I watch a fair number of video game-related videos during the course of my week, but one that stands out to me is Extra Credits over at The Escapist. A few weeks ago, the Extra Credits team (Daniel, James, and Allison), have been discussing how best to play games with a developer’s mindset firmly in place. I’m no expert on the subject, but I have played my fair share of games all over the place and come to realize a few things that not only break a game’s immersion level, but at times even my level of fun. So here it is, my list of Ten Aspects of Otherwise Good Games That Bring Them Down.
10. Slog o’ Enemies:
The further you progress in a game, the more you’ve seen and learned to deal with. Suddenly even the strongest of enemies are nothing more than a minor annoyance as you’ve mastered the controls and the game itself. This is about the time a typical game decides to force you through the Slog o’ Enemies, easily recognizable as a bland room or platform with no other purpose than to stall you while wave after wave of enemies crash into you. Mostly, the Slog o’ Enemies is an endurance test more than anything, but it usually comes off as just a simple way of extending playtime. When killing bad guys starts to grow boring, that’s a bad sign that you’re out of ideas.
9. The Buddy System:
Nintendo got into the habit for a while of pushing the idea of partnership or friendship as the Greatest Thing Ever, mostly seen in titles like Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, and Mario & Luigi. While there’s nothing wrong with the buddy system by itself, a game like Super Paper Mario shows the annoyance of it. The game is a 2D platformer that can switch to a 3D space at times, but most puzzles are solved by switching between Mario, Peach, Bowser, and Luigi, or swapping out one of a dozen Pixls, little helping buddies. The puzzles themselves aren’t hard to figure out (“oh, I need to blow up this wall? Better grab the bomb Pixl”), but when you’re forced to switch between characters repeatedly, things get bothersome. For instance, I’ll be running through an area with Mario and the dashing Pixl but come upon a wall too high to jump over, so I have to switch to Luigi. After I jump over the wall, there’s an enemy that I need to kill that requires a hammer to defeat, so I switch to that Pixl. But then I need to go to 3D, so I need Mario back. The only thing this challenges is patience, and the more I have to do this, the less patience I have for other things in the game, such as…
8. Fetch Quests:
Probably the single most-used concept for elongating a game’s playtime is the simple Fetch Quest, easily recognizable as the point a game character asks you to go grab some random item for them before you’re allowed to proceed in the game. Role Played Games are notorious for this, having you try to pass through a town and learn that the mayor of the town has a favor to ask you that requires you only to go grab something from the next town over. Paper Mario: Thousand-Year Door hits you with one of these near the very end, tasking you with finding a specific character to launch you into space. You go to where he’s always located and discover that he isn’t there. Another character tells you he went to another location in the game, sending you all over the world until you return to the original spot where he should be where, naturally, he’s just returned. The Zelda games have a version of this called The Trading Game, a sequence of events you have to go through to acquire some item of importance, and while Ocarina of Time definitely delivered a good reward with the Biggoron Sword, you aren’t always so fortunate.
7. Beat The Clock:
One of the oldest holdovers from classic arcade games and NES sidescrollers is the idea that you must Beat The Clock at any point in the game, whether it is due to an enemy vehicle getting away, a helicopter leaving, or an explosion being imminent. When it’s extremely relevant to the story, sure, why not throw in a timed sequence. But then there are times that the game’s attempt at “realism” shatters the need for timing. Pretty much any FPS that yells “GET HERE RIGHT NOW OR ELSE” really ticks me off, mostly because you aren’t able to use any of the strategies the FPS or 3PS genres demand you use ad nasuem, i.e. stay in cover and allow health to regenerate. When I’m forced to bolt through an area because I need to, well, Just Because, I become frustrated, especially when I reach the destination a split second too late and have to do the whole chore over again. I don’t like having my fun be placed on a timer, something that both Dead Rising titles decided was necessary. I like the option to take a breath, look things through, and even explore the game a little bit. I don’t like to feel rushed unless there’s a flagpole at the end of the stage I need to jump onto.
