Unfinished Business

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.

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.