Gameplay as Filler: Wasting Your Time

There is a game that has a superbly balanced structure that could be held up as an ideal if forcing every game into a template weren’t a bad idea. That game is Mass Effect 3. Hold up, I’m not talking about the content itself or the ending or any of that stuff we like to argue about. I’m referring only to its framing. ME3 is essentially several large groupings of vignettes (missions) with very significant quiet character-focused portions in between. The weighting and balance are quite good, and the missions are not usually longer than 15 or 20 minutes — meaning it never gets bogged down in exhaustingly extended sequences of shootin’ bros. It moves at an efficient pace, and trips to the Citadel for dancing at the club and shooting contests in the Presidium and hotel sex are great for pacing.

The most prominent success of Mass Effect 3’s structure is there is a reason to do every story mission. Shepard and the Normandy and her crew are better than anyone else at dealing with problems. It just makes sense that Shepard would be doing all these various things, and since none of these various things take long in real time to do, it feels efficient. Even though there are N7 missions and stupid errands that are less justifiable, those don’t represent significant padding. Mass Effect 3 may still be too long, but at least it’s tightly presented.

It all comes down to a simple idea: if a campaign chapter takes an hour to finish but could lose 30 minutes without missing any story or character beats, then it’s wasting time. Games are filled with “in-between” portions, i.e. you play through the parts that come between the spots in the story that hold the most relevance. It’s the opposite of storytelling economy, but as with The Lord of The Rings sometimes those sections, or “the journey”, are the point (see: Half-Life, Fallout), and sometimes it’s just annoying and pointless while diluting the overall experience (see: Bioshock Infinite, Remember Me).

This is a long-running epidemic and not a new problem (pretty much any old CRPG actually wasted more player time than modern WRPG styles do), but it isn’t noted as a problem too often because it is the norm. Being normal doesn’t make it not a waste of time, though. When any other example of a storytelling medium is qualitatively or quantitatively unbalanced the way games tend to be — say if an action sequence drags on 20 minutes too long or the acting is bad or all the character moments are missing — then they get called out. The video game bar, though, is set too low. And so “so many things to do, not enough framework for all of them” — i.e. time-wasting busywork — is just seen as “what games are like.”

Games as tests of skill or endurance that consume your time is not an inherently evil concept, don’t get me wrong. But the moment you decide to strap a plot on your game you’ve created new artistic obligations for yourself, even if we as a subculture don’t collectively acknowledge it. When AMC’s “The Walking Dead” show spends a whole season spinning the wheels of plot by having everyone wander around aimlessly in the woods, it’s generally accepted to be a bad thing. When Assassin’s Creed IV spends an equivalent amount of time doing that by having you fight and board 10 or 15 enemy ships before you’re fully equipped for the next part of the story, it’s generally just accepted.

But spinning the wheels and wasting time rarely makes for good art. And maybe all that wheel spinning is the reason for low campaign completion rates (under 30 percent for Black Flag, which is well below average for a AAA title), and in turn contributes to low adoption rates for story DLC — why would you pick up Freedom Cry if you don’t finish Kenway’s story?

The goal should be to craft a tight, focused experience without the sort of fat that is pointless detours and extra combat. Because when you tell the story in the most effective way possible, the whole of what you’ve made will improve as the feeling of grind and repetition washes away. We need story games that keep the player interested because the plot and characters are so tightly wound with those things the player is required to do. Regardless of gameplay genre or the type of story being told, that’s how to make a truly “better” campaign.

Follow Phil Owen’s crusade on Twitter at @philrowen

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16 Comments on Gameplay as Filler: Wasting Your Time

Michal

On February 4, 2014 at 4:12 pm

I think that Mass Efect 3 suffered from repetitive combat situations – every time in every mission you are running through some halls or other narrow “corridors”, and when you get to open space with crates or kneehigh walls, that could be used as cover, battle ensues. And throughout the battle waves of enemies are coming periodically in the same line-up.
First Mass Effect implements gameplay in the story and story in the gameplay much better. For example, there is no separation, where and when you can use your gun or where and when you can be ambushed by enemies. You can enjoy your nice walk to the bar on Citadel and in split second you are fighting some krogan gang.

