Gameplay as Filler: Wasting Your Time
“I look at Playboy for the articles.”
That line was a cute little joke for a long time, and a comment not usually intended sincerely. I think today in gaming we have what people see as our own variation on that: “I play games for that stories.” People do sincerely mean that one, though; it’s the people who disagree who think it’s a joke.
But “I play games for the stories” isn’t really a literal statement, and it truly just reflects a desire for all aspects of a game to be balanced and of level quality. That sentiment is very meaningful because so few games strike a decent balance, or even attempt to do so, between gameplay and presentation — historically, games are weighted heavily toward gameplay at the expense of plot and character development. The people unhappy with that fact say “I play games for the stories” as a code phrase — because quite frankly our time is being severely wasted by padded story campaigns that contain far more gameplay than actual content.
What we call for is a more fully coherent media package, and not more extended and mindnumbingly repetitive gameplay sequences bookended by obligatory minute-long cutscenes that explain what you’re doing. The imbalance is not in too much gameplay, period, or too few cutscenes, period, but in gameplay that is unwarranted within the narrative, obstructs the narrative and lessens enjoyment of the entire experience by simply adding more of what’s already there just to meet an arbitrary game length benchmark. Tossing in an extra 15 minutes of utterly unremarkable battles is a detriment, not an advantage. Expanding a story’s length should actually expand a story’s length, know what I mean?
The Last of Us, placed on the pedestal of “high game storytelling,” is still more game-oriented than story-oriented — it is long stealth combat sequences with dialogue thrown in here and cutscenes inserted there. It is not balanced, and the various elements do not always cooperate as they should. And that’s Naughty Dog of all studios doing that; the main appeal of their products this past gen has decidedly NOT been their gameplay design but the stories and characters they wrote, brought to life by premier game actors like Troy Baker and Nolan North. And despite The Last of Us having a story that is seemingly championed by all, its completion rate is just about perfectly average at 44 percent.
But The Last of Us is a minor offender in the grand scheme, though still worth noting given its universally acclaimed status. Other “loved” titles from 2013 are much, much worse though.
Take Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which traded ACIII’s heavily curated story mission scenarios for story missions that were either 1) one of the many generic time-wasting OCD activities Ubisoft is becoming known for, 2) a linear pathway along which you must walk/clear out the bad guys or 3) eavesdropping. On top of that, the player is forced to grind some of those generic activities (most often attacking and boarding enemy ships) in between missions just to be able to complete them. Upgrades are a requirement, not an optional convenience. ACIV is the definitive time-wasting story game of the new age.
BioShock Infinite: I’ve discussed this one at length but it bears repeating just how egregious an offender Irrational’s latest really is. You fight through thousands of cops and random monster-things because Ken Levine thinks a skill element is important to any game but he couldn’t think of anything better than that. You use vigors because the original Bioshock had plasmids. You have to fight that ghost four times because…? What does any of that have to do with the story being told? The connection is tenuous, outside of the part where an actual war is going on. Otherwise, the gameplay is what it is out of obligation, and it drags on because somebody decided it needed to take 12 hours to beat. There are some neat sci-fi ideas scattered throughout the experience that get lost because the shooting-to-talking ratio is so comically skewed toward shooting.
Tomb Raider: This story is told in media res, and when this nominal reboot does eventually deign to flash back to character moments, there’s so little actual character development I was left wondering why Crystal Dynamics even bothered. So much was made about this alleged Lara Croft origin story, but we’re never given that because Tomb Raider 2013 is actually the story of Generic Female Action Hero killing, climbing, solving dumb puzzles and falling down the mountain. It’s a game about tasks not characters. That might be OK (see: Half-Life) if it hadn’t been presented as specifically a game about Lara being refreshed and having a character arc. Screaming “RUN, YOU BASTARDS! I’M COMING FOR YOU ALL!” is not a character arc. It’s a nice moment, but there was no real personality benchmark for Lara in the text before that point.