6. The Maze of Unrelenting Doom:
As I just mentioned, I don’t like limitations placed on my fun. I’m the type of player who really enjoys exploration and uncovering secrets and mysteries. Give me a new item that cracks a certain rock I’ve seen earlier in the game, man, I’m excited to see what’s behind that rock. So why do I hate it when I’m thrown into The Maze of Unrelenting Doom? Because this means I’m about to go into an area, usually without any helpful map, that may or may not have loads of secrets but most definitely has multiple forking pathways that lead me to dead ends left and right , or even worse, loop back around on each other, making it very tough to look through and explore it without getting utterly lost. My heart always sinks when I walk through to a fork in the road and pick the correct path on the first try, mostly because that means I won’t know what was in the other path until I play through again. Most video game mazes consist of the player walking down the wrong path, finding an obstruction, then going down the alternative path instead. The more the path branches, the more it means I have to explore to feel satisfied. This feels more like the game saying, “Fine, you want to explore, here, go explore. And don’t bother coming back until you’re done.” Mazes aren’t fun, the end.
5. Don’t We Look Cool:
One of the greatest things current games have over the classic games is no more limitations on memories or graphics, meaning they can show just about anything they want. Instead of just a few frames of animation, current games can show a wide range of actions and expressions, allowing for some truly amazing animations for seemingly simple tasks, such as dispatching enemies. But then comes the problem: The game becomes a little too proud of itself for these animations and insists of showing these over and over and over again. A lot of games followed God of War’s finisher animation concept and took it to an extreme. Now games are basically required to throw in some “badass” finishing combo or move that a character can use to end a bad guy’s life. But once you see the same animation multiple times, the effect diminishes at an alarming rate. All of a sudden you find that the cool finishing move is more annoying than anything since it takes time to execute whereas you could slash one more time and be done with it. Nowhere is this worse than in the section of the game where the Slog o’ Enemies arrives, meaning those “cool” animations become stale exceedingly fast. Though it could be worse…
4. This is Probably What You Would Have Done:
Such as when the game takes all control away from you for extended periods of time to tell its story at you rather than with you. Cut scenes are unavoidable in some genres, like RPGs, but in games where action is key, taking all control away from the player is infuriating. Take for example Dirge of Cerberus, the PS2 continuation of Final Fantasy 7. At the end of the first level you’ve killed more than enough enemies to feel powerful, including a helicopter, but then the cut scene starts and the main character leaps hundreds of feet in the air, over another helicopter, and blows it up with one shot. Keep in mind, you just exhausted pretty much all of your ammo on the last helicopter, so seeing the character outdo your efforts in a few seconds is fairly annoying.
Even worse is when a game goes out of its way to break its story. Take Red Dead Redemption, a game that’s pretty good but insists on allowing freedom to play as either a good guy or a bad guy. You’re capable of killing enemies or merely shooting the pistols out of their hands, an option I preferred when available. Until the game goes into a cutscene and doesn’t give me the option. I’m forced to watch as the main character shoots three random dumbasses for being stupid instead of letting me decide whether I’d like to kill them or not, before a new character shows up to chastise my decision to shoot them, a decision I didn’t make.
A variant of this is a triggerable sequence to advance the plot, usually involving an obvious trap that you’re required to activate. After playing enough games and being perceptive enough to the surroundings of the game (read: paying attention to what I’m looking at), it isn’t fun or satisfying to encounter a trap that I have to fall into. I’d rather not pull the lever that’s going to drop me into the pit, adding a half-hour to my game’s time. Furthermore, I’d prefer the game didn’t send in a character to laugh at my misfortune of falling into the trap. That’s like the schoolyard bully playing “Stop Hitting Yourself” all over again. Didn’t I grow out of that?
3. Harder Doesn’t Mean Fairer:
Games these days are rarely built to be unbeatable like they were back in the day of the arcades where the harder the game was, the more money it could potentially rake in quarter by quarter. Rather, due to how much time and effort is sunk into a current gaming title, it’s imperative that the average gamer be capable of seeing the game to the end, otherwise developing that final chapter is a complete waste from a financial standpoint. However, just because games as a whole have become easier, many of them still include a harder difficulty setting meant to test the true fans and devoted hardcore gamers. Problem is, a lot of the time you learn that a developer’s idea of “difficulty level” only means “frustration level.”
Typically three things happen in the majority of games to increase difficulty. The first is that enemy characters take more damage. The second is that they become savants. The third is that your own health shrinks down to a single hit before death. Add these three aspects together and a lot of game mechanics show their faults. Instead of making you white-knuckled with intensity, they make you red-faced with anger at the controls and gameplay elements. If you suddenly take more damage as a result of a clunky gameplay mechanic, you’ll become highly aware of the fault. It forces the gamer to take notice of things that simply aren’t fair, such as advantages the computer gives itself purely to increase the difficulty. I’ve seen the computer break rules and straight-up cheat in some games, all in the name of a challenge. Mario Kart’s slingshot AI (placing itself right behind you with a speed boost) comes to mind.
