Recognising Caches

Hey, you notice the way you end the game with resources you hadn’t spent?

I don’t mean resources that stop being useful. Like, in a Pokemon game, you may end the game with a bunch of juice and Pokeballs that you bought when they were useful, didn’t need them, and never found time to sell them. That’s not important per se, because those are games that are designed to have a lot of slack around your resource management.

It seems pretty common that people finish RPGs with piles of elixirs in their pocket. And like, it’s specifically elixirs. If they aren’t elixirs, they’ve got their own name, and then when you ask ‘what does this thing do?’ the response is ‘oh, they’re basically an elixir.’ It’s a thing that recovers all of your pertinent stats – like, all your health and mana, or all your valor and your armour points or all your cheesecake and bundt, whatever. I know a lot of people – and okay yes I know a lot of people with anxiety and that’s a factor – but these resources become not a resource for spending but a resource for saving.

And then players don’t fire it off? Ever? Even when those resources are explicitly about just providing more resources you already have.

I think of these types of resource as caches.

Caches are an interesting thing because they’re a way a game can reward behaviour it likes without necessarily creating a disruptive tool. A thing that kills one enemy, guaranteed, is a different kind of resource, because enemies are part of an interplay of resources, an exchange of them. Killing a single enemy can make important single enemies into anticlimaxes – it can deflate the tension of a game, whereas a ‘cache’ represents a way of extending tension or surviving long enough to crest that tension.

One of the skills that I had to build playing the game Star Realms is recognising when I am close enough to the end of the game that junkable cards give a meaningful reward. Some things, like bases, may be worth buying so to use them as a burst of early game resources – like the Blob Wheel – but mostly, junking cards is a skill you have to develop. This is really useful in this game, too, because it means the game can give you cards that build up to an engine and again, you get that crescendo, but if you notice it, you can just do the math and recognise that in one turn, you can just win the game – meaning that the losing player isn’t losing long, and turnarounds can happen in big explosive arcs.

Caches are sort of inherently nice to have around in a game. Players can find them reassuring, and can find stockpiling them rewarding (even if they never use them). But a cache unused is just a sparkly gegaw. That means that they have to be worth having and not necessary for the game play. The question becomes: How can you make your game encourage people to pop open their caches?

An area where these kind of resources do see their use is in speedruns. There, these items can present a burst of speed or endurance. In absolutely optimised experiences, these short term bursts are all you need to reach another checkpoint – that’s that control over the game play experience. And then you maybe can learn how to pop caches from seeing how much effect they can have in a speed run.

All that notwithstanding, though, the thing with these caches is they’re meant to reassure players, and don’t do that.

Now, in The Art of Failure Jesper Juul talks about how games are these contradiction engines; we don’t like failing, but we play games which are trying to make us fail, to make not failing enjoyable. The idea that lies at the heart of it is that types of failure are interesting, and there is this kind of same contention with caches. If you stockpile to save yourself anxiety, to play the game safely, knowing you have reserves to protect yourself, knowing those reserves are limited and precious creates another source of anxiety.

In conclusion, brains are stupid and games are hard.