Friday, March 12, 2010

Double-Take: Forgiveness

by Daniel Bullard-Bates and C.T. Hutt

In our double-takes, we give our informal, conversational thoughts on a specific game or topic.

Daniel: I've been thinking a lot lately about what we can and cannot forgive in a video game. Games with completely inane characters, terrible writing, and paper-thin plots frequently sell extraordinarily well and even reach critical acclaim despite their obvious shortcomings, while some innovative, incredible games with compelling stories fly entirely under the radar when the only criticisms leveled against them are things like overly complicated control schemes or poor level design. This says a lot about the way we approach video games: if our ability to interact with a created world is in some way hampered, all the great writing and characters in the world cannot save a game from its faults. This makes sense, of course; in a video game, interactivity is the defining feature. If interacting isn't fun, neither is the game.

When I first started playing inFamous, the game presented huge barriers to my enjoyment of it. The controls are overly complicated, the platforming is imprecise, and the main character clings to any nearby surface automatically, regardless of my desires. Irritated with the game, I left it on the shelf for a few months while I enjoyed a few other new releases. Returning to the game over the past few days, now prepared for the obtuse controls and sticky platforming, I found myself much more capable of forgiving the problems of the title and enjoying the social commentary and ideas present. The story wasn't incredible, and the twist ending was fairly arbitrary, but in between there were some fantastic moments. In particular, I enjoyed seeing the way that both the friends of the main character (Cole) and the people of Empire City responded to his new found status as a superhero. There was a transition period in which I was feared and reviled, but as I performed helpful acts for the people of the city and my friends, the attitudes changed for the better, until I was a beloved figure who was frequently praised and photographed by strangers.

On top of that, there was some surprisingly relevant social and political commentary in the form of news flashes and propaganda, revealing a cover-up that was being presented to the rest of the world about what happened in Empire City. They went from outright lies about the nature of the disasters there to explaining which defense contractors were going to get the funding to rebuild the city in the aftermath. Nice little touches like these drew me into the world.

Many games face similar problems. Darksiders was a surprisingly fun game bogged down by overly complicated controls because it wanted to have platforming, complex combat and third person shooting all in a single game. Mirror's Edge was a great idea for a game that was spoiled almost entirely by poor level design. What I'm wondering is this: what are the unforgivable sins a video game can commit? Which games have you played which had one element that completely prevented you from enjoying an otherwise excellent game, or which games had such great redeeming qualities that you chose to overlook their major flaws? What can a video game do to be forgiven for its faults?

Chris: In terms of deal breakers nothing curdles an otherwise palatable game for me like an unbearable main character. Final Fantasy X would have been an alright game had it not been for the lilting frat-boy protagonist, Tidus. When I subconsciously want the main character to drop dead I find it almost impossible to engage in activities that keep that character alive. At a minimum I want to be able to ignore my avatar’s defective personality traits and get on with the game. When developers drop the ball on dialogue writing, character design, and story, then have me sit through an ocean of unskippable blather, it’s time to put down the controller before someone gets hurt. I am willing to take a lot of abuse from secondary and tertiary characters, but if the main character gets under my skin, that’s game over.

Repetitive level design is also a good way to make me take my time somewhere else. We’ve come a long way since Super Mario Bros., so if I am going to shell out fifty bucks I want to see a little variety in my environments, or at least in the enemies I fight. Any game which starts to feel like a boring routine rather than an enjoyable pastime is soon going to find itself shelved and forgotten.

Daniel: Does this mean you never finished Final Fantasy X? That game had a lot going for it, even if Tidus was barely tolerable. There's one element of dialogue and character that could be fixed so easily in so many games and yet is somehow still cropping up as a major issue in video games: voice acting. Even incredibly high quality titles like BioShock 2 are not immune to this problem; while I loved the character and dialogue of Augustus Sinclair in BioShock 2, his accent was just terribly, obviously fake. If an important part of a character is getting their southern gentleman accent right, then hire someone who can do said accent convincingly.

This was a major problem in Heavy Rain, a game which I otherwise loved; somehow, the digital actors were frequently more convincing than the voice actors! When you're trying to make a dramatic game set in North America, hire people who don't have to fake an American accent. It's simply inexcusable to have all the children and several of the adults in the game speak with immersion-breaking accents. The reason this flaw stands out so much to me is that it is so easy to fix. There are so many talented, unemployed actors who would work in video games for peanuts. I could introduce you to a few today. If the person you are working with cannot do the part, find someone else. There's really just no excuse for poor voice acting. Technological flaws, design flaws, and control flaws all make sense; we've only been making video games for a few decades, and technology changes all the time. Talented, realistic actors have been around for a very long time, and we live in an international community where faking an accent or acting in a second language should never be a necessity.

Chris: To my shame, I did finish Final Fantasy X. Look, it was the winter of 2002 and I was an eighteen-year-old bachelor, I wasn’t exactly busy on the weekends. I stand by my convictions that the protagonist in that title made that game a flop.

