January 24, 2005

Unfinished Business

by peterb

Yesterday, I finished The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

It took me about 2 years or so to finish it. This isn't because the game was particularly hard, but because about 18 months ago I reached the final dungeon, made it most of the way through, and then, dreading the inevitable endless boss battle, set the game aside.

My game shelf is a study in unfinished business. Just glancing along it I can see numerous games that I've abandoned midway through. As I look at them, I feel a vague sense of unease, of foreboding. A sense of obligations unmet.

I feel guilty because I didn't play games.

The odd thing is, this doesn't happen to me over, for example, books. With a book, I tend to either read it until I'm finished, or decide that it's not worth reading. Then I put the book away forever without any guilt whatsoever. It seems to be only videogames which throw me into such emotional turmoil.

Could this be an expression of psu's theory of the latent object of desire? Perhaps the games represent my failure to fulfill that desire. I fixated on what I "needed" to be satisfied, purchased it, and there the object sits on my shelf, rebuking me with expectations unfulfilled? That theory fails, I think, because of the lack of guilt over books and movies on my shelves, which certainly qualify as (former) latent objects.

I don't have a big picture explanation for this, but perhaps inspecting each game I've abandoned will bring enlightenment. I'll limit the discussion to console games, or else I'll be here all day, writing separate entries for every Wizardry game since The Knight of Diamonds.

  • Silent Hill 3 - Stopped playing after I finished the first monster-filled area, right after I got to the subway. The boss battle with the monster penis convinced me that the authors were completely out of ideas and it was just going to be 30 hours of more of the same.
  • Beyond Good and Evil - I was enjoying everything about this game and was most of the way through when I was forced to take a break for about two weeks due to work. When I came back, I realized that my tenuous grasp of the plot had evaporated. I was sneaking around a big factory with absolutely no idea why I was there or what I should do next.
  • Fatal Frame 2 - I really liked the plot here. Great mood, pacing was a little slow, but the controls were so frustrating that playing felt more like volunteer work at an old age home than "having fun." This game also has the save point problem. I abandoned it when I encountered an invincible boss monster. Later, I learned that you're supposed to run away from him. But there's no context in the game to tell you that, and the nearest save point before this boss is about 6 minutes of play time away. After the third time he killed me, the mere thought of trudging my way back to him again sapped my very will to live.
  • Shenmue (1 and 2) - I always love this game when I think about it. Then I try to play it, and rediscover how bad the controls are. Then I hate it. Although, to this day I still giggle at the image of a Japanese teenager in a leather jacket wandering around the rough parts of town asking everyone "Do you know where the sailors hang out?"
  • Dynasty Warriors 3 (and 4) - Lots of action! Pretty costumes! Stupid console save point mechanics! Bye bye.
  • Deux Ex: Invisible War - Reasonable controls, intriguing plot, and nice cutscenes, but somehow soulless. Despite its explosions and bombast, the game never instilled a sense of urgency in me.
  • Panzer Dragoon Orta - No actual guilt over this one. I want to see the "plot," such as it is, but I'm just too old and slow to successfully make it past level 8.
  • Conker's Bad Fur Day - Another no-guilt title. It just wasn't funny. I was ready to quit the moment I saw the "poop level." (Here's a pet peeve: when people call scatological humor "adult." It isn't.)

Now I understand. It's perfectly clear. I have transcended my guilt, and left it behind. I stopped playing all of these games because there was some part of them that I didn't like. I felt guilty because the parts of the games that I did like were more memorable than the parts of the games that I didn't like. So when I thought of Beyond Good and Evil, for example, I would think to myself "Gee, I'm vaguely sad that I don't know whatever happened to Jade and her battle against the zombie aliens," instead of "Wow, I sure am glad that I don't have to deal with those super-frustrating save points that are spread too far apart."

So now that some of my reasons for abandoning games are down in black and white, let me try to distill them into general principles that developers can use to make their games more compelling. More compelling to me, at least, and of course I am the apotheosis of what All Gamers Want.

