Last-Gen Zeroes: Unite!S

He shaves his head. The cutscene takes ages, and my PS3’s controller shuts off from idling. I have to wake it back up again before following some annoying kid down a street. The kid shouts at me to run, but the game’s disabled my ability to do so, though not for any reason of physical injury. A few dozen feet down the relatively straight road, and I encounter another cutscene, in which he is knocked into a cesspit. I guide him up some stairs and around a corner… where we’re met with another cutscene, this one mercifully brief. Then we begin walking up an alley that must be a hundred feet or so long, but halfway up, we’re stopped, and he engages in yet another cutscene. Once that cutscene is complete, I walk to the end of the alley… where I am engaged in another cutscene, this one once again so long that my controller shuts off, which is bad news for me, because the cutscene ends with my character flying through the air shooting at people. I die the first time, just because my controller refuses to respond until I’ve no chance of survival. After I’ve killed all the people who tried to kill my character, we stalk off, engaging in another cutscene. The level ends.

It’s been about thirty-five minutes.

I’ve shot at people for three minutes, walked without combat for two.

This is Max Payne 3, and it is indicative of one of the worst problems with modern gaming.

So, to recap my Last-Gen Zero articles the last few weeks: Rockstar doesn’t write particularly well, and they’ve learned the secret of the importance of production value and how it determines positive or negative response to their game. With the release of Uncharted 2, Rockstar, like many other blockbuster designers, are inspired to begin taking even more liberties with the player’s overall experience. Being “cinematic” becomes the priority—presenting an audiovisual experience for audiences with frequent removal of player control and involvement in order to tell a story, which, y’know, might not be a problem if Max Payne 3’s story was any good, which it isn’t. As Film Crit Hulk points out, it doesn’t even have cause and effect storytelling (which is, y’know, a big part of the craft).

We’re talking about a game that has no less than five sequences where the player can’t move other than to aim at enemies, shooting at them while either the controls lock them in place (two sniper sequences, for instance), or when someone else is driving the vehicle they’re in (the bus, car, and boat sequences). Max Payne 3 is like the person who knocks on your door because knocking on doors is something people are supposed to do, but still barges in anyway. When you try to climb a ladder, the game shows you a cutscene of you climbing a ladder; it’s not as if you can decide to stop climbing and drop down or anything. No. You have to watch it done for you, because you’re not able to do it yourself. The game asks you to start shooting men on the other side of the arena… and instead of allowing you to turn to face the right angle, no, you have to watch a cutscene of your character getting into position.

Honestly, that’s the game in a nutshell.

Last-Gen Zeroes: Unite!S

Oh, sure, I could tell you how the sound design’s amazing (walk on broken glass, and you’ll hear broken glass; gunfights mean police sirens start sounding, babies start crying, and dogs start barking), how the visuals are fantastic (seriously, the game looks absolutely great, and the game’s new animation system is fairly remarkable), and how the AI is, while not on Halo or FEAR’s level, pretty good. I could break into a review of the game’s level design (often too narrow and too focused on having a cover system for the bulletdodge system to be very good; the best levels are the most open levels, which are all in New Jersey), or talk about how the controls suck (Max’s bullets don’t go where his reticle is pointing, his arms move weird in the last stand mode). Or I could talk about the problems with Last Stand Mode itself: it seems designed to alleviate the problems introduced with the cover system, like a cushion for players who want to run around doing bulletdodge stuff as frequently as they did in previous games.

In terms of the way it looks and sounds, Max Payne 3 is a win marred by a weird Tony Scott aesthetic. In terms of the way it’s written, Max Payne 3 is one of the most insultingly-bad video games I’ve played in a long time, and completely out of its depth on the issues it seeks to talk about. In terms of the way it plays, Max Payne 3 is substandard, except, perhaps, when it comes to AI.

