Filler

Scientists at New Mexico State University's nonprofit Chile Pepper Institute recently announced that they had successfully bred a brand new, medium spicy, extra large jalapeño, specially optimized for "increased cheese payload." -Nicola Twilley, Good.is

I've hit a wall. Where I used to lose myself in worlds of violence and peril for hours at a crack, I now tell more games that yes, I am sure I want to quit. The seamless experience of getting lost in a Dark Forces level, or of riding the river of action in Half-Life, rarely happens anymore. Most major games I play are comprised of shards of gameplay with jagged little edges that cut through the fabric of the fiction and give me a glimpse of something hollow at the core. Maybe it's me, discontented after twenty years of gaming and unable to take the same joy in its simplicity. Maybe it's the games themselves, increasingly delivering everything in bite-sized chunks: five-to-ten minutes of combat, followed by another ten minutes of semi-automatic platforming, and that followed by two or three minutes of talking or a cutscene.

Followed by my swift departure.

I'm still sorting out my feelings on L.A. Noire, but I was frustrated by the way I could tell when the design team felt it had been too long since I'd had an action sequence. Phelps and his partners often ask people, "Why did you run?" but the truth is that everybody runs in L.A. Noire so that players don't get too bored with playing detective. Violence and action happen like clockwork in L.A. Noire, and so they are never unexpected. They rarely make sense: A bulldozer chase is followed by a shooting death that nobody, including your character, seems to think is very odd or even worthy of comment. A brawl at a burned-out construction site with irate homeowners. Action for the sake of action.

That's how every case works, and every case functions as a self-contained episode, and several episodes make up a dramatic act. L.A. Noire is structure layered on structure, working at cross-purposes to ensure the player never gets bored, always reaches a swift resolution, and yet somehow experiences a satisfying narrative arc across over the entire game. The result is a disjointed story and a game shot through with self-conscious artifice.

Mass Effect frustrates me for the same reason. One of the best sequences in Mass Effect 2, Mordin Solus's journey through a genetics research lab and his own memories, was also fundamentally bizarre. What Mordin needs to do is talk about his role in creating a genetic weapon. He has to reconcile his discomfort with what that weapon inflicted on its victims with his pride in a job well done, and the pleasure he took in the task. But the process for this catharsis is: walk into a room and have a McGunbattle, followed by a McConversation, followed by a short walk to another McGunbattle. Do enough of these and you'll have a McMoral Choicelette smothered in creamy Resolution Sauce, and then Mordin's arc is finished.

It's easy to get into it, but then it's also easy to abandon. The formula is so consistent that there is little chance of genuine surprise or wonder to draw me onward. The next hour will look an awful lot like the previous one, and it will reach a similar resolution.

Maybe this is just a problem of craftsmanship, and not concept. A lot of great games are made from these component parts, and even utilize them in similar arrangements. The difference might be that they feel more organic. Uncharted 2 does a lot of things that usually annoy me (automated climbing, for instance), but I still love the game because so many of its change-ups seem to occur naturally. Drake and his friends are running in terror right now because they should be, and I never really notice that this beat is coming just after I've been doing something else for a while. The transitions between gameplay segments seem like natural extensions of the story and character, not pointless variety mandated by a developer's low-opinion of my attention span, or their own doubt about the sustainability of their core mechanics.

The danger with "variety show" game design is that it is only as strong as its weakest element. People don't hate stealth sequences, they hate bad stealth sequences. When combat sequences feel like a stop at a tollbooth that only accepts bullets before the gate goes up, then they are actively detracting from the other parts of the game. They will be a reason to quit playing, and a reason to avoid coming back. And for whatever reason, no developer seems to be omnicompetent, even when the design elements in question have been familiar to us for years. Driving and shooting never feel quite natural in a Rockstar game, shooting and encounter design are a mess throughout Mass Effect, platforming is flat in Enslaved.

So what do I want from games, besides developers who are immediately great at everything they attempt? Perhaps I want them to be boring, or at least, to risk boredom. Instead of putting me in a turret while some NPC whisks me from one zone to another, perhaps make me walk it. STALKER never lets me get from one place to another without tiptoeing around monsters' lairs, bandit patrols, and random gunfights between factions. Or perhaps I won't encounter anything, and then it's just me alone in a wild, otherworldly landscape. Is anything happening? Well, that's up to me, isn't it? Perhaps someone will be bored, because five minutes have passed without killing something or pushing a button on a quest-dispenser. But does every game need to be stitched together from quick-cuts between sequences in order to provide nonstop diversion? Does every shooter need to be wary of people who get tired of shooting and exploring, or every RPG wary of people who get tired of tactics and talking? I want games that are less concerned with the people who don't like their genre, and more interested in richly rewarding those of us who do.