Swcloud99

On February 4, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Word.
There is nothing else to say.

quicktooth

On February 4, 2014 at 7:38 pm

I’m sorry but your basic premise is entirely wrong. I in fact DO play games for their stories. In part this is because movies, comics and books have sunk into a mire of sleazy manipulation in place of decent plots (and characterization and so on), and have little to no quality in any case. Games are where all the smart and talented people (who aren’t Peter Jackson and company) have gone. So yes. I literally DO play games for their stories, and it isn’t a code phrase for anything at all. And I resent that you’d assume anything else is true.

psycros

On February 4, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Manhacks. That is all.

BigtheGangsterCat

On February 4, 2014 at 10:17 pm

@quicktooth
Amen brotha

@Phil Owen

I’m with quicktooth on this. When I was a lad I played Sega Genesis titles for the gameplay originally, but then when the playstation came out my concept changed. My first game on that gen of consoles was Spyro The Dragon. I played that game because I wanted to defeat Gnasty Gnorc I wanted to see how the story would unfold, same goes for the sequels Ripto’s Rage and Year of the Dragon. To this day I still play games for the stories that’s one of the reasons I’ll never play ASSassins creed IV because I believe that after Desmond Miles died the plot-line died too. Though some gameplay that is a filler is totally horsesh*t like Alice: Madness Returns where it takes like an hour to beat a whole level and all you’re doing is hacking, slashing, shooting, and whatever. While I do agree that stories should tie the characters and whatnot together, it ain’t true that we ALLLLLLLLLLL gamers use that phrase as some sort of code for our disappointment in a game.

SXO

On February 5, 2014 at 6:46 am

I have to applaud Mr. Phil Owen for such a well written article, and the arguments put forth are well stated, even though I don’t agree completely with it. I actually enjoy some of the “filler” gameplay in some games (keyword: some). And some games don’t really need much story to be entertaining, just have enough to tie things together (e.g. Borderlands, Far Cry 4: Blood Dragon). Ofcourse this is just my humble opinion, and I still think this article is great.

MarkEMark

On February 5, 2014 at 3:35 pm

I want to bring up LA Noire.

First the negative points about it and then why I think it deserves a mention in this article.

I remember playing it and enjoying it immensely but thinking about it afterwards the way the story wrapped up was pretty weak and the “twist” makes it non-replayable knowing a lot of your work with the homicide squad (the most fun part of the game) becomes irrelevant.

The game is also guilty of having a lot of filler. Many of the gunfights in the game felt out of place and the side missions feel tacked on.

BUT I felt a breakthrough was made in the story/gameplay relationship.

There were consequences to getting things wrong which made the story unfold slightly differently depending on which clues you were able to spot and which inconsistencies in the various interviews you had that you noticed.

It’s a shame that a game developer hasn’t taken what worked in LA Noire to the next level.

emryssyrme

On February 6, 2014 at 2:57 am

Another typically negative article from Game front. You’ve spent the last year criticizing every game that everyone had loved. Leave it to the hopeless nerds (me included) to nitpick these perceived shortcomings. This ongoing tend of printing mean, needlessly negative articles has far outstayed its welcome. While some of these games strive to push the genre/medium forward in New and exciting ways, you all seem compelled to stifle that by turning their fans against them. At this point I can only see it as a cynical attempt to get more traffic through your site (the irony of this post is not lost on new).

Phil, you are the worst offender in this regard. Do you even enjoy video games?

Ron Whitaker

On February 6, 2014 at 11:30 am

@emryssyrme – I’m intrigued by this comment. A couple of things:

First, “While some of these games strive to push the genre/medium forward in New and exciting ways” – Can you name one game that tried to push the medium forward in 2013? Certainly it wasn’t anything in the AAA space. Perhaps an indie somewhere? I’d like to hear what you think.

Second, we’re not negative in some of our articles for hits, or because we want to be mean. We’re negative because criticism is what pushes the medium forward. Gaming right now is stuck in a rut, and it’s going to take a concerted effort from every gamer to push it out. Do you really want a future filled with Assassin’s Creed clones? We already have that, and it’s not good.

Dan Miller

On February 6, 2014 at 12:48 pm

“It all comes down to a simple idea: if a campaign chapter takes an hour to finish but could lose 30 minutes without missing any story or character beats, then it’s wasting time.”

Was reading every word before this sentence a waste of my time, using your article as a template for application of this concept?

No, right? It provided the necessary context to fully appreciate the sentence and crux of the article. And I totally agree with your assessments of the games that came out this year. But I do disagree strongly with the notion that a game should be as precise and pointed as you suggest.

