Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pac-....*blam blam blam*....-ing

It seems to be all the rage right now for AAA developers to try and ape the style of Hollywood blockbusters. Games like the Uncharted series are doing so a little more openly, but increasingly almost every big budget title seems to be taking lessons from Hollywood schlock, from the flashy setpieces to the cliché characters and dialogue.

Putting aside the question of whether videogames really ought to be aspiring to be more like Hollywood, for the most part I don't have a problem with this cross-pollination. Peter Jackson's King Kong game was a breath of fresh air, and I had a blast with Uncharted 2. I think there are many elements of blockbusters that work well in a videogame medium. Story structure is one of the things which does not.

Most good action movies follow a basic structure along these lines: You start with a big action scene to get everyone's attention and stifle their ADD; you throw in some scenes to establish the setting and characters, some action to show the heroes in their element, until things start spiraling out of control; put in a couple of quiet scenes to make the characters less one-dimensional; something goes wrong and everything seems hopeless, the heroes get mad at one another; then, when all seems lost, the protagonist gathers everyone and everything together for a final desperate stand and wins the day at the last possible second, using a nugget of wisdom he learned along the way.

Works great for a 90-120 minute move. Now try stretching that formula over an 8-12 hour game. The most ubiquitous method is to pad out the action sequences to ludicrous proportions. Most games make me feel like I'm watching a cut of Die Hard where every time McClain encounters the terrorists, he has to kill hordes of them for 45 minutes before the plot can resume. This can cause a weird disconnect where the Nathan Drake of the cutscenes is a plucky adventurer whereas the Nathan Drake of the fighting sections is a serial murderer. Another common method for addressing the problem is to make the plot so ridiculously convoluted that it takes a whole 12 hours to play out, but most games that go this route don't seem to stir sufficiently and you get lengthy clumps of repetitive action floating in a large bowl of nonsense and exposition.

Weird pacing in videogames is definitely not a new problem, but the more we've tried to mimic film conventions, the more it's begun to stand out as something that isn't working. Through their interactive nature (and sketchy Skinnerian techniques) videogame worlds can draw us in better than films can, allowing them to waste our time with hour-long fetch quests, and room after room of identical goons.

And it's our fault. Not just because we put up with it, but because we constantly criticize games for being too short, and commend them for being lengthy. When's the last time someone complained that Casablanca was too short? Do people love The Godfather because it's 3 hours long? I understand wanting to get value for your money, but I'm more concerned with getting value for my time.

Despite the success of Portal and Braid, I don't expect shorter game-length to be embraced anytime soon, so what are some ways of keeping an 8-12 hour experience from dragging? Well, the issue isn't the length itself, but the pacing. So how should a videogame be paced?

Most RPGs, particularly hefty 30+ hour RPGs, are liberally sprinkled with "sidequests," optional missions that distract from the main plot. The fact that these quests have only tangential connection to the main quest is important, because they help break up the action and flesh out the gameworld without having to increase the complexity of the main story. (In JRPGs, sidequest-like sections are often mandatory, but this isn't that important to the issue of pacing, assuming the sidequests are compelling enough that you'll do them regardless.) For the record, I find the pacing in most RPGs even worse than in action games, but the method by which a game like Persona 3 can keep you interested for 100 hours(!) is by providing an overarching plot, with lots of smaller plots strategically sprinkled throughout, similar to the way TV shows generally have an overarching plot with smaller story arcs occupying individual episodes and seasons.

In fact I would argue that TV shows could provide a much better template for videogames than films, at least in terms of pacing and storytelling. The average season of a TV show is comparable in length to the average action game, and both are written with natural stopping points in mind (episodes/levels, though in videogames there is more flexibility). Characters in action/adventure movies have to be drawn in broad strokes, because there isn't time to develop a cast of fully-realized human beings. TV and videogames don't have this restriction. Benjamin Linus (Lost) and Lex Luthor (Smallville) are well-developed and interesting villains who would both come across as completely milquetoast in a summer blockbuster.

The other suggestion I will make is to mix up gameplay better. Most games have two to four different types of activities, be they shooting, platforming, exploring, driving, macrame, etc. I nearly gave up on Mass Effect (one of my all-time favorites) when, right after the first mission, it had me wandering around talking to random NPCs on a space station for literally hours, and my housemate did give up at this point despite my assurances that it got better. It's not that wandering around talking to random NPCs is inherently a boring activity (which it is), but rather that any type of activity has a tendency to become boring after that length of time.

It's also important to recognize that "quiet bits" in action films are not automatically analogous to "quiet bits" in videogames. Having a conversation scene sandwiched between two action sequences is not the same as having a section of backtracking sandwiched in between two action sequences; In the one case, I'm getting to know the characters, in the other, I'm watching a guy walk down a series of hallways. Please embrace the jump-cut, or at least lay dialogue over the backtracking.

I recently purchased the much lauded Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as well as the much reviled Apha Protocol (which was on sale for a single dollar). Alpha Protocol has no shortage of problems: technical glitches, a broken upgrade system, an almost incomprehensible plot, dodgy AI. And yet I've currently put three times as many hours into it as I have into HuRev. Why? Because when I put a couple of hours into Alpha Protocol, I complete a few spy missions, uncover some secrets, make some friends and enemies, and buy some cool spy gear. Most of the time I've put into HuRev so far has involved wandering around talking to random NPCs.

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