Comments

I agree 100 percent. Well said.

walk into a room and have a McGunbattle, followed by a McConversation, followed by a short walk to another McGunbattle. Do enough of these and you'll have a McMoral Choicelette smothered in creamy Resolution Sauce, and then Mordin's arc is finished.

Delightful.

Also interesting, because is encapsulates how much of a Frankenstein games can be. I can almost guarantee that every one of those elements had different teams working on them, with a design director running around and making sure everything fits together when it's all said and done.

Uncharted 2 is also a really good example. Naughty Dog is known for operating in a really different way compared to a majority of development studios. Every job role in the studio seems to have "designer" stamped onto it as well. It sounds chaotic from the outside looking in, but you can't argue with the results.

You just summed up why I keep replaying Fallout 3 but exploring things in a different order each time. I have other games I have finished ONCE and will never touch again because the replay will be EXACTLY the same. Sadly, I have a couple that I will NEVER finish because they bored me to death or they have at least one sequence that requires combat and/or jumping skills well beyond my frustration level. There is some new stuff on the pile too but FO3 is my goto game for curing single player boredom.

Man, do I love resolution sauce.

Choosing not to include That Action Sequence in a video game is like asking out that girl/guy you like. You know they like you, all your friends know you two like each other, but for one reason or another you still take a while to sum up the courage to ask them out. Same with game formula: nobody likes it, but for one reason it's not a video game without That Action Sequence.

I'm sure it depends on perspective ... the travel times in a game like the latest Fallouts or Far Cry 2 might be seen as filler by some, though I really enjoyed the quiet moments just moving across the landscape, not sure what I'd come across next.

I dunno. I love me some McGunBattles.

When I buy a shooter game, I fire it up and expect to be shooting things. If I'm not shooting things in a shooting game, I am not a happy camper.

If I want to be bored out of my skull, I'll watch paint dry. It doesn't take $60 to do that.

Now that I think about it, I enjoyed Mirror's Edge up until I had to fight some guys with guns. Then I instantly stopped playing because I expected free-running, and guns is not free-running. I'm sure there were story-related reasons to have those guys with guns, but I was disappointed the game wasn't confident enough in its free-running, the very thing that made it unique. I guess they felt they had to include guns because first person video games have guns.

So I guess the issue isn't that a game has McGunBattles, it's a matter of whether or not that McSomething is suitable to the game or is forced into it.

Really loved this article. I've felt this way about action 'campaigns' for a long time(and hell I'm only 26), but always blamed it on other stuff: Games are too simple now(but why do I love Serious Sam?). Nostalgia and childhood just means I used to enjoy gaming more(but why is Assassin's Creed II: Brotherhood one of my very favorite games?). Gaming's modern, realistic settings bore me(but why is Uncharted 2 so bitchin?). So often I feel like I'm going through the motions. I'm bored before I'm an hour in. The industry lacks innovation, in some ways, and there lies part of the blame...but lots of games have at least some innovative features, like L.A. Noire, which I'm trying my damnedest not to hate.

I'd never really thought about it your way, Rob, but I think there's something to it. That one-hour chunk thing really hurts Mass Effect 2 and L.A. Noire, among others. If you give me plenty of places to save and stop, it doesn't matter if my current vignette is 15 minutes or 6 hours. And surprise me, for goodness golly gee gracious. Make me want to play your damn game or somethin'.

+eleventybillion

Very well said, good sir. Perhaps this is why I cling to out-of-favor genres like adventure games and JRPGs, where I can find cutscenes longer than an hour and dialogue trees denser than your average Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

I dislike tedium as much as the next guy, but there's two ways to deal with it: You can either make your core sequences better so that players don't mind or even notice the length, or you can never let anything get long enough to threaten tedium. The latter, I believe, is by far an easier and less desirable solution.

Flying_Norseman wrote:

I agree 100 percent. Well said.

Ditto. Awesome McDonald's parallels.

It's something that was so refreshing to see in The Witcher 2. Sure it has its problems but it doesn't feel as "packaged" an experience. I've had a string of games I couldn't be bothered to finish lately: LA Noire, Dragon Age 2, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood etc. and I think I really prefer less directed experiences. Enslaved annoyed me to no end as it basically played itself, despite how good the story was. I think maybe the typical tropes are being re-used so often that we may have become a bit numb to them.

LarryC wrote:

I dunno. I love me some McGunBattles.

When I buy a shooter game, I fire it up and expect to be shooting things. If I'm not shooting things in a shooting game, I am not a happy camper.

