Depth Vs Complexity In Video Games And How It Works

Depth and complexity are two distinct concepts in gaming that are often conflated. People erroneously believe that a game being more complicated makes it more deep mechanically. This is not the case. It CAN be, but more often than not the depth of a game is defined by how many meaningful choices a player can make in the moment to moment and how much those options affect the overall play experience. For example, a fighting game with sixteen moves is not automatically deeper than one with only six. More often than not only a quarter or half of those moves will be meaningful to use; if there are a few simple moves that are optimal to use, then the others may as well not exist.


This applies somewhat differently to RPGs, but the same general mantra of “complexity =/= depth” does apply, and this is where I want to bring Oblivion and Skyrim back into the picture.

Many lament the loss of “depth” between Oblivion and Skyrim in one major mechanic: The attributes and leveling. Oblivion has eight attributes (Strength, Endurance, Agility, Speed, Intelligence, Willpower, Personality, and Luck) while Skyrim only has three (Health, Magicka, and Stamina). Skyrim detractors cry that Skyrim “dumbed down” Oblivion by removing the attributes, but did they really?


In essence, all Bethesda did was cut out the middleman between statistics and derived statistics in some cases and shuffle some others to skills. The underlying math is pretty much the same. Certainly, Oblivion requiring you to both increase your Strength stat and whatever your weapon skill is to maximize damage adds a slight amount of complexity…but does it add depth? Not at all. It’s not a meaningful choice; you require both to succeed anyway. Skyrim moving all the damage to respective weapon skills and the weapon quality itself simplifies it (by making only two factors contribute to weapon damage instead of three, barring enchantments in both games), but the end result is the same and choices made are the same. You break even on depth. Same with simplifying Intelligence and Willpower into simply being Magicka, as their only purpose anyway was determining your total magicka pool and the speed at which it recharges, or simply renaming Endurance to Health (since all Endurance did was increase Health).

The Tabletop RPG-esque design didn’t make any sense since it lacked any (or many) of the mechanics that help justify stats like that in those games (specific skill checks being modified by stats and saving throws particularly enforcing a tradeoff between stat priorities), and so it was cut. No depth was lost, but complexity was. That is not “dumbing down”, that is smartening up. It is simply smarter and cleaner design.


Even better, the Skyrim team ADDED depth in the form of perk trees, which really do require meaningful choices. There are a finite number of perks in the game, so there is some tradeoff to being a master of all magicka (who will lack most of the rogue-ish or weapon skillsets), a jack of all trades, or any other build.

The leveling follows this same principle, FYI. Certainly leveling was simplified in Skyrim (foregoing the need for a bed to \level, simplifying the stat allocation process, and uncoupling it from skill increases) but it was not dumbed down. Quite the opposite.


This is by no means unique to this series. I see the same arguments thrown around for example for why Super Smash Brothers isn’t a “real” fighting game. It’s not even unique to video games for that matter. Blenders are a great example. Do you really need sixteen different settings on your blender? Really? You know you only ever press “pulse”, “smoothie”, and “puree”. But having those extra buttons makes you feel like you’re getting more value, when you’re really not. I think that’s why so many people fall into this trap of valuing complexity for complexity’s sake, or “content” regardless of quality (looking at you, redundant quests in MMOs, busywork checkpoint hunting in Assassin’s Creed and other open world games, and “radiant quests” like Skyrim has): We like to feel like we “got our money’s worth” and if we don’t stop to  really think about it we fool ourselves into believing that more is always better.

Just something to keep an eye out for in your own thought processes. It’s a trap all too easy to fall into if you’re not careful, and being cognizant of it can save you from wasting your money, or save you from overlooking otherwise good games you might dismiss out of hand as not being complex enough to be “deep”.

What do you think? Let us know down below


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