We are talking about games as vessel for delivery of a story here, and I’ll deign to throw the word “art” into this comment since, well, you went there first, so there!

Here’s where it falls apart for me: “The goal should be to craft a tight, focused experience without the sort of fat that is pointless detours and extra combat. Because when you tell the story in the most effective way possible…” Whoa whoa whoa. Effective = tight, focused. Not sure about that part. This isn’t writing, and if it… were… might… we… differ… in our opinions of how to effectively deliver a message? James Joyce would never take out those ellipses! He’s dead. He definitely wouldn’t crack a dead author joke at the end of his point.

So anyway, it’s all moot because those games you mentioned did, indeed, suck, and AC IV was, indeed, a steaming pile of grindy bull. But I’m here to say that the in-between parts of games are almost exclusively what differentiates the medium from others. I can’t interrupt a (good) plot in a game, mid cutscene. But spending Valentine’s Day with Chie in Persona 4 Golden did change my experience of the (inevitable, unavoidable, unaltered by my choices) ending. It was, dare I say, “super effective”.

Phucksake

On February 6, 2014 at 12:59 pm

It’s hard to tell what the point of this article even is. Phil repeatedly contradicts himself to the point of parody, suggesting in one sentence that storytelling in games is fundamentally broken then praising Mass Effect 3 despite it being one of the dirt-worst examples of videogame storytelling in the last few years. Not to mention moaning about BioShock because it’s too long for him while, again, praising Mass Effect for the same thing. So is the problem that storytelling is weak, or that there’s too much of it? Does he want character engagement and involvement (which, by association, means more avenues by which the player can connect with them) or does he want tighter and more focused narratives that are shorter and more linear? It seems Phil can’t decide what he wants, which is something that is apparent in most of his editorials.

Phil Owen

On February 6, 2014 at 1:07 pm

@Dan

Believe it or not, you aren’t disagreeing with me in spirit. I didn’t say “remove the in-between bits.” I said they are too long, happen too often, are too repetitive. Game length is padded by gameplay without regard to the story being told. We can debate specific examples of where that works and where it doesn’t (there’s a reason I chose the examples I did, breh), but speaking GENERALLY most games are bloated similarly to Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. This does not make them by definition bad, but they’re bloated nonetheless.

Dan Miller

On February 6, 2014 at 2:41 pm

@Phil

Cool. I’m sure we generally agree that meaningless in-between bits, clunked on to a story, are bad. Game length should always be an outcome, not a goal. Would be interesting to do a follow up article on where you see those “in between” pieces working, or where their success is such that they transcend the feeling of being “in between”.

T. Jetfuel

On February 8, 2014 at 8:19 am

Oh no no no no.

So there I was, reading the first page of this article, nodding along, thinking that Mr. Owen really is on to something here. I haven’t actually played the games mentioned for various reasons (like for example, not daring to play Bioshock Infinite despite owning the game, because frankly it looks wickedly motion sickness-inducing), but then again, it’s not like these alleged faults are unique to these specific games. But then he does his obligatory ME3 Fanboy Rally. And that just demonstrates a failure of discernment that makes the argument look kinda suspect. I get that this discussion is not about the game-pulverizing narrative failures that made ME3 a proverb and a byword in the annals of franchise arson. But really, praising the game that had Shepard skulk around the Citadel eavesdropping for cues to trigger opportunities for THAT system scanning minigame as an example of filler-free game design is just… a tragic example of “Indoctrination”, perhaps. I mean, I sort of get it; I’ve been known to make all kinds of excuses for stuff that I like. But enough is enough.

Having said that, there is definitely a worthwhile point somewhere in here, and I think I’m pretty much in agreement with what I take to be the main gist of the criticism here (excluding the weird ME3 love, obviously). I’m just a little worried that this will be perceived as just a call for more “story progression” to go with the gameplay, a prescription that might well overlook some real problems with both of these aspects by presenting the issue as a question of the proportionality of their mix. As it happens, the Assassin’s Creed franchise demonstrates some of these problems extremely clearly, so let’s talk Ass Creed for a moment.