Take another example of this from Mass Effect 2. While playing through the standard difficulty, I was generally happy with the controls and the experience. Then I played through on the hardest difficulty and suddenly my teammates had useless AI even when I give them specific orders, cover only seems to work when the game feels like making it work, and enemies become less fun to fight as they all have shields and barriers that my Biotic powers can do nothing about. Fights didn’t exactly get harder as they increased in length by tenfold since I was forced to play carefully and conservatively, gameplay strategies the game didn’t previously excel at.
2. The Task Is Its Own Reward:
Let’s be honest with ourselves here: We play games to accomplish imaginary things. No matter what we do or how great a task, it’s all pretend. But there are some definite moments where you’re rewarded in a game with essentially nothing more than a pat on the back and a “good job buckaroo.” While it’s all virtual tasks we perform, the reward we seek is still a tangible thing like a new weapon or character or even a cutscene that furthers the story. So when we get nothing for doing a complicated task, we feel cheated.
An example of this is Super Mario 64’s reward for collecting 120 stars. We all know that Yoshi is on the roof and collecting 120 stars opens a canon allowing you to blast to the roof, talk to Yoshi, and get 100 lives. You can’t ride Yoshi or control him, just talk with him to hear a poorly translated message of thanks from the developers. Lives were already mostly useless, so having 100 of them after having nothing left to do doesn’t feel like a reward as much as an insult.
Then come the Achievements and Trophies added to a game to give some sort of meaning behind the boring search of pointless items. The COG tags in Gears of War, the Enemy Intel computers in Modern Warfare, and the various flags in Assassin’s Creed are all examples of this where collecting every one does nothing beyond rewarding you with a few Achievement points. Super Paper Mario, to bring it up again, has a point where you can play through the Slog o’ Enemies, fighting through 100 enemies in a row without a break, all for a few cards that offer nothing new for the game and provide no added bonus. The task exists only to give you something to do rather than encourage you to explore and discover something new. The reward in the original Super Mario Bros for running off the beaten path was bundles of coins, extra lives, or huge shortcuts. The rewards for running off the beaten path in way too many games presently consist of nothing that matches the game’s core elements. Super Mario Bros is a game about collecting coins and lives, so finding hidden coins and lives is a good reward. Modern Warfare 2 is a game about killing enemies with guns, so collecting Enemy Intel is utterly pointless and disconnected.
1. Playing Babysitter:
While I could easily just say that Escort Missions are awful and everyone would agree, it’s my duty to go in depth and explain why. Let’s just look at Dead Rising to see what I’m talking about. Any time you have the game take control out of your hands is a bother, but giving the control to NPC’s with no intelligence is infuriating. In Dead Rising you frequently find yourself encountering other survivors in the zombie-infested mall that need your help getting to the safe room. After they join you, you have extremely limited control over their actions. You can give them weapons (sometimes) and orders (sometimes), but they’ll frequently ignore your ideas in favor of their own bad ideas, such as rushing headfirst into swarms of zombies with no means to defend themselves.
Resident Evil 4 is another horrible offender of this. As great of a game as it is, you spend the majority of the game running around with Ashley, the president’s daughter, trying to get out of the nightmarish village you’re stuck in. Ashley has no means to defend herself though, so if she gets grabbed by enemies or attacked, she’s taking damage or getting carried off. Even worse, sometimes you’re expected to have quick reflexes to enemies popping up around you, but whipping out your knife to slash at an enemy coming close can just as easily result in hacking Ashley’s throat out.
Gamers do not like having to babysit when they want to have fun. This is exactly like planning to go to the mall with your friends but having your mother force you to bring along your little sister. You are now limited in what you can do, say, and where you can go. Simply, your fun is given limitations instead of what games should be seeking to accomplish: Remove all blocks between you and fun. It’s my personal most-bothersome aspect of a good game that can bring the experience crashing down, but combine it with any of the aforementioned problems and my lack of enjoyment compounds at alarming rates.
And that’s my list. These are just the things I’ve personally found and felt frustrated with, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more that you can inform us about. What are some aspects of otherwise great games that lessen your experience? Or what are some that I mentioned that honestly don’t bother you all that much? Leave a comment and get the discussion going. Come on, I don’t want to hold your hand the whole way since I’ve got fun stuff do to on my own.
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