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I have wasted my hours

February 23, 2013

Hot on the heels of last week’s immensely satisfying The Walking Dead playthrough is a series of woefully disappointing gaming experiences. It reminds me that there are few games out there that I find to be truly valuable—that there are plenty of poorly executed ones that just aren’t worth my time when there are other games to try, other things to do. Life is pretty big, you guys. I don’t want to miss out by spending all my time playing junky games.

For posterity (maybe our children will be able to right our wrongs), I’d like to go through what it was about each game that I didn’t like, occasionally offering some suggestions for improvement.

Stacking

The first of the disappointments was Double Fine Productions’s Stacking. Frankly, I was surprised that I didn’t like it: I remember being utterly charmed by their first game, Psychonauts, and there seems to be a lot of positive feelings about Double Fine in the gaming community.

When it came down to it, though, the old-timey style in Stacking was satisfactory, but didn’t do much to get around the fact that everything you do in the game is a fetch quest. Every puzzle asks you to either go find a specific doll and bring it to a certain place, or else first figure out which doll you need to find, find it, then return. The whimsy and silliness in some of the solutions and interactions with dolls is enjoyable (I particularly liked the one boy who “tosses his cookies”, literally spewing out whole cookies onto the ground), but the charm only held on for so long before I realized that I was just doing the same thing over and over.

I wonder, though, if the problem isn’t the nature of the puzzles but the difficulty of their solutions (not very). Because they were so easy to figure out, I felt compelled to find all solutions to each puzzle before moving on to the next area, which left me feeling like I was just completing menial tasks. Maybe if some solutions were fiendishly clever, I may have resigned to finish them later, or else felt really good about figuring out all of the tough ones. The “Hi-Jinks”—bonus tasks that you complete by using a specific doll to interact with (e.g. slap, punch, wrap up like a mummy) other dolls some number of times—were especially tedious: what’s the point in slapping 10 different dolls, especially when it takes only about 30 seconds to complete the whole thing?

As it is, I don’t expect to return my half-completed game. The story wasn’t compelling enough to want to endure the tiresome gameplay.

From Dust

Next up was Ubisoft Montpellier’ From Dust. I don’t think I had any expectations at all going in, but my impression was that it was an “indie-ish” game from a big name developer. By that I mean that since it was released at $15—as I recall—it appeared to be a sort of experimental title, one that an indie developer might make if they had a large team and a real budget. Maybe I was wrong to think that, but I distinctly remember seeing it that way.

In any case, the game was frustrating. But it wasn’t even good at being frustrating. It was just underwhelming overall and also a little irksome. Allow me to explain. First of all, the game tells you everything you need to do, which is automatically a turn off. It teaches you how to pick up sand and deposit it to make a bridge over water so your tribe can reach the exit. You do that a bunch. Then it teaches you how to do the same with water, emptying a lake. Got it. You pick stuff up, then you put it down somewhere else. Then later, you encounter some lava, and the game gently suggests that you try picking some up and using it to rebuild a wall to protect your villages from a tsunami. Really, though? You don’t think I would have been curious about the bright-red liquid on my screen, curious enough to try picking it up and dropping it somewhere to see what it does? It’s no different than what I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes doing. Also, the game tells you that your objective should be to rebuild the broken wall that lets in a tidal wave of ocean water come flooding into the village every two minutes. Don’t you think I would have been eager to do that myself without having been told to do so?

I’m certain that if the game left me to my own devices, I would have had a lot more fun and would have enjoyed the rewards of curiosity, seeing that dropped lava quickly cools, leaving behind a lump of immovable rock. Even still, I’m not sure it would have held my attention for long: the game really doesn’t have much more to it than “pick up that stuff there, and put it somewhere else, then do it some more”. To “help” lengthen the game, your are rather limited in how much you can pick up at one time. Good! I shudder to think what would happen if didn’t have to go back and forth collecting sand a dozen times.

On top of all of this, the user interface and cutscenes are quite bothersome. The text boxes for the instructions and explanations in the game are huge, covering up a decent portion of the screen, which is a bad thing to do when the game looks so pretty (ignoring the lack of anti-aliasing, cough). But the thing that really gets me—and this is, for me, both a longstanding pet peeve and something that always comes off as a curiously unfixed (or maybe unnoticed?) problem—is when the cutscene between each level comes to a jarring halt so that the next level can begin. Why couldn’t they make a smoother transition? They show this same cutscene every time (which itself is a bad decisions—couldn’t they switch ’em up a little?), and every time the music cuts out at an awkward time, and the video switches to a shot of the tribespeople emerging from the underground tunnel in which they have just journeyed.

Even outside of games, I encounter this problem—of sudden changes to audio or video—more than I would care to, and I don’t understand why that’s the case. As a counter example to this, if I’m listening to music on my iPhone and a call comes in, the phone doesn’t just cut my music suddenly and stun me with a blast of my ringtone. Instead, it smoothly dials down the volume of my song, pauses it, then introduces the ring. By that time, I’m prepared for it. Think about it: how often in nature are we excited to encounter a sudden, drastic change in something? Suddenly, it started raining buckets. Suddenly, my mother died. Suddenly, I tumbled off a cliff. Smooth, gradual changes are a lot easier to deal with. And most importantly, they don’t draw attention to themselves: in a game setting, this means that we can maintain our suspension of disbelief.