Max Payne 3’s real problem lies in the fact that it sure seems to spend more time in cutscenes than gameplay. It’s so intent on letting you look at something cool, on trying to be a movie that it fails miserably at being a game. Much like Uncharted 2, Max Payne 3 resents the player’s intrusion upon the narrative it’s trying to tell, though, unlike Uncharted 2, Rockstar’s attempt is much more obvious. Where Naughty Dog might steal away camera control for a few moments, or cheat with platforming physics to keep up the pacing, Rockstar straight-up inserts a cutscene for all the bits. It forces you to walk, rather than run—then insults you for it, acting as if it’s your fault that you weren’t running.

Like so many games this generation, Max Payne 3 is so intent on telling a substandard story that it reduces player interaction with the experience. Games can be this tremendous, incredible force for self-reflection… and too many designers seem way more intent on telling the kind of stories that might be bundled in a $5 multi-DVD Z-movie pack in a Wal-Mart bargain bin.

And for some reason, a lot of developers demonstrate what seems like a need to make you look at the fancy things they’ve designed. I have my issues with Valve, but at least they do a good job of encouraging their players to look at the right things, through color choice, shape, sound, a knowledge of natural tendencies to look one direction or the other, and stuff like that.

I’m fairly certain that when all was said and done, Max Payne 3 was 60-70% cutscene, 40-30% gameplay.

Last-Gen Zeroes: Unite!S

When Bioware employees have spoken about their reasoning for a lack of significant player choice in games, they’ve indicated that they really, really want players to experience everything. Indeed, I seem to recall that when justifying a voiced human protagonist in Dragon Age 2, a radical change from the remarkably successful (best-selling Bioware game of all time at one point), Bioware representatives said it was because most players picked human protagonist.

I don’t really understand this. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence—a need for players to experience everything in a video game, to ensure that all the hard work that went into something goes acknowledge. Maybe it’s that same desire that seems to drive Max Payne 3: a need to tell a story and a desire to ensure that everyone experiences that story. Maybe it’s just monetary: it’s less expensive to produce so much content (though games with more content that players will never see do seem to sell quite well compared to those that don’t, so I have a hard time understanding why this perspective is so quickly justified).

Whatever the case, more and more developers seem interested in these tightly-curated stories where all the choices lead to virtually identical consequences.

All that said, it would be somewhat foolish of me to argue that a focus on presentation over everything else and a frequent desire to curate the experience through the removal of player control is everything wrong with modern console gaming. There’s more to it than that.

I love Dead Space. It’s one of my favorite brands ever. I own Dead Space mobile, Dead Space, Dead Space 2, Dead Space 2’s DLC, Dead Space 3 and its DLC, Dead Space Extraction, and had I the cash, I’d probably own all the comic books, movies, and other media tie-ins. Few franchises get me this excited—I can probably count them all on one hand—but Dead Space is a guarantee of excitement.

Or, rather, Dead Space was a guarantee of excitement.

I had the distinct misfortune of playing Dead Space 3.

Last-Gen Zeroes: Unite!S

Let’s get this out of the way: Dead Space 3’s snow stuff was not a problem, nor was the change of technology that came from exploring really old ships (to be honest, I wish they’d done more with that). If anything, it was actually a nice addition to the game’s variety. One might make a case that the invincible regenerators were terrible (I definitely would), and that the game’s final act was too drawn out (I would do this too), but that’s not what really hurt Dead Space 3.

The real problem was an issue of identity.

Dead Space’s sounds mean something. Its systems are innately familiar. Find this and you know it means that. Hear those and you know you’ve got to perform a specific action. It’s a game built on its own language which it managed to effectively convey, then rewrite and re-deliver, in the first two games. Dead Space 2 was a refinement of Dead Space, an improvement. Then along comes Dead Space 3 and things are different. Suddenly, you don’t have to find a specific ammo type, which means that you’re no longer forced to change weapons when you run out of the ammo you need for the gun you prefer. Now, power conduits are ways to find resources for a crafting system, which, by the way, means that you can make a bunch of different guns where ammo… which means that supplies don’t really matter. A fundamental portion of the series’ tension is lost because resource management is no longer a contributing factor.

Why this change, though? It’s entirely possible that the change was made because the designers thought a crafting system would be a great idea; it’s a pretty common trend in video games, after all, with everything from Rage to The Last of Us to Fallout: New Vegas to Far Cry 3having their own variant. Or, more likely, it happened because, as Visceral’s John Calhoun said, more and more people play mobile games, and the teams at EA and Visceral felt the need to appeal to that market.