1. Keep the action moving constantly. A game where the plot moves along at a brisk pace will keep me more interested than a game where I have to engage in 300 random battles to reach the next phase. While Zelda doesn't proceed at breakneck speed, its pacing is perfectly consistent from start to finish. Once you've played for an hour or so, you develop an innate sense of about how far away you are from the next plot point. This consistency did a lot to keep me playing.

2. Stupid control schemes ruin games. You can have the best plot in the world, but if moving my protagonist around feels like driving a one-wheeled forklift, it's not a game I'll keep playing very long.

3. Replaying sequences is boring. You've heard me say it before -- console-style save points are idiotic. In a single player game, there is no value in forcing the player to replay a segment they've already cleared. None. Whatsoever. For any reason. If I feel like I'm a hamster in a spinning wheel, I drop the game as quickly as possible.

4. Game difficulty needs to adapt to the player. This is related to points (1) and (3). Many of the games I play let you choose a difficulty level. This is a classic example of the broken way software engineers think when left to their own devices. "We don't want to do the work to make a smart decision, so let's give the user a knob they can twist to choose the behavior of our product." Even though at the time the game asks the player to choose the difficulty level, the player isn't in a position know what it means. This is especially egregious in games where you can't change the difficulty level once you've started a game, but I'm not letting the other games off the hook either. A game with a narrative should be actively working to move the player along at a consistent pace, providing a challenge appropriate to their skill level. If the player is breezing through areas with ease, the game should throw a little more at them until they start to struggle. If the player is constantly dying, the game should dial the difficulty down. Do it quietly, do it without fuss, and do it without even informing the player. There are some games for which this model isn't appropriate, but I maintain that any game with a significant, sustained narrative would benefit from it.

5. Tell the player how far along she is. I have an intrinsic bias towards shorter games, yet I don't shy away from even the largest books. I was musing about this in conversation the other day, and Stewart Clamen incisively pointed out "You know how much longer you have with books." He's absolutely right: at any moment, you can just glance and know about how much further you have to read to end the experience. Some of the better games manage to do this (again, we can use Zelda as an example. There's always a status screen showing you how much of the world you've uncovered, how many pieces of the Triforce remain to be found, and so on).

6. Lastly, boss battles are stupid. Scientific research that I just completely made up shows that the same people that like "boss" battles in videogames also like unusable third-person 3-d cameras. And drink white wine.

For the record, apart from Zelda, here's a partial list of some of the games I have actually finished in the past few years: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate (I and II), Ico, Planescape: Torment, Halo 2, and the first two Silent Hill games. What these titles have in common is consistency of pacing. That's why I listed it first in my list of principles. From this I conclude: in a narrative-focused game, pacing is paramount. Which sounds obvious but, based on the games I've played over the past few years, apparently isn't.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to find that save file for Gladius. I've been playing it for nearly a year, and I'm just about halfway through.

Posted by peterb at January 24, 2005 08:11 PM | Bookmark This

My list:

Ico - stuck at final save point before final boss battle
Beyond Good & Evil - stuck at final save point before final boss battle
GTA3 - Completed plot; stuck on "fire truck" mission for 100%
GTA: Vice City - Completed plot; stuck on "fire truck" mission for 100%
Banjo Kazooie - stuck at final save point before final boss battle
Banjo Tooie - stuck at final save point before final boss battle
Star Ocean 2 - lost thread of plot halfway through
Okage: Shadow King - lost thread of plot halfway through
Chrono Cross - lost thread of plot halfway through

However, these are all games that I would (and in almost every case already have) play again up to the point where I get stuck because they're very fun until then.

Contrast with:

Final Fantasy 7 - lost thread of plot halfway through
Summoner - lost thread of plot halfway through
Dark Cloud - Ugh, dungeon crawl
Dungeon Seige - Ugh, dungeon crawl
Diablo - Ugh, dungeon crawl

Yeah, no guilt here.

Posted by Jon at January 25, 2005 12:45 PM

How can you be stuck at the final save points in Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie?

1. You must suck because you didn't get enough Jiggys
2. There are no save points in those games.

Posted by Me at June 27, 2005 09:29 PM

One way to know how far along you are is to look at the table of contents of a walkthrough on the Internet and count the chapters. Note, you don't necessarily need to *use* the walkthrough...

Posted by psu at March 26, 2006 07:36 PM

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