Now, as I mentioned, I haven’t played AC4 yet (maybe I will if and when I go next.. er… current gen with PS4 at some point), but I have played all of the other 6(!) games available for PS3/360/PC, including Liberation HD. And the arc from AC1 to Lib HD does really demonstrate the increasing detachment of the gameplay from the story, while Ubisoft seem to be cramming more of what they perceive as each of these into the games. And it doesn’t appear to be making the games better. But the solution is not really an intensified attempt to tie the mechanics into the story progression. As a matter of fact, there might not BE a solution to what ails this series, not as long as they keep churning them out at the rate they are. That’s 6 games, counting Liberation, in the slightly over 4 year period from AC2 in the fall of 2009 to Liberation HD in January 2014. This is where the problem lies.

Now it is possible to chalk this up to simple boredom with the constant AC releases, but there seems to be more to it than this, for me at least. The things I enjoyed about the first couple of AC games have not simply “got old”, they are getting shunted aside and lost among a grab bag of random mechanisms that do not really coalesce into a coherent whole like the initial games. Thus it looks to me as if someone new to the series is not getting the same awesome experience I had with AC1, “now with 209% improved innovations!”

I do admit to a certain nostalgia for AC1, it was my personal introduction to a generation of gaming, and I still recall the awe of, say, seeing Damascus for the first time and knowing that eventually the whole city would be free to roam, climbing that cathedral in Acre etc. So I guess that my critical faculties are somewhat compromised in this case. But the thing is, it’s those kinds of moments that I recall with a warm sentimental glow, not the progression of the story. Similarly with AC2, I don’t really remember all the details of the plot. But I do remember how cool it was to parkour around those beautiful renaissance cities. And let’s not forget building up Monteriggioni. That was sweet.

So I guess a big draw in those games was just navigating that badAssassin in impressive surroundings, although there was an adequate plot to the proceedings as well. So what happened? Well, Ubisoft decided to milk the series dry and lost sight of the appeal it had in the first place. They probably drew some sort of a graph and decided “needs moar gameplay + moar plot!” and then delegated each part to a separate studio on a separate continent (seriously, no game company does Corporate Behemoth like Ubi… just try sitting through one of their 45 minute credit sequences: “Senior Assistant Deputy Pipeline Consultant to the Worldwide Overreach Division” and on and on), severing all “essential unity” (ancient critical concept) of the work in question. And thus we get the enragingly specific “constraints” to “Full Sync” (a terrible idea from the start in BroHood) numbingly linear missions, seemingly perversely reveling in the very weaknesses of the controls as a “challenge” (“Free run through narrow pathway holding Get Snagged On Obstacles Button while not getting snagged on obstacles!” Yay!) on the one hand, and the multiplication of increasingly irrelevant collectibles on the other. (Why is Aveline stealing Voodoo Dolls when dressed as a slave? And why for the love of Godfrey Jones is she going around semi(?)-prostituting herself for necklaces? I seriously expected to get a “Citizen E” scene: “That’s not all that happened on that balcony!”, with a funky wah-wah soundtrack starting up as she gets down to business. Oh, and the expensive-looking necklaces are worth 0 in the economy of the game.)

Meanwhile, the gameplay that made AC the game it was in the first place is steadily eroding. The climbing-on-stuff is no longer a central mechanic. If anything, AC3 discouraged climbing on the humble shacks it had, with impassable ledges and initiating tiresome 80-guard chases by guard positioning. You would either have to fight an army or jump in the water and swim to the edge of the map to shake them, as new guard types would just deny traditional AC methods like hiding. Sure, there was tree running, but even that was treated like something of pro forma concession to franchise history. Just see Aveline zip through the just-so positioned tree branches in Lib with a speed that is frankly comical. There is very much a feeling of “Let’s get this over with, so we can get back to chasing a mission marker step by step. And cutscenes, because that’s Storytelling!” And now Assassin’s Creed is all about the pirating, of course.

This is happening because of the rate Ubisoft keeps pumping these games out. We’ve all seen the parkour before, so they are scrambling for New Stuff like den defense and sailing. But there is no longer a unifying center to these games, and just wishing for them to tie the random elements more tightly to a story progression is just not going to fix it. And that’s why later AC games are not going to be as cool as the old ones were, even to a fresh audience. They just don’t hang together in a satisfying way.

Wow, I really got my ramble on here. Thanks to the few who took the time to read through this. Just one last thing: Playboy had pretty good articles at one time. It was just difficult to focus on them, for some mysterious reason.

Edward

On March 13, 2014 at 5:47 am

I agree. I really wish they would cut the fat. Crawling through miles-long dungeons in RPGs is one of the biggest offenders.