The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet

Wasting my time

I really wanna see an end to unskippable physics-engine-logos taking front seat in game title sequences.

Jasper Byrne said that on Twitter earlier today, and it got me to thinking: I, personally really wanna see an end to unskippable anything. Not just in game title sequences, either; I mean anywhere in the game. As far as I’m concerned, anything I’m doing while I’m playing your game that doesn’t involve actually playing the game is you wasting my time. So here are things:

• Intro titles: I get the idea behind the titles; branding is not a foreign concept to me. But it’s getting ridiculous. Games these days often have like seven or eight mini-movie plugs you have to sit through before the title screen and attract mode even begin. That, to coin a phrase, is shit. I’ve actually had to look up — on the internet, so thank god for that — where games store their intro movies so I can go delete them and actually get into my damn games. There is absolutely no excuse for this garbage to be unskippable! At least take a cue from Relic and only make it unskippable the first time. That still sucks, but at least it only sucks once.

And everything I just said goes triple for you, Square Enix. No, I have not forgotten that Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals doesn’t even let me skip the attract mode. I seriously had to sit through like six minutes of crap before I even got to the main menu.

• Loading: I know. I know that load times are, to an extent, inevitable. I know there are solid technical reasons why a 20 GB game will have to load data. But.

There is absolutely no excuse why, if I die during a level, I have to sit through the entire loading process before I can respawn and try again. I’m talking to you, Mass Effect 2. Also, why is it that, here in 2012, we have MMORPGs clever enough to prefetch data to create large, broadly seamless environments, but single-player games can’t learn this same trick? I can load up World of Warcraft and run all the way from Winterspring to Ahn’Qiraj without seeing a single loading screen.

• Options menus: I’m not advocating getting rid of options; lord knows I can’t stand one-size-fits-all interfaces. But your options menus need to be designed with usability in mind. Ideally, I should be able to open the options and figure out what all the options do and configure everything all at once. That means you need goddamn tooltips, and it means you need sensible organisation. In particular, if your key bindings give me more than about a dozen actions to bind, they need to be paginated and categorised intelligently, not just dumped in a list at random, like they are in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Here’s a picture of the movement bindings. Categories are nice, but holy shit, Bioware, sort those maybe.

Also, hey Magicka, it is incredibly offensive that I can’t change my key bindings without quitting the game. Especially since you don’t let me save anywhere; if I discover I want my keys bound differently, I have a choice between finishing the level with suboptimal bindings or dumping my progress and starting over. And that’s terrible.

• Cutscenes: You knew it was coming. Now, contrary to popular belief, I don’t actually want cutscenes abolished. I get that there do exist out there people who play games because they really enjoy long, stupid movies with terrible dialogue and bad acting, and, more to the point, I acknowledge that cutscenes, properly used, can definitely enhance the game-playing experience. What I’m saying is that cutscenes are way, way, crazy, murderously overused. And there is no excuse in the atmosphere for them not to be skippable.

Now, I’m not talking about Bioware-style conversations. Those are actual gameplay elements. You see how you can interact with those? Actually make choices that influence the game? No, what I’m talking about is the endless bits of watching polygons talk to each other and having no ability to influence the game at all. A horrible offender in this way — and I’m not even going to discuss anything by Square Enix — Is Half-Life 2: Episode Two. Episode Two was especially egregious because the previous Half-Life games had all been excellent about allowing their narrative to be player-driven instead of relying on constant canned exposition. But here’s what happens in Episode Two (spoilers, obviously):

  • Gordon is pinned under a house and can’t do anything but watch when the hunter attacks Alyx.
  • Gordon can’t help with the healing ritual, so he just watches the Vortigaunts.
  • The ritual cutscene is interrupted by a different cutscene, involving the G-Man. Inception-y. At least this one’s interesting.
  • Gordon finally locates an Advisor… and gets paralysed and can’t do anything but watch until it leaves.
  • Upon arriving at White Forest, Gordon stands around and watches Alyx and Eli discuss the plot.
  • Another advisor. Gordon spends the whole encounter paralysed again — if they liked it once, they’ll love it twice!

What the hell, Valve? Why not let me participate in this somehow? If I’m locked out of playing the game and can’t do anything but watch, there’s no way to build suspense or tension. I know I can’t do anything, so why care?

For further illustration, let’s compare the beginning of Half-Life 2 with the beginning of Bioshock. They’re both paced the same; you start out riding transport, and then you wander around an unfamiliar environment for a while before suddenly finding yourself in danger. even the danger’s the same; in both games you’re under attack by enemies you don’t understand, and you have no means of defending yourself. But here’s where it gets different. In Half-Life 2, you’re climbing up through an apartment building, being ushered through apartments by residents who don’t want civil protection to catch you. The whole environment is very dynamic; as you run down hallways, CPs come in at the far end and close in on you, but then a door opens up and you get herded through to another place. Eventually, you wind up jumping from rooftop to rooftop as they shoot at you from the street. Then you finally get trapped, and the CPs begin to beat the shit out of you, but Alyx shows up for the rescue just in the nick of time. It’s really, really effective.

In contrast, Bioshock is very insecure. It doesn’t give you a large, open environment to run through — instead, you’re trapped in a bathysphere while a splicer attacks you. There’s nothing dynamic around you, either; it’s just an unchanging bathysphere. And to pile on even more idiocy, Bioshock doesn’t even let you struggle and get claustrophobic; you can’t move or act at all during this sequence. You just sit in the bathysphere and look straight forward out the window as the splicer attacks you, and then eventually Atlas kills it with a turret. Only after the danger is completely gone are you permitted to interact with the game at all. This is especially insulting since, as soon as you get out of the bathysphere, the game begins making Half-Life 2 references — if you fools were aware of Half-Life 2, why didn’t you learn anything from it?

January 8th, 2012 Posted by | Games | no comments

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