Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Cutting Room Floor

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

With the advent of the DVD, it has become common practice to include deleted scenes with a movie. It is usually easy to determine why they were cut, whether it was due to the dialogue falling flat, problems with pacing, or simply because it was unnecessary to the plot or character development of the movie. Though it can be painful to amputate a scene that took a lot of hard work, the best directors know when to leave something on the cutting room floor.

It seems to be much more difficult for game designers to let go. Very few video games have no unnecessary sections, missions, or side quests. As Mitch Krpata points out in this post on Uncharted 2, part of what makes that game so fantastic is that there is so little fluff. But Uncharted 2 is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to game design.

Role-playing games provide some of the most blatant examples of unnecessary and unwarranted material. Often this superfluous content comes in the form of time-absorbing side quests. I understand the mentality that might bring a designer to include a few dull side quests: they’re entirely optional, so only the completionist will actively pursue all of them. I was once a completionist when it came to role-playing games, but pointless, hollow side quests have driven me to be considerably less thorough. Just because someone wants to experience everything a game has to offer does not mean that process should be completely mind-numbing.

There is one side quest in Dragon Age: Origins that asked me to collect twenty of a specific kind of mushroom. Here I am, trying to save the country and perhaps the world from an encroaching army of pure evil, and someone wants me to take some time off to practice amateur mycology. Even if this sounded like a fun pastime for my character, giving these mushrooms away for gold is completely counterintuitive to my character’s goals. These same mushrooms can be used to make useful potions to help in my battles against that evil army I mentioned. In other words, the task is boring and the goal is stupid. You get experience points for it, but how do I justify that to my party members? “I’m sorry you’re dying horribly because I traded in all those supplies, but I really wanted that next level up.” Most of the quests in Dragon Age can be completed on the way to more significant tasks or offer more substantial incentives for their completion, but a few should have been cut. Optional or not, boring gameplay is boring gameplay. I’m reminded of the uncharted worlds in Mass Effect.

Borderlands is a refreshingly straightforward game, in that it makes no effort to delude the player into thinking that there is some higher purpose to their actions. The goals are to find more loot and reach the next level, but this dull premise is redeemed by addictive gameplay and a fun co-operative element. This makes it easier to justify embarking on inane optional missions, since there’s no looming threat to make one hurry. Even so, some of the missions presented in the game are ridiculous even for a lowly mercenary. Shooting fecal matter off of a giant turbine does not make me feel cool. Collecting used smut magazines out of dumpsters is not an enjoyable way to spend my time. I don’t begrudge a game the opportunity to have a laugh, but joke missions should be brief so the joke doesn’t overstay its welcome. By the time I’ve trekked halfway across the map to find my third porn dumpster, I am no longer laughing. I am wondering why this made it into the game.

These are minor sins, since they can be safely ignored without detracting from the game experience. What’s even worse is when a game has required sections that are dull or counterintuitive to the game’s goals. In Assassin’s Creed 2, at several points the player is asked to tail someone, keeping an eye on them from a distance while they lead the player to a specific place. Get too close, and they will notice you, lag too far behind and you will lose track of them. This would be simply boring if they didn’t throw in multiple obstacles to your success. Guards along your path might recognize you, requiring you to blend with crowds or hire groups to distract them. This means that you spend large sections of gameplay just walking along watching someone else walk along, and if you don’t do just the right thing, you are noticed, which causes you to fail and start over. Suddenly they’re not just boring, they’re boring and irritating.

Sometimes, important plot information is being relayed by the people you are following. I appreciate the fact that these sections could be seen as a break from the running and jumping and killing, and it’s even a clever way to relay plot information without taking control from the player. But if those are the goals, why not remove some of the complications? Be more lax about the distances; remove the unnecessary barriers to completion. These are not difficult missions, so let them just be breaks from the action. I find it hard to believe that no play tester for Assassin’s Creed 2 turned to a designer and said, “This part is not fun.”

