My finger is far from the pulse of gaming, I don’t really care for cutting edge or brand new – I’m more interested in fun, carnage and immersiveness and that can come from two months ago or two decades ago. But as of late I feel somewhat lost at sea. There are less games making a good impression on me and a number of them leaving my wallet lighter for the pitiful replayability and often worse, just plain ‘playability’. In this post I’m hoping to pick apart a few games I’ve recently played and try to understand what’s going wrong.
I’ll be the first to admit, I have an atrocious attention span and that the only game to ever really have fully taken over my time, and to dangerous levels, was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, within the space of one week (that’s 168 hours) I managed to rack up eighty-eight hours of playtime. Now that might not sound too bad, that still leaves me eighty hours free time, but I was studying for my degree at University, working a part-time job and obviously; sleeping.
My solution to this rather perilous predicament was to give the game up entirely, there was no way I was going to safely allot myself suitable playing hours, so that was that. The most impressive thing I found with Oblivion was the fact it wasn’t my kind of game. It, at the time, appeared to me as some kind of wishy-washy-Dungeon-and-Dragon-ogre-fest which I felt belonged to a spectrum of nerds who would carry twelve-sided die and speak Klingon fluently. In short, not really my cup of tea – but I was pleasantly surprised and I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a thieving Argonian bowman, but why is it that the games that I feel should appeal to me just don’t perform?
What games appeal to me? First person shooters mainly; automatic rifles, blood and guts, explosions and shattering glass all make for a game that’ll grab my attention. It’s fun to be the big-shot action hero, gunning everyone and anything down. Each of the following three games I’m going to discuss each have their own merits for initially catching my eye but they all seem to have a common problem that left me disappointed, the games I’ll be discussing are; Bioshock (2007), Left 4 Dead (2008) and Call of Duty: World at War (2008).
Starting with Bioshock, object of intense repugnance, I feel somewhat ill whenever I consider booting up the game because I loathe the characters, their hideous artistic style and the ridiculously repetitive act of traipsing around the same rooms over and over and over again until you finally want to lure a charging Big Daddy towards one of the ocean-facing windows and deftly dodge like a skilled bullfighting matador as you sink the ill-conceived city of Stupidity. Unfortunately my belief cannot be suspended high enough, long enough or far enough for me to comprehend a city under the sea – ‘Yes’, I’ll buy into mind-control and shooting bees out your hand (Why these are more plausible to me, I’m not sure) but a city under the sea… it strikes me as similar to sci-fi space travel, it just doesn’t work for me because common sense just says that it can’t be possible, while plasmids are fantasy enough to work properly.
My main gripe about Bioshock is that you’re always pipped at the post by Andrew Ryan, something always goes wrong or is necessary to be found before you can proceed and it means you’re doing a lot of walking around the same locations with the feeling of very little pay-off. At first I thought it was just me, everyone I spoke to seemed to think the game was so delightful – then I spoke to my Dad – my Dad has only recently taken up gaming and so when he got frustrated with Bioshock he thought it was simply due being new to games; basically he felt he still had a lot to figure out about how to play games properly and when he wound up wandering through corridors three, four times he thought he was doing something wrong.
Bioshock’s problem is that it expects you to perform not only boring tasks, but to perform them so many times they become a chore. I still haven’t completed Bioshock and probably never will, I’ve already heard as much of the story as I’m willing to and I don’t think the ending is going to be anything mind blowing. I feel bad that not only did my Dad waste his money on it, but so too did I – the way in which the story is conveyed to you is fairly lazy, the tasks are repetitive and the saddest part of all; what could have been a truly immense gaming experience was a watered-down (pun!) dull-fest that angered more than it entertained.
Next up is Left 4 Dead which arrived with only four campaign levels, now I’m trying to avoid being over critical about this game, because it’s very different from most others. It’s the kind of game that you’re not supposed to play every night or you will burn out and find it repetitive – my online acquaintances and I found this out first hand when we binged on it for just under a week. Feeling that we’d never enjoy it again, about one month later we returned and it felt fresh and exciting again, now with the addition of Survival mode it’s had a slight boost but it still remains a very samey experience. It’s often the case that everyone wants to take the same route they’ve taken in the past, not that there are many deviations from the set path of safe room to safe room, but it’d be nice to perhaps force a change of tactic every now and then.
Now I know Valve track statistics for their games but I don’t know if this kind of thing is involved, but hear me out;
Andy, Bob, Caroline and David all play Left 4 Dead – they are all friends, but they rarely play together as they have their own circle of gamer friends. One night they all decide to get together and attempt the No Mercy campaign on Expert. They’re all skilled enough to handle it and they all know the route like the back of their hand but Andy, Bob and Caroline always take Route A. David, being a bit adventurous, takes Route A or B depending on where he feels like exploring. So the team set off, suffer a few knock-downs and scrape their way through before the pivotal choice of Route A or B, wouldn’t it be lovely if the game calculated the number of times per game each player has taken Route A and throw them a curve ball? Route A is now blocked, something collapsed, there’s a huge fire in the way – something to actually say ‘Sorry, you’ve come this way so many times and had an easy ride; this time you’re going to retrace your steps and go to Route B just so you’re getting a bit of variety and another little challenge’.