If I want to be bored out of my skull, I'll watch paint dry. It doesn't take $60 to do that.

I....agree....with LarryC.

It strikes me that the issue is a lack of variety and syncopation in pacing. When all designers stick to straight quarter notes in 4/4, it's bound to feel stale pretty quickly.

wordsmythe wrote:

It strikes me that the issue is a lack of variety and syncopation in pacing. When all designers stick to straight quarter notes in 4/4, it's bound to feel stale pretty quickly.

I don't think that's a very fair analogy -- your scenario correlated to video games would be more like racing the same car on the same track over and over again on Forza, or shooting the same enemy with the same bullets in the same room for 12 hours in Half-Life. It's more like trying to transition from pop to bossa nova mid-song, then back again. Can it be done?...yes, but only one or two people have ever successfully pulled it off.

McAwesome article...

Driving was endless fun at 16. I doubt cars have gotten any less magical, its just that I've realized there are only so many types of road.

Reading this article made me think that perhaps the reason I haven't really liked Bioware's RPGs I tried to like - DA:O and ME1 - is because they're starting to be to WoW-like. McStory chunklets with meticulously measured combat condiments. If I want to play an MMO but solo, MMOs are pretty good at that, with the added aliveness of other people.

Great article, great insights.

So what do I want from games, besides developers who are immediately great at everything they attempt? Perhaps I want them to be boring, or at least, to risk boredom. Instead of putting me in a turret while some NPC whisks me from one zone to another, perhaps make me walk it. STALKER never lets me get from one place to another without tiptoeing around monsters' lairs, bandit patrols, and random gunfights between factions. Or perhaps I won't encounter anything, and then it's just me alone in a wild, otherworldly landscape. Is anything happening? Well, that's up to me, isn't it? Perhaps someone will be bored, because five minutes have passed without killing something or pushing a button on a quest-dispenser.

Go play a MMO? Plenty of boring downtime.

I definitely agree. Game design has drifted, in my opinion, a little to far towards being a science and away from an art.

Game design - in story based games, at least - needs to be looked at more from a similar angle as creating a film, or writing a novel. You're creating an interactive work of art, and formulaic art always loses something.

It's why those summer blockbuster action movies, while entertaining, never really have real lasting appeal like really great movies can - they're just canned story chunks mashed together between actionsauce.

That's not bad - like LarryC notes, if you're buying a FPS/Shooter (or tickets to an action movie) then that's what you're looking for, what you expect. But those games will never have the replayability, or the lasting greatness.

Wintersdark:

I tend to look a little askance at output of the article's nature from self-professed "hardcore" gamers whose gaming habits I don't specifically know. This is because I often hear the self-same commentary issuing from the mouths and minds of said gamers in the same breath where they'd refuse to try anything particularly different.

It goes without saying that big budget games and movies will only normally be made according to a proven formula. That's just how a capitalist industry does things. That said, there's no shortage of games today that try something a little different.

How about Red Steel 2? It combines serious first person brawling, shooting, AND motion control, and as if that weren't enough, it meshes both Samurai and Cowboy themes together in a way that's never been done before.

How many gamers played and enjoyed Red Steel 2?

MeatMan wrote:

Go play a MMO? Plenty of boring downtime.

Was your last MMO EQ1 or DAoC? Because all the MMOs I've played in the last 3 years or so really have eliminated so much downtime, it really is like a theme park without the lines.

I wonder how much of the dissatisfaction stems from playing too many games?

Being exposed to the same pacing techniques and story tools so frequently would certainly kill their novelty. I think when you add in the peering-behind-the-current mindset that journalists often engage in leads to significantly diminishing returns.

I can definitely see the issues ONLY because I come to GWJ and listen to a few gaming podcasts. When I actually sit down to play, these issue almost always evaporate. Probably because I play at most a handful of games a year, and I tend to select 'best in breed' games well after they've been reviewed.

That being said, I heartily endorse Rob's closing statement:

I want games that are less concerned with the people who don't like their genre, and more interested in richly rewarding those of us who do.

A game doesn't need to be all things to all players.

Disregard this, but:
You're all crusty old cynics!

I think you're complaining that you can see the gears grinding behind the construction. I suspect they'd get a more complaints from normal people if they had fewer longer sequences of contiguous gameplay.

It's absolutely true that these AAA games (with budgets in the 10's of millions of dollars, let's not forget) want to make sure the player is never bored, try to keep switching up the format so that you don't have interminably long cutscenes, the evil single stealth level (Jedi Outcast), or really long driving sequences you end up hating by the end (see Half Life 2). Right to be bored? Good luck selling that one.

