Why Most Games Are Boring After the First Hour
Last Sunday I was sitting on the couch playing "Infamous" in a near-catatonic state, staring glassy-eyed at the television screen, thinking what I almost always think during the final third of any videogame: I can't wait for this thing to be finished so I can get on with my damn life.
And I like "Infamous" a lot. Or, rather, I liked it. It's not a bad game. It is, in fact, one of the best games I've played this year.
That said, I obviously haven't enjoyed the game as a whole. Truth is, I liked the first three or four hours. Then a toe-tapping tedium set in. The gist of my experience with "Infamous": I did some things that were exciting and novel. Then I did some more things that were exciting and novel. And then I kind of did the same thing over and over again for a very, very long time.
Crispy Fact: This is a condition from which approximately 99 percent of all games suffer.
I absolutely love starting new games. There's nothing I love more than breaking them out of shrinkwrap and popping them into my console for that first time. I love the opening levels of even the crummiest games. I love the flush of getting my first Achievements and/or Trophies.
These moments are like the first months of a new relationship. You're unbelievably optimistic at this point. It's all hopes and dreams, followed by more hopes. I imagine our future together, me and this game. The nights the two of us will spend together! Blissfully challenging and entertaining one another for hours, whispering sweet nothings, the glasses of zinfandel on the beach at Hedonism...
Oops. Got a little carried away there. Sorry.
After those first levels, after those opening hours, a cold reality sets in. The game starts letting you down in some significant way. It starts yelling at you for leaving the toilet seat up, or for using the same knife in the butter that you used in the jam. Those hopes and dreams? They get replaced with cliched, self-help-style pep talks. You keep on playing, and tell yourself: "Hey, buddy, you knew this was going to be work." And when the final boss in Level 6 beats you for the 10th time in a row, you say: "Hey, pal, no one ever said this was going to be easy."
The truth is, I finish most games because it's my job to finish them. I'm numb -- yes, numb -- during the final credits. I don't feel anything. That tells me that there's something seriously wrong with our medium.
Why, after those opening moments of glory, are so many games about as exciting as drinking your own bathwater?
It's almost endearing to watch games try to ape the dramatic structure established by Aristotle's "Ars Poetica" and Freytag's pyramid. (What's that sound? Can you hear it? It's the sound of a thousand gamers ceasing to read something all at once.) Put on your pretension helmet, kids, and bear with me here. It's like watching fourth-graders try to put on a school production of Mamet. (Which I've never seen, but would very much like to see.)
Let's see, you've got your exposition, your rising action, your climax, your falling action, and your resolution or denouement. Most games are great at the exposition part, the rising-action part and the climax part. In fact, all of these things typically happen in the first level alone of most games. Look at any of the Super Mario Bros. or Contra games: You've got bad guys, mini-boss, more bad-guys, big boss.
But after this, developers don't have a clue about where to turn or what to do. So, in doubt, they almost always resort to what they are most familiar with: more exposition (bad guys), more climaxes (mini-bosses/bosses) and then still more exposition (more bad guys, only these ones are a different color and wear weird hats).
Even "BioShock," one of the great games of all time, is watered down by repetition and -- dare I say it -- is needlessly padded out during its final third. Videogames aren't condensed, efficient, just-the-facts entertainments. They're gassy. They're expansive. They repeat more than my uncle Jack does after eating his beloved pickles.
Victor Lucas and I were discussing this recently, and he posited this theory: "What matters most to publishers and developers are the review scores," he said. "So developers front-load their games with their best stuff during the first 20 percent of the game. Because they know that most game reviewers don't have the time or the energy to play beyond that initial 20 percent. Their goal is to make the best first impression that they can, giving the game the best chance possible for a higher score on Metacritic."
Victor also pointed to an all-too-common ploy that developers use these days: Let the gamer start off with all of the character's powers in the game's opening moments, then take them away by opening the second level with the words "10 days earlier..." A recent example: "Prototype." "It's cheap, sure," he said. "But that glimpse of your powered-up character is really all most game reviewers need to see."
I know from my series of Intern for a Day stories that games aren't developed in a linear fashion. All parts of a game, all levels -- the beginnings, the middles and the end levels -- are usually developed simultaneously. In other words, when 2K Boston was making "BioShock," one team was creating the beginning of the game while another team was already working on the end of the game. So, if you encounter a section of a game that's less interesting, it more than likely means that the team who worked on that section might not have been as, shall we say, inspired as the other teams were.
I'm also going to point the finger at multiplayer here. (I love blaming multiplayer for all of the world's evils, FYI.) With the advent of multiplayer, and with critics forever crying "foul" whenever a game neglects to include multiplayer (something I patently disagree with; witness the aberration that is "BioShock 2's" multiplayer), I'm guessing that developers have become so concerned that their game is going to be docked for not featuring multiplayer that they unnecessarily devote man- and woman-power, and valuable resources, to its creation -- to the detriment of the rest of the game. Instead of developing a great third act for their games, most developers conflate the third act with multiplayer. Translation: Instead of creating a bona-fide slam-bang-holy-crap-this-is-awesome finish, they make the mistake of thinking of multiplayer as the game's third act.
What happens is that we end up playing a repetitive, never-ending, numbing second act -- this basically describes every game in existence -- instead of getting any kind of tangible, dramatic or interesting final payoff.
And that's not acceptable anymore.
One particularly encouraging sign: The size of a game, the definition of what qualifies as a game, is now more flexible than it's ever been before. Tiny games like what I'm seeing on the iPhone are often the opposite of console games; they are efficient, condensed, just-the-facts entertainments. Games come in more sizes and shapes and price points now than they ever have before. And when a two-hour, 99-cent game in the App Store proves to be more satisfying than a 40-hour, $60 experience on a console, gamers -- and developers -- have to learn from that.
I also think development teams need to hire dedicated editors. You know, someone whose sole purpose it is to monitor the gameplay experience being created, and decide what things can be edited out -- entire levels, enemies, environments, etc.; anything that's needlessly slowing down the overall dramatic thrust of the game.
Imagine playing a game that was only an hour long -- but it was a whittled-down, white-knuckle, palm-sweat-inducing, cornea-scorching hour of entertainment.
Would you pay $60 for that?
I would. Gladly.
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