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

wordsmythe wrote:

Man, do I love resolution sauce.

I hear it contains eagle semen.

The funniest part of this is how much time Rob's been spending waiting for turns to roll over in Pride of Nations.

gains:

Yeah. Such an awesome, awesome game. It's a royal, crying shame that there won't be a Red Steel 3. Surgically planned tactical takedowns of entire rooms just makes me feel like such a badass. And it's remarkably complex. I don't think that kind of brawler complexity in a first person view is possible with a dual analog. It'd have a difficulty curve like a wall.

Honestly, and this is meant with great respect, but Rob I think you may need to step away from videogames for a while. Particularly high budget AAA games.

They are unabashedly about 'The Formula' and if you are finding the formula distasteful then that's fine, but I think you are torturing yourself to keep looking for something you're not going to find. It's like watching summer blockbusters looking for character growth.

I also dislike formulaic games and my way of dealing with that is simply to play less. I have bought 2 new AAA releases this year (Dawn of War 2: Complete and The Witcher 2) and I am planning on one more (Deus Ex). The only game I know for sure I'm buying next year is Mass Effect 3.

Are the games formulaic? I'm sure they are. But I don't spend so much time playing games that the machinery behind the scenes becomes evident unless I'm looking for it. Games require that the player buys in, if distaste or excessive familiarity are preventing you from buying in and willingly suspending disbelief then that's kind of sad.

Of course, you write about games for a living, so playing less isn't too viable. I sometimes feel like one of the few gamers who has never had the desire to write about videogames. To torture a cliche, examining the trees all the time means you can't just enjoy a walk in the forest.

I think AAA may be a potential source of the problem, that those games 'have' to be a certain amount of content, and that some games perhaps should be smaller, rather than a small game inflated with filler.

Dragging up ME2 again, although the main plot is in three parts, a trilogy, I'd be interested to see several smaller games exploring the smaller issues better, so instead of 13 characters, each with their own little self contained story with an acquisition mission and a loyalty mission, you have two or three collections or parts that explore those stories better and cross paths with other stories. Obviously you couldn't just arbitrarily chop ME2 into two or three parts, and you also run the risk of drawing the overarching story out too much, which is at risk of happening for something like Assassin's Creed.

What's concerning is that the big publishers don't really know how to make anything but an AAA game, and perhaps small XBLA/PSN games, it's got to be a big release they can sell for as much as possible in a box. I know there are a wide range of games in that medium bracket, but they seem to exist on another continent to the AAA part of the games industry.

Is the article picture making anyone else hungry? I admit I tend to like food more when I feel it has nothing but contempt for my health.

What's missing there is the business model. A game is a game, and we enjoy it as such, or design games and think about that, but few of us actually think about exactly how it is that a game actually makes money for people. We just assume that with something selling for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, that there's no way that could possibly be a loss.

The thing is, releasing games on smaller schedules requires serious thinking about how to manage the process so that money gets made, salaries get paid, and offices keep lighted.

Given the way most gamers simply don't finish games, there's a real danger that a Mass Effect kind of game released piecemeal could end up making half of what it would otherwise gross, and that would be nothing less than a financial disaster.

LarryC wrote:

The thing is, releasing games on smaller schedules requires serious thinking about how to manage the process so that money gets made, salaries get paid, and offices keep lighted.

Given the way most gamers simply don't finish games, there's a real danger that a Mass Effect kind of game released piecemeal could end up making half of what it would otherwise gross, and that would be nothing less than a financial disaster.

I'll agree it's a difficult problem. I think the reason 'AAA episodic' games (which is essentially what I described) haven't taken off is because the cost of making the first episode would be towards the cost of making all the planned episodes, at which point you might as well make a big game. A big base game plus expansions seems to work, but I don't think it ever gets pushed to the extent it can go. It's not surprising risk adverse companies don't want to grasp that nettle. To make medium games work will take some smart decisions, carefully picking what you can do and to what standard.

I think that structure of a big release loading up the coffers to allow for episodic release of the sequel is what Valve were going for with Half Life 2 and the episodes. It's "worked" for them but largely because they have so many other revenue streams. With SIN Emergence, they stumbled at the gate and that was the end.

gains wrote:

I think that structure of a big release loading up the coffers to allow for episodic release of the sequel is what Valve were going for with Half Life 2 and the episodes. It's "worked" for them but largely because they have so many other revenue streams. With SIN Emergence, they stumbled at the gate and that was the end.

Bingo, which was annoying as I liked SiN. Still, lack of a viable way to do episodic games from the start still isn't a reason to pad games out with dull content.

Batman: Arkham Asylum did a pretty decent job of mixing up its three primary gameplay elements of exploration, stealth, and combat. Wisely, it avoided any sort of pattern to its elements: a combat sequence might be followed by a long period of exploration, or it might be followed by a stealth section. Likewise, the designers allowed a certain degree of freeform exploration so that players could, to an extent, determine for themselves when they had had enough digging around and so could move on to something new when they were ready.

It's only near the end of the game, when there are more exploration to be done and no combat or stealth sequences remaining, that the game becomes somewhat tedious. I think the developers had intended the stealth and combat challenges to fill that void, but they're not integrated into the game in such a way that players are naturally inclined to dip into them when exploration gets boring.

wordsmythe wrote:

Man, do I love resolution sauce.

Isn't that what the pile threads are all about?

Well stated Rob. This is what annoys the ever-loving sh*t out of me about so many games. Games that could have been marvelous end up being annoying.

This is why I never finished the original God of War, nor do I have any interest in the sequels. The game started off great, swinging a big blade-on-a-chain thing around. But just as I was having too much fun apparently, I had to stop and drag some statues around. Or time some hard-to-see 3D platforming jumps. Even the demo of GoW3 had Kratos flying through some sort of area. Flying. In a hack-and-slash game.

Batman is an exception to this rule, because of the reasons stated above.

I like variety within my game collection, not within each game. Hey game developers. Stop it.

PyromanFO wrote:

Is the article picture making anyone else hungry? I admit I tend to like food more when I feel it has nothing but contempt for my health.

You and me both. The worse it is for me... the more I probably want it.

Also: Zacny.. I think I must be the equivalent of your moustache twisting alternate universe evil twin or something. I'm a terrible writer and we don't agree about anything. Ever.

Total opposites.

Mmm. Resolution Sauce.