To me, this seems kind of weird: mobile games are generally played in short, ten minute bursts. AAA games are generally played for much longer stretches, and one major goal of AAA developers, surely, is to keep their games from being traded in, so more people buy new copies of the game, rather than used ones. So why deliberately introduce a mechanic that appeals to people who play games for a very different reason and in very different ways? Just because I play AAA games doesn’t mean I’m going to sit squinting at my phone for three hours straight trying to play some epic Bioware-style RPG, guys. Likewise, I don’t want my single-player AAA experiences designed with microtransactions and short-term play in mind.

Last-Gen Zeroes: Unite!S

Let’s go back to Calhoun’s quote: “There’s a lot of players out there, especially players from mobile games, who are accustomed to micro-transactions. They’re like “I need this now, I want this now.” They need instant gratification.” Look at that target: “we want people who didn’t buy Dead Space before.” Go back and read the quote about Mass Effect where Bioware said Dragon Age 2 would have a better reach than Origins by mimicking Call of Duty (but not by making a deathmatch-focused, polished-combat, 60 frames-per-second game). Check out the Sneaky Bastards interview with Thief’s producer in which the consistent message is “we want people who don’t like this kind of game to buy this game.”

Do you know what happened to Dead Space 3? It sold so poorly that EA canned the franchise. Dragon Age II’s sales were so bad that retailers refused to stock a GOTY edition after Bioware asked if there was interest in one. Can you guess what will happen to Thief?

Curating the experience is bad enough, but it’s often compounded by developers and publishers who try to appeal to everyone by making concessions through illogical and/or poor design decisions. A basic rule that everyone is taught in Writing 101 is this: know your audience. This is generally understood to mean that your audience isn’t everyone, because it can’t be. Write what you write targeted for a specific group, because it’s impossible for everyone to value what you have to do.

The single-player FPS fans aren’t going to want to play some weird first-person hybrid of League of Legends and Final Fantasy. The horror enthusiasts aren’t going to buy games without horror. The RPG fans aren’t going to be happy if you design an RPG without choice and consequence. Stealth fans aren’t going to be terribly happy if you try to curate their experience by making big, loud explosions that seem antithetical to the genre.

Different people want different things, and you can’t win everyone, so stop trying. Make games for specific audiences: one of the reasons Red Dead Redemption performed as well as it did is because it felt like a Western. Mass Effect worked because it felt like a space opera. Uncharted 2 worked because it felt like a pulp adventure. Nobody else is out there exploring these genres, making these kind of games, and you know what? They sell like crazy because they’re focused on delivering a specific experience.

I take issue with the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none,” but in this situation, it absolutely applies: the more focused a game is, the more audiences will respond to it. When your game tries to reach an audience that doesn’t care, you’re going to end up selling so poorly that… yeah, retailers refuse to stock GOTY editions and you end up canceling franchises.

Now, you might argue “but games need to sell to broad audiences because they cost so much to make.” But appealing to huge audiences rarely works, so you end up with expensive games that sell poorly and franchises that die. If your game’s expensive, reduce the cost; do you know what one of the most expensive elements of a video game is? Scripted set pieces. Yeah, that’s right, developers, curation isn’t just ideologically bad, it also increases the cost of your game, encouraging you to create a less-focused experience that doesn’t appeal strongly to anyone, resulting in fewer sales.

(I just cut out a big part about how lack of focus also stems from huge teams working to crank games out on a yearly basis and why this harms the Assassin’s Creed series, but I think it’s going to become its own piece)

Developers, you’re shooting yourselves in the foot.

Last-Gen Zeroes: Unite!S

Which brings me to the third and final problem: hand-holding.

I love this video, because, you see, I am a reasonably intelligent adult, capable of figuring things out, and Egoraptor explains quite effectively how well-designed games communicate the information you need to know. It seems odd to me, then, that so many game designers feel as though I might, in fact, suffer from some sort of brain damage. “Remember,” say Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, “You need to go to the place to do the thing.” Just about every modern game features map markers that tell you where to go.

