Assuming control. If you’ve played Mass Effect 2, you’ve heard a giant, ugly crab monster gutturally wrench out this expression over and over and over as he mind hacks the peons that make up his mutant alien death squad. I like that I can cover up not actually remembering the beloved-by-all game’s finer details with humor and irreverence. Anyway, I’m not planning to talk about Mass Effect 2, but I am planning to warn against pointy-legged crabbed monsters with suspiciously glowing eyes; or, alternatively, the cessation of control.
When the hype for Deus Ex: Human Revolution was choo-chooing along full bore, I definitely tossed enough scratch for an economy class seat just to see where it was heading. Unfortunately, I found it fell short of the destination I expected, and one of the small, niggling things that bothered me so much is something I mentioned in my review. To quote myself,
“I had an uneasy feeling from the onset. After leaving the room you start the game in, Jensen is meant to follow lead researcher Megan Reed through the facility, drinking in exposition through their dialog and the occasional interjection by bystanding scientists. However, as soon as you leave the room, Jensen leaves your control. It’s one of those scenes where characters fixedly walk at a seemingly glacial pace and have a conversation while you only have brief camera control.
“It’s a cutscene, really, but without any of the cinematic benefits of a cutscene, and with all of the cessation of control. As a design choice, it feels both antiquated and contrary to the design philosophy of player agency that I had expected coming into the game. It was a long walk and not having to control Jensen left me unengaged, whereas if I was given control over him I would’ve giddily and gladly followed along like an enthused puppy dog, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”
Having still not played Half-Life, which I hear tell is a terrible affront to the gods, I didn’t have that classic, picturesque revelation of being able to wander about while being talked at, but I recognize the issue. And I’m sure at least some of the people who made the game had played Half-Life, so I’m not sure what their excuse is. Regardless, I’ve found myself struggling against instances like this, particularly with the new trend in mainstream games of dully guiding you between Crazy Awesome Thing and Crazy Awesome Thing, slapping your hand anytime you try to do anything interesting (like, not walk forward down dutifully scripted corridors).
That ground can be straddled if you do it properly and I’m not at all against cinematics. The Uncharted series blends fully cinematic cutscenes with dialogue-in-motion and exciting sequences that leave you in control in what you’d otherwise expect is a cutscene, like when you’re sliding down a fast crumbling ancient ruin trying to shoot at yetis. Bioshock did it well by emphasizing your powerlessness on two levels, leaving your communications relegated to through closed door and over radio affairs, and then of course offering a contextualized moment of subjugation; a man chooses, a slave obeys, so they say. It’s the “doing it well” that seems to be the big issue, particularly amidst the current zeitgeist.
Assassin’s Creed 3 managed to deliver one of the most egregious examples of this badly scripted design I’ve ever seen in, unfortunately for it and for players, what is meant to be the climax. No spoilers. You’re chasing a guy who needs chasing ensconced in a whole lot of pomp and circumstance meant to cover up a stylishly vacuous game. Explosions boom and make your character stumble in a groan-inducing lengthy animation, soldiers stand in rows blocking the street but trying to go in a different direction than Right at the Guys With Guns leads to a quick “desynchronization” (the awkwardly named fail state). Oh, and you’re not allowed to catch him before the game is ready. Wait, what?
Indeed, if you fail this tiny strip of gameplay enough times to where you actually become skilled at putting up with its bad design to the point where you can catch up to your mark, Connor will just awkwardly dry hump the man he’s given everything to kill until the man turns a corner in the chase sequence and that character model disappears and is replaced with one that’s ahead of you again. On its own, the segment was overbearing, stupid, restrictive, and poorly designed, but when you actually see the seams it somehow becomes more insulting. The game asks you to chase a man you’re meant to hate, but you’re not allowed to kill him until you chase him all the way to where he’s meant to be chased so some arbitrary coincidence-bordering-on-deus-ex-machina can come along and extend things. It makes sense. Ubisoft has a story to tell and wants it told how it wants it told, but if they’re going to be that fastidious about it they could at least be fastidious about, say, designing well.
Dishonored, on the other hand, is a lovely game and a return to the (original) Deus Ex and Thief styles of semi-open first person mostly-stealth-but-you-can-play-other-ways-too-I-guess gameplay. It’s not perfect, and in some manners it regresses from the games it derives from in an attempt to placate a mainstream audience dulled by the rote drone of being leash-drawn. One side mission tasked me with dropping plague rat viscera in a bootlegger’s distillery, poisoning his gang, but I felt it prudent to suss out the ramifications of such an act so I took great pains to swipe the rat guts, but refrained from poising the distillery and instead carried on with my main mission. Much to my chagrin, I returned to the same locale a few more times, even to the distillery per a branch of my main objective, but the rat mush was nowhere to be found in my inventory and the distillery remained quite unpoisoned, along with the degenerates who ran it, despite my intention to end their lives.
Still, by and large the game is very, very good and a great step back in the direction we should be heading. Games like Journey don’t intrude on you at all, games like Bioshock can contextualize it interestingly, and games like Uncharted know when they should and when they shouldn’t. Developers need to trust they’ve made an interesting enough game that the player wants to walk with key characters and pick up on conversation, as well as recognize that not everyone cares what two people have to say and that that is okay, too. Literally putting the player on rails with a restricted range of vision comparable to someone in a neck brace is not the solution, particularly when there’s no reason for it. Unless Jensen is actually a mental patient and was being wheeled in wrapped under restraints and I missed the clever, underlying metaphor of it all.