the ever-curious sort, I gave the button a click. Lo and behold: our hero, Clive, bent down and gave Torgal a pat and a scratch, resulting in the gigantic war hound doing a little waggly twirl. Originally, I didn’t think much of the interaction except that it was adorable. Later on, however, I found myself in a very tough battle against enemies who could take damage like a tank and dish it out like a glass cannon! Although I did end up winning after employing some… less than savoury tactics (I spammed fireballs and ran like the wind), I wound up using all of my inventory! Long ramble short, I was not having fun and was just about ready to call it a day when the familiar prompt appeared above my happy doggie's head! I gave the good boy the pats he deserved, and like if I'd had a potion of my own, I felt better. What began as a singular event turned into a tradition after tough battles; the simple act of petting my dog allowed me to calm down and create this little pocket of space and pacing for myself! This thought stayed with me as I pondered why and how it happened until I woke up the next morning in a sweat, with one question whizzing around my sleep-addled mind: why doesn’t every game have this?!'

May I please pet the spicy puppy?

It’s all fine as wine to say every game needs “this”, but what exactly is this? Well, for the purposes of this article, I am referring to the general idea of meaningless interactions in games, which encompass any and all actions one can take in them that have little to no tangible benefit or relation to the main gameplay loop as a whole. For example, you could be able to press a button in game, which would result in your character pointing at the nearest person or object. No gameplay benefit, no epic happenstances beyond someone maybe telling you to stop, please, just you being able to point. Meaningless but also immeasurably valuable to both immersion and enjoyment.

So how does something meaningless end up affecting immersion? Let’s take a look at The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild and its open world as another example. The world of the game is vast, open… and honestly a bit empty. To combat this, the game has different little distractions, quests, and landmarks you can go to in search of Koroks, or that pesky bug you need to get a photo of. When I played, I often found myself tunnel-visioned, running from quest-indicated point to quest-indicated point. I checked out towns and suspicious buildings, of course, but I wasn’t exploring the world in an immersive sense, just rushing along the critical path. There was one exception to this, however: the dogs. Found in most stables and near or around populated towns, these scruffy beauties will run up to you, bork, and even do a little happy spinny spin! You can give them pats and even feed them, to which they'll reciprocate with a tail wag and a happy bark! I was in love with this mechanic, going out of my way to say hello to the fluffy friends whenever I even suspected one was around! Granted, giving the dogs food and love can eventually lead you to some nice treasure, but honestly, I didn't know this and neither did I care! Just having the chance to see these doggies in action was enough for me to forget about the quest, erase my tunnel vision, and immerse myself a tiny bit more into the world. The same thing happened in Red Dead Redemption 2 as well! Though there are dogs you can pet in the game, this time, I’m referring to the most important thing in a cowboy’s life: their horse.

The horses in Red Dead Redemption II are your main mode of transportation and act as a sort-of expanded inventory for your bigger guns and heavier items. They can be brushed, fed, complimented, pampered in a stable, and customised with multiple styles and gear. Again, some of these mechanics are beneficial, as a clean, fed, and happy horse will be faster and more obedient, but I honestly paid that the bare minimum of attention. Travelling the plains with my horse, calming them when they were scared and patting them when they did good was incredibly immersive, thanks in large to the insane amount of detail the game has. After a few hours, my horse and I were best buddies, with me going out of my way to get them washed every time I was in town and carrying a supply of horse treats. The affection I had for my horse (his name was Jeff) was so strong that if any poor souls harmed him, there was no force between Heaven and Earth that could stop me from raining down hellfire. Now, you may think that the beneficial effects of meaningless interactions are restricted to animals and the petting thereof, but think again, ye of little faith! Though interactions like the aforementioned are more visual and obvious, there are multiple different flavours yet to be discussed! To see what I mean, one needn't go much further than the legendary Souls series and their emotes.

The emote system in FromSoftware's Souls games is used mainly in its asynchronous multiplayer, as there is no dedicated voice chat. The only way players can communicate is by using the offered set of different emotes and their power of interpretation, which usually ends as well as one might think. However, though the main use of emotes is in multiplayer, the feature is always accessible, meaning you can bow to your enemies and wave to your NPC friends to your heart's content! Though it had little impact, I found myself giving hard bosses the old and reliable Point Down before being introduced to the pavement, and whenever I saw an NPC, especially Solaire, you can believe I Praised The Sun with the best of them. They are little things, but goofing around somehow made the experience that much more impactful and… for a lack of a better word, real. Sure, the world doesn't usually react to your bouts of interpretive dance, but when it does, it is magical. For example, in Bloodborne, the charming doll in your central hub area, The Hunter’s Dream, will clap or gasp in response to your antics, making each visit worth the loading screens and creating a bond between the doll and Hunter. Additionally, the Make Contact emote is a mystery unto itself, as I am convinced doing it simultaneously with a friend would increase the chances of a successful summoning exponentially! Oh, and it can (according to the fanbase) be used to commune with the ancient forces lording over the world, forever scheming to reach unfathomable goals, but I won't get into that.