In response to my Red Dead Redemption post, Generic-User-Name pointed out that one thing that is awesome is that the game gives you maps, doesn’t tell you anything specific, and lets you figure out where treasure is buried all by yourself. He/she/it is right. That’s awesome! Good level design is an important art to crafting a great video game experience—those treasure-finding moments, the feeling that I did this, and I am awesome is one of the reasons people like Red Dead Redemption.

When you develop a game that says “hey, you, idiot, I hope you didn’t forget to walk over to the big glowing marker on your map so that you can continue this plot I’ve got for you,” don’t be surprised that people don’t love or look forward to your experiences. I love Far Cry 2 more than Far Cry 3, despite the former’s lack of polish, because the former says “here’s a world, here are some things to do, have fun.”

A recent trend in design seems to be to say “we’re very heavily inspired by Dark Souls,” but never in the way that matters. The difficulty isn’t what makes Dark Souls appealing, it’s the way that players can out think the game. Players love feeling like they’re smart and capable, and they don’t feel smart and capable when you keep saying “hey, you, I’m sure you’re very forgetful, so don’t forget to carry on with the story.”

The obvious solution is to simply allow players to turn this stuff off, but we run into a problem: these games aren’t often designed that well.

The problem with handholding is that it hasn’t encouraged good design. When players simply need to follow a map marker, designers don’t need to think quite so much about whether their level flows in a way that encourages players to go the right way or see the right thing… which means that, occasionally, designers feel the need to curate the experience, take control of the camera, and make the players look at what they want them to see, or worse, create worlds that aren’t intuitive or conducive to good exploration, which can mean that players aren’t just denied opportunities to feel smart, but can be made to feel as if they are dumb.

When I’m playing Dishonored and I can’t figure out which room my target’s in except by process of elimination, or by turning the map markers on (which means I don’t feel as compelled to explore the levels) we have a severe problem with the game’s structure. A safe middle ground between guidance and freedom is found in good design. Players should be able to navigate a game completely without map markers—imagine playing Half-Life 2 or Portal and having some pip pop up on your radar saying “GO HERE NEXT.” Would you value it as much?

Do you value games that don’t value you?

Last-Gen Zeroes: Unite!S

These three problems are, I think, what’s wrong with modern gaming in a nutshell: developers wish to present and control the audience’s experience, they want an experience that everyone will play, even though people have different tastes, and they’re not treating the audience as if it’s got intelligent people. All of these things can discourage audiences from enjoying their game, if not breed outright resentment.

So… what’s the alternative? I think a good start would be well-designed, focused games with a distinct purpose and emphasis on the importance of the audience’s role in the gameplay experience. Design that encourages the player to feel intelligent, giving the player problems to solve, would definitely win people over, and, at least where money is concerned, have the added benefit of getting people to engage in word-of-mouth advertising.

For much of this generation, these problems have plagued audiences, and the result has largely been tepid metacritic scores and weak sales (I should mention here that Max Payne 3 developer Rockstar Vancouver closed after Max Payne 3's release). A few standouts have succeeded, largely in spite of, rather than because of, those choices. I’ve got to be honest, I’m not sure how to wrap all this stuff up into a pretty bow and give it a name and say “the problem with AAA games this generation is that…” except to say this: “the problem with modern AAA games is that all too often, they treat you, the audience, like you’re not welcome within the same experience they’re inviting you to interact with. All too often, it feels as though your presence is incidental to the experience, rather than the primary motivating factor of its existence.”

Surely things can be better than that?

So. I’ve got one more negative piece coming, this time focusing on publishing, and then, I hope, it’s positive or mixed (THQ is both a hero and a zero, in my opinion) from here on out. I wasn’t actually intending to write this one, but Uncharted 2 was getting long, and someone wanted to know what I felt about Max Payne 3, and I figured I’d hit on some other games I played this week as well. As usual, you can find me on Tumblr, Twitter, and through the DocTalk tag on Kotaku. I’d appreciate eating more than a meal a day this week, so if you’re feeling generous, I sure could use a pizza or something.