There are lessons to be learned from the cinema. If something isn’t working or doesn’t help a movie, a good director will cut it or edit it until it works. Most video games, even excellent ones, have sections that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Maybe they just need harsher editors.


  1. Sometimes menial sidequesting is sort of intended as funny or a way of poking fun at the game for being a game. I don't think collecting 20 mushrooms counts in that category. I'm thinking more of the race-a-chocobo-while-dodging-psychotic-seagulls games of FFX. Something that MOST of the sidequesting in FFX did that I always really appreciate was reveal more about the world the game took place in. Extra dungeons and missions often allowed you to learn more about places and people in Spira that helped color the universe more vividly. They also very rarely had only a simple monetary benefit. Usually side quests in FFX result in ultimate weapons and items or new spells and summons which HEAVILY impact gameplay.

    FFX is one of the only games I've seen do that well (and even it had it's frustrations. I mean, is there really time to play THIS much blitzball????) I'm not sure this is a result of poor editing so much as deliberate fluffing to artificially lengthen gameplay and encourage replays if people miss things.

    Also, I thought we were called completionists...

  2. I don't think completist or completionist is a word, but I'm open to inventing new ones. Edited to reflect Michael's preferences. Because that's the kind of dude I am.

  3. I heard that in Dragon Age, if you spent too much time on dull sidequests, Sten will claim you're wasting time, and challenge you for leadership of the party. I think he has a point - it's a nice touch!

  4. That is pretty awesome indeed, kateri. I wonder if I'll run into that, since I'm skipping the most superfluous sidequests.

  5. For the Assassins Creed 2 tail missions being boring and irritating.

    If the missions were more Lax, would it end up as dull and meaningless as the bench missions in Assassin's Creed 1? I personally think it was a fair attempt at throwing gameplay into the narrative rather than just forcing the player through another cutscene.

    Movie Vs Video Game cutting room floors.

    I don't think the two fields stand on the same floor. Where as you go into filming with a set plan(script) and film as much as you can in a given amount of time. Video games tend to be more of an on the fly development process. A movie example could be where a scene can be cut from 2 minutes to 30 seconds but still manage to convey the same plot points. Whereas in videogames, if a certain type of mission was cut altogether it might be harder for devs to fit in the narrative elements that the mission was suppose to convey. In this specific example of Assassins Creed 2, the character you are following has a tense voice and the context suggests that he is being followed. If the tail mission type were to be cut, either the voices would have to be retaken or re-used in an imaginative context that doesn't sacrifice the acting.

    Point being, I have a feeling that the cutting process in games is not as clear and dry as the one in movies. Weighing the benefits vs the side effects of cutting X or adding Y seems like a giant puzzle.

  6. Lost Odyssey.


    Talk about a mood-killer!

  7. Sorry, there should be a little "g" at the start of that string of letters.

  8. Matt,

    It's difficult to compare movie development and game development, but I think that the lessons are still transferrable. Like you said, a scene could be cut from 2 minutes to 30 seconds and still convey the same plot points. There were following missions in Assassin's Creed 2 where I was following a group of characters around for long expanses of time while they said nothing interesting, only to get a few sentences of plot-related dialogue. And worst of all, if you mess up and get caught while trailing someone, you have to restart the whole section. This could have fairly easily been pared down, without sacrificing the recorded dialogue or entertainment value.


    That Lost Odyssey section where you collected the various scattered flowers was pretty boring, alright. I have no idea how that made it into the final game. You have to wonder why no one on the development team paused, stared at their screen for a moment, and asked, "Why?"

  9. I believe that the reason behind the inclusion of these lower key quests is to give the player the ability to control the pacing of their own experience. Out of the examples you've mentioned I feel this is most likely to be true in DA:O, where players who enjoy the world exploration more than plot/combat aspects of the piece are given an excuse to engage in activities more palatable to that type of gamer.

    Not having played the game, I can't speculate on the execution of this particular quest, however it does seem like a bone thrown to a different type of gamer, who feels frustrated by unrelenting narrative pressure.


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