I invite a different food analogy: a Chinese banquet, with bits of seaweed, satay, prawn toast, multiple varied small dishes. These are story-driven games, so we are not in control of the tempo, of course, but a McD comparison suggests that each type of sequence is exactly the same, which it wasn't for me in Mass Effect or LA Noire. You aren't just railing against narratively-driven games in general, presumably.

I have no more than 90-120 minutes a day to play games, and Mass Effect and LA Noire give me exactly what I want: An hour's varied gameplay, with a self-contained story, and a feeling of closure over that time.

You know, I think they're doing it this way because they sell better.

duckilama wrote:

Reading this article made me think that perhaps the reason I haven't really liked Bioware's RPGs I tried to like - DA:O and ME1 - is because they're starting to be to WoW-like. McStory chunklets with meticulously measured combat condiments. If I want to play an MMO but solo, MMOs are pretty good at that, with the added aliveness of other people.

Great article, great insights.

Yes, Bioware to me seems like one of the most obvious culprits for this. Playing DA2, a game that apparently started out an expansion, and then pushed to be a full game, and you can easily see the filler. It's not bad, but there's obvious parts where I can't help but feel my time is being wasted to stretch it out, quests will pinball you around the zones, and the repetition of McChunks thrown together, and half of them aren't important but just add back story. The whole thing would be better if it was smaller, and instead of a large bag of McChunks put together in a rush, a smaller meal where every bit matters.

Scratched:

It's ironic to me that you would point out DA2 as an example of a game where there are useless filler content, when it's actually a game that's been criticized for being the exact opposite - a game that's laser-focused with nothing but conversation and combat.

LarryC wrote:

Scratched:

It's ironic to me that you would point out DA2 as an example of a game where there are useless filler content, when it's actually a game that's been criticized for being the exact opposite - a game that's laser-focused with nothing but conversation and combat.

I know exactly what you're saying, I'm struggling to find the words to put across what I want about it though. The quests are relevant and all tell the story, but they're an inefficient and long form way to tell their little fragment of the story. You spend time running around the city (with loading screens which break the flow), and you're fed a tiny spoonful (McStory chunk) of the story one at a time with a 5 minute break between each spoonful for a bit where you're thinking about the fighting/loot bit (McGameplay chunk). All the story is in there, but it feels like an artificial and awkward way to relate that story to someone. As another example from the DA2 thread, where the environment doesn't really tie in with the story at the time, is where the 'docks crowded with refugees' is nothing of the sort. It all needs to tie in as one cohesive unit more, than be a big bag of McChunks.

To go with the ME2 Mordin/genophage story telling, there is one way to get the story out of the game, which means long form excavating the story from dialogue trees, or the little McChunks through his mission.

Although both games have lots of stuff in them, I can't help thinking they would work better split up into smaller packages with a smaller focus, and do their areas better.

I get that for some guys, the dissonance between what's plausible in the story and what the game mechanics dictates tends to make some game parts feel filler-ish. I totally get that. But then again, how are you going to frame Mordin's personal story in a combat game other than by relating it through ME2's two main game elements? Should Bioware have shoved in yet one more awful minigame while Mordin and Shepard chat in his lab? God, that would be terrible.

That's one of the reasons why I don't just not like Uncharted 2. You can't get me to play that game if you paid me money to do it.

Uncharted 2's characters and story are cliche'd, and the individual game elements are flawed to the point where there's nothing to appreciate. It relies on hooking you through the story so that you can tolerate the clunky platforming, the superficial combat, and the hamhanded stealthing. To be fair, the focus on narrative consistency makes it easier to be invested in the narrative, at the cost of the mechanics.

In contrast, the pace of a game like ME2 is formulaic to predictability, and that hurts its narrative force; but its gameplay mechanics are sharp and innovative.

I could say the same about DA2, actually. DA2's combat mechanics are sharp, sharp. The balance, tactics, and complexity are an order of magnitude of improvement over the hamfisted DAO, but that comes at the cost of a broader location palette, and a larger story.

So which games are really filled with filler, as opposed to just games that contain elements that we don't personally like? Would I be justified in saying that UC2 is a filler-filled crapfest?

I see the same negatives in big budget films. Quite simply, it's too expensive to make a AAA game or movie. The only way the devs or production team can recoup their costs is to make games or films that are all thing to all people at all times and have a very broad based audience. I've never seen it but this is supposed to be why Hollywood keeps giving money to Michael Bay; because Pearl Harbor was a Titanic style romance but with the explosions of Rambo movie. Some would refer to this as playing to the lowest common denominator but what matters to a studio is that "common" part. Unfortunate as it means "lowest" is coming along for the ride.

(I absolutely adore Red Steel 2. I just started playing it again last week!)