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.