I am with you that the voice actor who did Augustus Sinclair for BioShock 2 sounded more like Foghorn Leghorn than a real person, but did that qualify as a deal breaker? No way. If you want bad voice acting have a look at the ending of Neverwinter Nights 2. After swallowing my disappointment that the sequel to Bioware’s classic fell well short of the original, I slogged my way through it. My final reward was an amateurish pictures-and-text end scene narrated by some guy who sounded like his voice was tragically stuck in the most awkward phase of adolescence. Bad voice acting is hard to forget and I am certain to think less of a game that utilizes it, but I generally don’t think of it as a deal breaker.

I think the most consistent problem I encounter that makes a game truly garbage-worthy has to do with the difficulty level. If a game is difficult because the challenges your character faces take a good deal of trial and error to figure out (i.e. Demon’s Souls), I will stick with it. If the challenges are difficult because the control scheme is awkward or unresponsive, I’m looking your way Scribblenauts, I’m often unwilling to go the distance. On the other side of the spectrum, I don’t play games that present little or no challenge. Children’s games, such as the Pokémon series, weren’t made with gamers like me in mind; small wonder that I won’t play a game past the opening sequence if it feels infantile.

Daniel: You've obviously not spent much time with Pokémon. Those games are tough! Well, not tough in a challenging sort of way, actually. Tough in a grind-forever-to-level-up-your-Pokémon-so-they-can-do-something-worthwhile sort of way. That's not really my cup of tea either.

Speaking of grinding and needlessly difficult systems, let me tell you about the game that had so many unforgivable sins that I really should have stopped playing but somehow didn't: The Last Remnant. I look back on that time in my life, as recent as it was, and am dumbfounded as to why I didn't burn that game while I had the chance. There are countless problems with The Last Remnant, including poor voice acting and an intolerably stupid main character. Actually, before I proceed, let me explain how stupid this main character was:

At the beginning of the game, he wanders onto a battlefield where he narrowly avoids death in a massive explosion that knocks him out. When he wakes up, a woman is standing near him, and she says something along the lines of, "You were caught in the battle between Prince Blah-Blah and the armies of Whatshisface, and he unleashed the remnant power of the Gae Bolg and the explosion didn't kill us but dropped us fifty feet into a cave." Of all the crazy things she said, the thing he chooses to question, as if he does not understand the nature of the thing, is, "A cave?"

But that's not the worst. The worst thing is that the game never, ever, in-game or in its documentation, teaches you how the game's systems actually work. In fact, at times the tutorials teach you to do things that run completely counterintuitive to the development of your characters. The hidden idea of the progression system is this: fighting more difficult enemies will cause your characters to become more powerful more quickly. The problem is that the game teaches you to fight every monster in the game, which can result in your characters becoming pathetically weak as they continue to fight monsters weaker than themselves. Also, a level 40 party that has been fighting weak monsters will be considerably less powerful than a level 40 party that has been fighting tough monsters, but some enemies scale to the level of your party. This can result in the game becoming completely impossible to win with no warning whatsoever.

I lost twenty hours in that game, became unable to progress, and had to restart from the beginning using an online guide which had actually reasoned out the madness that went into this idiotic design. The correct way to play was to carefully avoid every normal monster in the game and grind for hours by fighting specific, incredibly difficult enemies over and over again. I have no idea why I subjected myself to another sixty hours or so of that idiotic game, but I kicked its ass. I think it was vengeance that drove me. I wanted to show that stupid game that I wasn't going to take any shit from it. I then traded it in immediately, and I would not recommend it to anyone but an obsessive-compulsive masochist whose life I wished to destroy.

Chris: All in all, the concept of forgiving the flaws in our games is personal. It’s easy to recognize when a game has lost our interest, but it is difficult to define the lines in the sand which developers must not cross. Ultimately, as with most artistic expressions, I think that we can give up on a game if there is any one aspect of it that is so distracting that we cannot see the piece as a whole. If there were one dancer in a ballet who had an extra head, you would probably watch them for the entire show. Likewise, if a flutist showed up to a performance of the London Symphony Orchestra four sheets to the wind drunk, that’s what you would tell your friends about the next day.

Video games are, by necessity, collaborative works. It’s no surprise that in many cases some aspects of a game turn out better than others. For a game to be playable it’s not that everything has to be perfect, far from it; the only reasonable expectations gamers can have of developers is that they balance out their efforts so that the strengths of a game outweigh the flaws.


  1. The dialogue you mention from The Last Remnant reminds me of one of my major beefs with Xenosaga. So many of the conversations in that game, particularly the ones involving the main character, boiled down to somebody saying "blah blah blah the X" and somebody else (usually the main character) asking "The X?" Of course, in the case of Xenosaga, "X" would be some word that referenced the ideas of Jung or the gnostics without displaying any actual understanding of their ideas, not "a cave", but the effect was no less irritating for that.

  2. That Last Remnant system also reminds me of Dead Rising. I love the game, but it never explains the leveling system very well at all. It just asks if you want to reload your last save or start the game over. Also, if you fail one of the main missions, the game story essentially ends for you. It does not explain that when you restart the game you are at your same level and that most likely you will need to do this several times before you can finish the game. Luckily, I had a friend who figured it out and explained it to me.

    The only game I can think of that I had to stop playing was Silent Hill 2. Got it after hearing all the praise, but did not realize I needed to run away from most monsters. I tried killing three monsters with a stick and failed.


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