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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

VIDEO CLICHES

vital equipment
Cracked Magazine has a daily feature online where they do lists. Lists are always popular, people love them and some day I'll puzzle out exactly why. This particular one is 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey. The list starts out great, with the primary one: make games that you can play with other people in the room. The Nintendo Wii was underpowered compared to the other platforms that came out at the time, yet it is vastly more popular - in no small part because you not only get games that are fun to play but the best of them (like Guitar Hero) are with people you physically interact with. Apparently the hand held controllers are a lot of fun as well, but there is something to be said for playing games with actual physical beings rather than a disembodied voice abusing you over headphones.

Yet it was law number 4 that was most compelling to me: Thou Shalt Make Killing Fun. This isn't about sadistic joy in mangling people, rather it is about game play and entertainment value, even when it comes to fighting. In particular, there is one aspect they mention that is my number one all-time most frustrating complaint about video games.

In the original Legend of Zelda, you start out with your little squat blocky Link and are told that the evil monsters have stolen the princess and are taking over the kingdom. Everyone is in peril! You alone are the entire world's last hope, you, Link must save the princess and destroy the monsters. The entire kingdom is behind you, we will equip you to defeat the evil. Your mighty weapon?

A wooden sword.

Not a bokken, not a magical branch of Yggdrasil imbued with terrifying druid powers, not some special enchanted wood. No, a child's imitation sword, like you would play pirates with in 1950. I could only come up with three reasons why the king hands you a toy to save the world with.
  1. The kingdom is incredibly poor and this is their idea of a mighty weapon (which is how the princess got kidnapped to begin with)
  2. The king is not particularly fond of the princess but has to make a public gesture
  3. The king is sadistic and finds sending heroes to a horrible death with inadequate weapons hilarious, even stimulating
The Legend of Zelda wasn't the only place this was used in. Oh my no, almost every game uses this stunt. You start with a pistol in Doom to face the hordes of hell, and run out of ammo for that, ending up punching guys until you can get a box of ammunition. It's cheap way of increasing difficulty, in fact, the higher difficulty levels include reduced ammunition and the creatures take more shots to kill. Finish the game with that, sucker! Some games give you weapons you find in your garage like a wrench or a crowbar, how heroic.

This is a cheap way of making the higher end weapons seem more exciting, but it also cheapens the experience. Frankly, most of the time it is simply absurd, you don't send the world's last hope into battle with crap unless somehow the situation absolutely forces them to it.

LOOK MA, NO HANDS!
Another 'feature' that needs to die a horrible, screaming death in video games is the Mario Brothers leaping obstacle course. If the game is all about jumping from one impossible position to another, that's one thing: I can avoid it like a radioactive flaming porcupine. If the game is another sort of thing entirely, then we've got a problem. Take Halo, where the entire game is about riding around, shooting bad guys, ducking behind cover, and so on at your own pace as you move around solving a puzzle and trying to survive. Then, for no conceivable reason, the final 2 minutes of the game are you driving around obstacles in a car, leaping over vast chasms with a time limit that requires you to perfectly memorize the exact path and tricks to follow like Dragon's Lair. Left, right, left, left, accelerate, jump, left... arrg I DIED AGAIN AND HAVE TO START OVER.

Too many games slip this kind of thing into the content without warning, jarringly different from the rest. This game is about infiltration and using your special force powers... except this part where you have to jump from one tiny column to another as they shrink into the lava and bolts of lightning fire at you. Out of nowhere the game has gone from strategy and tactics to precise controller use. It doesn't matter how capable your character is, it doesn't matter what awesome powers he has, if you can't hit those buttons in the right order and speed, you die. Suddenly the game has shifted from playing a role to pushing buttons like a chimpanzee looking for a treat.

And the worst part? You have no hands. If you don't land, on your roller skate-clad feet that slide forward after landing, exactly on the proper spot, you fall off. You can't catch the edge and pull yourself up, you can't land and fall over, sliding along the surface. You land on your feet like an Olympic gymnast or it's all over. You are a machine with a gun sticking out of your chest and rollers on your feet. The few exceptions to this include Prince of Persia, which was it's primary selling point in the ancient side scrolling original version of the game, and the Thief series which is incredibly great in every way.

RIDDLE ME NOT
This isn't one of Cracked's commandments, but it should have been. Related to the above effect is the in-game riddle or puzzle. Now, I understand some people love this stuff, and more power to them. However, in a role playing game, the game is about what my character can do not about how well I solve puzzles. Don't throw a logic puzzle or a riddle at me unless my character somehow has the ability to solve it or at the very least help out significantly. I don't want to have to rely on my personal ability to save the virtual game world when I'm playing some uber powerful guy on the screen. If I can leap over a tall building with a single bound, then that's how I want to save the world, not working out a math problem with the game on pause or looking up the solution online.

The Knights of the Old Republic games, for all their great game play and story, were horrible this way. You build your powers, you interact with your NPCs, you see new areas and solve quests, then there's a puzzle that you personally, not your character, are meant to solve.

If I'm playing Puzzlequest or Solve Riddles with Schmoopy, I expect this. If I'm playing a role playing game, I don't want to see this ever again. I hate riddles, I know Tolkien put them in the Hobbit, but that was because the title character Bilbo liked them and was particularly skilled in riddles. It also was a literary theme that Tolkien was trying to work into his English mythology project. This does not belong in role playing. EVER.

THE END
The final commandment they offer is appropriate and very correct: have a great ending. If you play 50 hours on a game and finally get to the end, make the ending worth waiting for. Some games are great at this (although KOTR basically made the bad guys the better choice: if you chose the light path, you got the girl. If you chose the dark path, you got the girl... and ruled the galaxy). Some are not. The second Knights of the Old Republic seemed like 80% of a game, then some crap slapped together that made little sense just to get it out to market. We've got a deadline boys, I don't care how good it is!

Games that just end with credits are terrible, nobody cares who designed the game or did the voices, and even if we did, they're in the game documentation and online. We want something given to us: great job, here's a huge cutscene with epic music! At least give your players something to look forward to. Theif: Deadly Shadows is a great example of how to do it right, make it interesting, give us something to enjoy.

Video Games have come a long way, but the industry is not learning from its mistakes very well and is making the same ones over and over. Let's hope they listen to their players.
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