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