In short, From Dust left me feeling very disappointed, as though I had truly wasted my time. I’m smarter than this. I’m more capable than this. I don’t need to be told how to move dirt around, or that lava cools and hardens into rock, which water has a tough time getting through. The hand-holding, combined with the poor presentation gave me the impression that the game developers knew how to make gameplay, graphics, cutscenes, tutorials, and all those things that games have, but knew nothing about how to craft and shape a player’s experience.

Metro 2033

Finally, of the three games here, Metro 2033 is the one that I was most expecting to enjoy, and therefore about which I am the most disappointed. First off, I should have loved the game for its setting: postapocalyptia and dystopia is my thing—I have these strange delusions that if the world were to come crashing down and I survived until the aftermath, that I would enjoy it. So having fallen in love with games like Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas, books like The Road and A Canticle for Liebowitz, and films like The Road (seriously—I love this story) and Children of Men, and even another Russian postapocalyptic game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I was certain that Metro 2033 would interest me, even if I found some flaws. I’d be able to look past them, surely.

Not so, I’m afraid. It was actually a pretty angering experience, to be honest. I played for about an hour and a half, but my gameplay kept getting interrupted by cutscenes and conversations. And even when I was playing, the movement was clunky and I didn’t feel like I was interacting with the world very much.

Let’s look at the world and the story. There are some people who hate cutscenes, and think they have no place in a game. I disagree. I think that they can be used effectively. Frankly, I’m not sure how they should be used, but I’m not ready to discount them entirely. In Metro 2033, however, they are pretty excessive. It seems like just as I’m on a roll with all of this gameplay stuff, the game interrupts me and cuts to video. And here’s the thing: the story isn’t even all that interesting. Maybe that’s partially due to the fact that a bunch of it is told, with voiceovers, during the loading screens. They couldn’t find a way to fit it in elsewhere? Maybe even another cutscene? No but seriously. The poor telling of the it all doesn’t help me to get interested in an otherwise common story: there’s a threat to humanity, so you need to go somewhere to fix it, and along the way you’re going to kill some things. Cool. I can get behind that story. I’ve played Halo, Skyrim, and all the rest. It’s really not a big deal—I’m okay. But at least tell the story well.

Before I move on, I want to mention one particularly bizarre experience—one that points to how, like with From Dust, the developers simply didn’t know how to craft a good experience. After a long mix of play and cutscenes, I finally felt like I was getting started with things. Here I was, about to set out into the metro tunnels on my way to <somewhere>, which was an important place to be, I guess. Anyway, first I needed to buy some guns. So there I am, standing in the market of my home, a metro-station-cum-fallout-shelter, surrounded by other folks. Some are standing around, some are sitting, but everyone is talking. At the same volume. As I stand in front of one weapons dealer, I can hear at least three distinct conversations going on, and with each one it sounds like the person is standing right next to me as though speaking to me directly. Imagine being engaged in conversation with someone: think about the way they speak, the volume of their voice as you two talk. Then imagine three or more people speaking to you in that same manner, all at the same time. That’s what it was like, standing there in that market. There was little accounting for distance between you and the speaker; you can hear everyone nearby loud and clear. It was an incredibly strange experience, and I wanted out as soon as possible.

I feel like I can’t say anything more than this—and I feel like I’ve already stretched my experience rather thin. When it comes down to it, I spent an hour and a half playing this game and didn’t really get anything out of it. So little happened worth talking about that I can’t help but say little. And let’s leave it at that.

A faint glimmer of hope

I wouldn’t say that I’m a huge fan of dungeon crawlers. It took me a long time to grow to love Torchlight, and I have not been interested in any other ones. The last time I kept sustained attention on a dungeon crawler was Dungeons of Dredmor, which I played for many hours last summer while on pain medication as I recovered simultaneously from a foot injury and appendicitis. Being on pain meds slows my brain down and makes me both less capable and less interested in doing mentally stimulating activities, something I discovered when I broke my ankle in my third year of undergrad and spent weeks at home on codeine trying to keep up with my calculus assignments (something that usually didn’t trouble me too much). Whoa, that anecdote really got away from me. Basically, it makes me less likely to get bored while doing something repetitive, and more likely to actually find enjoyment in the lack of mental challenge, which is why I had fun with DoD.

So my point is that dungeon crawlers don’t usually hold my attention for long, but I enjoy them while it lasts. And shortly after quitting Metro 2033, I decided to try out Legend of Grimrock. And I found myself having some fun. I don’t expect that enjoyment to stick around for long, but it was kind of nice.

Why do I say this? Because it helps to reassure me that I haven’t suddenly broken, and will never enjoy a game again. It lets me know that it’s not that I’m a grumpy man who hates games, it’s that many games don’t satisfy what I enjoy in a game, what I think a game should be like, or possible both. And it means that I can still have hope that maybe I’ll have a good time playing the other games on my todo list; games like Mass Effect 3DarksidersHeavy Rain, and many (many) others. Or maybe I just need to make my own. …More on that later.

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