Now, the idea is hardly refined – but that’s probably why I’m not working in the games industry – the basic premise is there though, shake things up a little bit, force us to go other routes and do other things. I really enjoy Left 4 Dead but it’s a shame that so often chasing after the group Rambo because he knows how to finish the level in double-time. It’d be fantastic if you were to follow a route only to get the horrid realisation that a horde was on its way and someone had crashed a gas-tanker right into your path. The next issue, while I’ll speak shorlty on before moving onto my next game, is character relatability.
What I’m getting at is the fact that Left 4 Dead was praised for its (and I paraphrase) standard survival horror characters, a motley crew of young and old with different viewpoints who must come together in order to survive, the problem is it doesn’t seem to build upon them as relatable, likable people – As one friend pointed out while I was in the process of writing the article, for starters they all just seem too cheery to be in the grips of a zombie apocalypse; no-one is truly scared, they’re all just cocky. Perhaps the problem is I’ve not been spoon-fed my storyline and as such fill in the blanks with my own negativity – but these people bash out witty one-liners while they relish the murder of their fellow human beings. That’s what assholes like Rhodes or Steel would do, and you know what – Those guys die, man. They get eaten right up by Yukky Zombos. Not for me.
Left 4 Dead is entertaining, don’t get me wrong – It’s an incredibly fun game when played with the right kind of people (and there’s no way I’m going to blame the developers for not shipping three friends with every purchase) but it just seems to fall sort of the mark, for me. The game doesn’t frighten me because I’m in a zombie apocalypse and might be ripped apart – it frightens me because the characters are apathetic whackos from the Church of Death and Destruction.
Which brings us aptly to Call of Duty: World at War. Most of the disciples of the Church of Death and Destruction (i.e., the Americans) are understandably aggrieved by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The problem may be that I am not an American, but that said; I am not a Russian, nor an Englishman and when I was involved in the campaigns in previous Calls of Duty (Call of Duties?) I felt a connection to the characters; I was the man in the front-line, this was my life at stake as I cowered in trenches, charged with bayonets and done the unspeakable to countless Gerries with guns intended for tanks. World at War didn’t give me this connection whatsoever, I felt like a rampant dog in a kitten hospice; “Here’s your gun, Johnny. Have a racist-slur on the house, then go pop some heads.” was the message conveyed to me and I didn’t like it one bit. When you can’t relate to the character it shatters the illusion, leaving you feeling that the actions you’re performing aren’t quite as relevant and the decisions you make don’t really affect your gaming experience.
Replayability is a major factor here, too – I don’t know anyone who owns World at War on PC, so I’m not inclined to even try the co-operative mode – once I finished a level on singleplayer I wouldn’t consider going back to attempt the mission again; the concept of doing so seeming futile and somewhat disturbing. As much as I enjoyed Keifer Sutherland’s shouty Jack Bauerisms the finale for the Americans left me feeling like I’d been in this predictable little situation before; I suppose heroism is all fun and games but predictability’s a major constraint for it too. The Night of the Undead is a tasteless cash-in by Treyarch who must have felt they needed to ‘get there first’ in terms of co-operative survival horror – it makes me very thankful to know that Infinity Ward will be handling Modern Warfare 2, hopefully heralding a return to form.
So why aren’t these games consuming my time like Oblivion once did?
My understanding is that they’re all too repetitive – in hindsight I’d say I don’t mind it with Left 4 Dead because it’s an experience with every new game, throwing new players into the mix means you’ve got some people who’re genuinely terrified, some who’re so confident it’s a blow to the team when they finally get pulled to bits and some who don’t mind sacraficing themselves to save the other three. Bioshock has been a major disappointment and is what originally got my writing mind into action – every tasks seems so similar to the last, and while most games do this to an extent they manage to mask it well and make it seem purposeful, why I ever walked into the gates of Rapture I’ll never understand – I should have stood on that concrete block and waited for rescue. Maybe I just hate Treyarch for making World at War far too much like gung-ho patriotic garbage, but whatever the reason, it doesn’t hold my attention.
The real issue I’m finding now is, how do I possibly choose a game to purchase when they all come out with such marvellous, high review scores; Bioshock bags a 96 through Meta-Critic, World at War an 83 and Left 4 Dead an 89. It doesn’t really add up, market hype means we go out and buy these games thinking they’ll be fantastic and market rules say we can’t take them back once we’ve opened them. Hopefully my next purchase turns out to be one that will garner a favourable post, but we’ll see.
[Artwork Copyright, Alex Flores @ http://alexarte.com%5D