The giant eyeball did WHAT

Speaking of cults, meaningless interactions were able to pretty much form one in my playthrough of Deep Rock Galactic with a group of friends. A bit of backstory: Deep Rock Galactic is a co-op FPS where Dwarves delve into the caverns of a dangerous planet to get resources for their mining company. Whenever they set off on a mission, they board a drop pod and shoot off for another day's work. The drop pod, however, is equipped with a pair of novelty fuzzy dice, the kind you'd see hanging in any ‘50s car. This by itself is funny and charming enough, but the point where it went from ornament to obsession was when we realised the dice could be interacted with. Press a button and bap; you can give the dice a little poke. What was supposed to be a meaningless interaction turned very quickly into a merciless religion: the Dice must be bopped before any and all missions. If anyone in our little party failed to observe their religious duties, they were swiftly the reason for any and all misfortunes and setbacks for the rest of the mission! Bap the dice or pay the price.

While on the topic of Deep Rock Galactic, I'd also mention the space station as a whole, which acts as your main hub, in which the players can equip cosmetics, upgrade gear, and check their perks, which is pretty basic fare for the genre. What makes it stand out is the plethora of things you can do there, such as kick barrels, explore the nooks and crannies for easter eggs, turn off gravity, and go drink at the bar. The latter example warrants a special mention, as it was my absolute favourite thing in the whole station! At the bar, you can order drinks (some of which do give you buffs), and drink yourself silly with your friends, all the while dancing to the beat of the jukebox. A wholly meaningless action that still made returning to base so much fun and played into the image of salary workers goofing off perfectly.


Do it.

So, meaningless actions are pretty meaningful and can be anything from patting pets to tapping dice. But what about genres, such as horror? The carefully crafted atmosphere and tension of spooky games would be broken immediately if a fluffy cat was introduced for you to pat! The answer to this is a resounding “yes, but”. It is true that the same kinds of meaningless interactions presented in this article would not work in a classic horror setting, which is somewhat exemplified by Resident Evil 6 and its emoting system. With the push of a button, you could give your partner a (weirdly limp) thumbs up, which just looked hilarious. However, I will argue even the horror genre should have the types of interaction herein described. Effective horror is all about pacing, creating a tense and oppressive atmosphere that keeps players on their toes without boiling over. Without pacing, horror is just one long corridor of screams that quickly loses all power it has. With the addition of quiet moments (and meaningless stuff to do within), the player can be returned to a state of something resembling normalcy. For example, reorganising a safe room's inventory of duct tape or throwing around physics objects may be enough of a distraction that the player may drop their guard for just an instance, allowing Stabbin’ Steve to sneak behind them and… well. You can imagine.

Surprisingly, meaningless interactions have a rather long history, walking hand-in-hand with gaming since the halcyon days of the GameBoy Color. In Pokémon Yellow, the player can, at any point, turn around and talk to your electric partner and ask how they are. Pikachu will then answer, either commenting on the surrounding area or on their state of mind! Being able to goof around and interact with the world on your own terms and time is a strong factor in creating immersion and giving the player reason to wander off the beaten path. It adds emergent qualities where it would be hard to imagine them, creating something that the player can, in some sense, own. Real life is filled with basically meaningless things we do, from humming in the shower to picking up a cool stick we saw on our walk. It's a part of life and furthermore defines who we are by the actions that we take. Having that small bit of agency in a game, be it to pat a dog or point at things, allows us, the player, to feel invested and to connect with the world and the characters. Every game should allow this if they want to create a world we can be a part of. Current and future game developers, take note; Let me pat the dog.

What do you think: am I rambling nonsense, or is this a thesis for the ages? Are meaningless interactions just that, or do you agree that there’s more to them than the surface level? Let me know in the comments!

Martin Heath

Martin Heath

Staff Writer

Professional Bungler

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Bod - 04:22pm, 18th July 2023

Yeeees more meaningless interactions!! Always more!! I didn't know about the furry dice in the drop pod, y'know. Needless to say, that'll be getting a right slapping from me every mission from now on. Count me in on the cult. 

Great article!

Thejakman - 08:37pm, 18th July 2023 Author

Thank you very much! The Saints of Slappa-Da-Dice welcome you to the fold