I’ve come to believe strongly in a particular rule taught to me by wiser gamers. The rule states that “if a game wants to entice me, to keep me playing, then it cannot assume I have nothing better to do than to play video games.” It’s hard phrase to describe exactly what the phrase means, but it pertains to certain bad things modern games like to do. Sometimes they’re done to artificially lengthen playtime, sometimes they’re done to help introduce new players. Sometimes it is to enhance the cinematic nature of the game, or to keep things “realistic.” Whether they are done because of a current trend, or to try to overcome a particular design hurdle, these additions hurt more than they help. They can cause repetition, make the player jump through hoops, and completely destroy any suspension of disbelief. We play so that we can get away, to do things we couldn’t do otherwise, but that doesn’t mean we want to spend that time dealing with bullshit.
If you want a concrete example of what I mean, look no further than Free Radical’s Second Sight. Popping up during a small trend of games with psychic powers (including Psi-Ops and Psychonauts), Second Sight is a trip into the generic. It manages to take almost every dumb design choice I can think of and stuffs them into a slideshow of generic 3rd person stages. Add in Free Radical’s trademark cleverness and humor, and the game still manages to fail. If there’s a compelling reason to play this game, it is to observe just how many bad ideas from modern game design can creep into one release. Let’s go through them by list (lazy I know, but so is the game).
Unskippable Cutscenes – At least when you see them for the first time. Nothing spells interactive entertainment like watching movie clips some players will not care about. Considering the quality of the story, that’s probably going to account for a lot of you. Let’s just say it involves government experiments with psychic powers, a failed military operation and one rogue test subject trying to make things right. Hollywood would laugh at this one, or at the very least try and do it better. It’s a shame too, because the voice acting is sometimes very good (and at other times pure stereotype), and Free Radical’s lovably goofy character models animate incredibly well (displaying human mannerisms instead of just flailing limbs around during speech). The credits praise the story as an original concept by Grand Pooba David Doak, but he and his team prove to be lacking in their ability to create good original IP. I guess they got lost and confused after Goldeneye.
Where was I…. oh yeah, the cutscenes. It’s annoying to sit through them, doubly so since the ending and opening cinematics between levels bleed together into one unskippable mass, so if you ever quit the game you’re going to have to rewatch something sooner or later.
Tutorial Levels – Time was when no game ever had a tutorial. You either read the instructions or figured it out yourself. This wasn’t just because controls were much simpler at the time; even old PC games that used every key on the keyboard wouldn’t bother to hold your hand. This was often a bad thing (it’s one of the things keeping me from starting X-Com), but as gaming evolved to the point where almost every genre has a tutorial of some sort, I’m actually wishing they’d go away. That’s because in this day and age, neither gamers nor publishers give a shit about instructions booklets, and control schemes become far too complicated for their own good. Since no one can be trusted to figure things out for themselves, the player is often forced to play through training.
And so tutorials mean completing a lot of arbitrary tasks, like learning to jump before you can proceed, and any useful techniques you actually learn aren’t worth all the target practice and ladder climbing you’ll go through beforehand. Second Sight is doubly troublesome, as it makes you go through two training levels, one to learn your psychic powers, the other to learn how to sneak and shoot. They are both very safe, very obvious, and very mundane, and while you can technically skip them after the first playthrough (you can select levels at the title), if you lose your save you’re SOL. It would be nice if they were just made optional, but that would likely create a scenario that would conflict with the story, and we can’t have that now can we?
Fourth Wall Fear and Narrative Nonsense – So very much of this tedious and patronizing game design is due to a reluctance to compromise the game setting. Modern games are desperate to seem realistic. This is why we have mandatory tutorials that are fitted to the narrative (instead of focusing on teaching the player), and is why it’s taboo to ever tell the player “Press space to jump” (though everyone still does it). I can understand the intentions behind this approach. What I can’t understand is how developers that use this approach then continue to add other, equally ridiculous things into their “realistic” game world that still shatter any suspension of disbelief. Second Sight is chock full of them.
The devs want to give you clues as to what to do, so they have the protagonist constantly talk to himself, saying silly things like, “These doctors won’t recognize who I am” right in front of the doctors! The second training mission has you run through military boot camp, where you learn to perfectly sneak past armed soldiers, perform great acrobatic feats, and fire and operate firearms with pinpoint accuracy, despite the fact that the hero is a scientist who has never done any of these things in all his life. Does he ever question this? Yes, actually, and then he precedes to crawl through sewer drains to tranquilize troops. Throughout the rest of the game, he kills scores of armed and unarmed men, and only once does he ever reflect on it, and never does it seem to change his character. He fights Russians in 1997 and yet everything you pick up is a Soviet weapon. What. The. Hell.
These problems are not unique to Second Sight. They are a list of things that plague so many modern games that I would not dare to count them all. How is any of this less damaging to immersion and believability than it is to tell the player to “Hold A to charge your laser”? Before we worry about breaking the narrative, we need to have some that are actually worth protecting.
If all of this wasn’t enough, there is the simple fact that Second Sight isn’t very fun. It is a generic blend of sneaking and straight action, where enemies are dumb and weak and the hero is as strong and durable as a tank. The psychic powers are mostly things we’ve seen before, especially if you’ve played any game involving Jedi Knights. There are a few outstanding puzzles that require clever use of your powers, but there aren’t many, and you may find them frustrating when they involve abilities you haven’t used in several hours (another design flaw I despise). By the time you’ve gotten through the research lab, the asylum, the military bases and the ghetto, you’ll swear you’re just replaying some other game.
Often times we have better things to do than play videogames, but even in our hobby there are less insulting experiences than Second Sight.