Stop the presses, everyone, I’ve figured out a new thing about modern triple-A game design that annoys me. Yes, another one to add to the pile. This is one that I’ve been seeing a lot lately in games with RPG elements, particularly open-world ones, but straight RPGs have been guilty of it also. So without further ado, here’s the annoyance, and I’m going to deliver it in the form of a commandment.
“And the Lord spake, ‘If thy game hath RPG elements, thou shalt not devote large sections of it to gameplay that is not affected by the RPG elements in the slightest, and whose difficulty is not reduced by the player’s level of experience and upgrades, for it completely misses the point of character building, you ninnies’. And the ninnies knew that the Lord spake truth, and hung their ninny heads in shame.’
This came to mind after I’d finished Far Cry 4‘s main story. I was feeling thoroughly anti-climaxed, so I went and did whatever major side stuff was left. And what I quickly discovered was that half of them were insultingly easy, because after a game’s worth of upgrades I could destroy anything in my path by shooting a one-handed grenade launcher from a gyrocopter and then picking off the stragglers with the best LMG in the game. None of which I’m complaining about because that’s exactly the kind of cathartic violence you want in post-ending fuckabouts mode. Thought you could gun me down from your mounted vehicle turret while I was trying to hunt devil fish with C4, did you, standard enemy? Impromptu carpet bombing for you!
But the other half of the stuff that was left seemed to be gameplay that didn’t give two shits for what upgrades I’d bought. There were the missions the two stoner guys give you that aren’t much more than a cross-country run, and a sequence of missions retelling an ancient legend in which you’re in an entirely different place controlling an entirely different character. And if you ask me, a game that’s centrally about doing things that develop your character having lengthy asides where your development is irrelevant (gosh that almost rhymed) is just jerking off.
Now, it’s not a deal-breaker. Saint’s Row 4 does it as well, and yes, I have been quite vocal in my love of that game in the aftermath of Sunset Overdrive, partly out of a feeling that I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. But Saint’s Row 4 is all about the sandbox, and you spend a lot of your time bouncing around collecting tokens that you use to upgrade your superpowers. Throwing more and more ridiculous powers at you as the game continues is one of the ways they keep the energy up. So why-oh-why-oh-why did the game routinely strip all those powers from you for the duration of certain plot missions and activities? What is the point of putting the time in if I can’t be allowed to enjoy the benefits?
It’s not just in sandboxes, as I said. I noticed something similar in the latest Mario and Luigi game, Dream Team; the climactic battle of the game takes place as a sort of giant monster battle incorporating a tug-of-war fight followed by a toited-up game of air hockey of all things, but none of it had anything to do with the standard gameplay. The power of your strikes was unrelated to how many points you’d sunk into Attack throughout the course of the game. And that left me a little put out, because when I’d engaged every single random enemy for another in a long series of samey battles, it had been on the assumption that it was going towards the larger effort, not for the fun of it. Christ, no.
It’s important for the broad gameplay model to be cohesive. In sandbox games in particular, surely the entire point of doing the side activities is to in some way bolster your character even further against upcoming tribulations, even if it’s just with a token handful of money or XP. What these games are doing is sacrificing that on the altar of saleable gameplay gimmicks, or a no-twat-left-behind policy that will happily dump the essential challenge if it means Joe Shitthumbs will play it for one second longer.
I do understand that, in a particularly loose sandbox game where you’re free to do anything, missions need to be designed on the assumption that the player could be at literally any skill and upgrade level; that they could be diligently faffing about for hours or speeding from each critical path mission straight to the next one. If you have something like the prison mission in Far Cry 4, where the player is trapped in the mission until it is completed, then you wouldn’t want to design it on the assumption that the player had reached a certain level of ability, because the critical path lazyspods would find it too hard and get trapped there. But surely that’s simple enough to compensate for with some design structuring. Just make a few gateway missions leading up to it that get increasingly hard, and which the player can escape from to do a bit more grinding if they’re not up to it.
My point is, there’s got to be a middleground between alienating the minimalist player and leaving large chunks of gameplay free-floating separately from the all-important difficulty curve. If you sacrifice cohesion, then the game takes on the qualities of a toybox, or toddler activity centre for grown-ups, where all the activities exist solely for the sake of completing them, and not as part of an arc. Maybe that’s not an utterly invalid design philosophy, maybe there are players who do just want to idly mess about with the shiny stones on the beach. I can only speak for myself, and my investment in video games lies in my love of interactive narrative, in both the organic and inorganic sense.
I don’t like games that set out to merely idly occupy my attention indefinitely, I want a sense of getting from A to B. To know that everything I do and achieve is in some way helping me move a little bit closer to that grand, all-encompassing B. I like the sense of being pushed through the mangle to emerge anew, changed, on the other side. I don’t want the mangle to stop for ten minutes half-way and give me a Rubik’s cube to fiddle with while I wait.