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Endings: A Descent

Batman Arkham City

Last week my second 360 core model died the death. The first suffered the dreaded red ring of death. This one caught the lesser known but equally terminal error 74. Thankfully it was under guarantee so I got my money back and trade up to a slim model. The guy behind the counter gleefully recounted the tale of one regular customer who’d been through 13 of the old models before the slims arrived. Shame on you Microsoft.

There are three things I’m annoyed about after trading up. The first is that I didn’t have The Last of Us on my radar and get a PS3 instead. The most serious is the loud “ping” noise the console makes when you turn it on or open the tray with the console buttons. It’s loud enough to wake my kids up, so now I have to turn on the console with the remote and make sure I have the disc I want to play already in there before bedtime. I’m amazed gaming parents the world over haven’t registered screaming outrage over this.

The final issue is the save games that I lost. Yes, I could have got a transfer cable but that’s additional expense. A save about half-way through Bioshock was a minor annoyance because I didn’t care all that much for the game. Somewhat more dispiriting was the loss of a three-quarter done save of Arkham Asylum, a game I wouldn’t rave over but was certainly enjoying.

So I will now never see the end of Arkham Asylum. And what struck me, the more I dwelt on it, was the fact that I didn’t particularly care. I’d had fun with the game but after maybe ten hours with it, I was actually pretty much done. I was going through the motions just to see the story, which wasn’t enormously compelling in the first place, conclude. And the sudden removal of that pressure turned out to be something of a relief.

It wasn’t so long ago that this idea was complete anathema to me. If I liked a game, I was damn well going to play it until it was finished just to get my money’s worth out of it. I pursued this goal doggedly even when the arrival of children seriously curtailed my gaming time.

I can recall in my one and only JTS podcast appearance (damn you, global time differences) relating the tale of how I replayed and replayed and replayed the notorious Meat Circus level of Psychonauts well beyond the point of enjoyment and well into the realm of fury and frustration. I felt compelled to overcome the challenge simply because it was there.


It’s a bit like staying with a film you’re really not enjoying until it’s done, except that it takes much longer to complete a game than it does a film. So while psychologically it might be the same, in reality it’s far more tedious and damaging.

And it bears repeating that, in spite of what repeated consumption of highly cinematic AAA titles might make us feel, videogames are not films. What differentiates them is the degree of interactivity and challenge that a game can give, making you feel part and parcel of the story rather than passively consuming it.

And that differentiator is key. Film started out like theatre, but evolved into its own art form when pioneers began to think about what it could do differently, and exploited those differences to make great movies. Games, whatever they share with cinema, are no different. What makes a great game great isn’t in the cinematics, it’s in the dialogue between the choices and actions of the player and the game.

So if the story isn’t the ultimate arbiter of the quality of a game, why do so many of us feel the need to unreel the whole thing to the bitter end in order to feel we’ve properly finished a game. Surely the correct measure is the point at which we’ve become bored with the play mechanics.

When viewed through this prism a lot of other slightly troubling things melt away. It explains, for instance, why people carry on playing games even when they’ve finished them, whether it’s a replay on a harder difficulty setting, installing a mod, or just carrying on with goal-free experimentation in sandbox games.

It also throws into stark relief one of the ongoing issues with cinema-style games which is only going to get worse with the next generation. For a long time I’ve felt there was life in the AAA model going forward simply because there was so much cinematic space unexplored. Even the most thought provoking games at the moment are pathetically immature compared with the artistry of the best movies. And Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again that tired old formulas can remain surprisingly entertaining if delivered with enough flair and skill.

But my increasing disinterest in games for the sake of their plot alone suggests this isn’t going to be enough. The interactivity with the unfolding story that a game allows us is hugely powerful, and it strips storytellers of some of the most effective tools they have for engaging the audience. The challenge that’s integral to that interactivity has to be there too, properly integrated, and it’s here that AAA games are increasingly failing to provide innovation.

The mobile model that’s been eating chunks out of consoles in recent years is precisely the opposite. It doesn’t lack in terms of mechanical creativity, but I find the lack of narrative and detail, of old-fashioned art, means many titles have terrifyingly short shelf-lives. What we need is for the next generation of consoles and PC games to grow and mature in both mechanics and cinematics, and perhaps most importantly of all to master that strange gray space that unites the two.

The forced ending to my time with Arkham Asylum has actually started to feel like a lifted weight. I can finally lay to rest the nagging ghosts of many other games that I almost played to completion but, for one reason or another, had to abandon. I just hope that it isn’t the seeds of an excuse to abandon the narrative appeal of games in their entirety.

Syndicate in Review- Bifurcated Design

My review of Syndicate is up over at the House Mad Catz Built. The long and short of the B- write up is that it’s two decent but not particularly outstanding halves welded together to form a gestalt product that is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a bifurcated design. I really liked what I saw in the early hours as I reported here in my impressions last week, but going the distance with the game revealed a low ceiling over a host of underdeveloped, undernourished ideas. This got me thinking about how utterly screwed up it is that developers are pressured- either internally or externally- to deliver fully realized single player and multiplayer games in a one-size-fits-all package, particularly in the FPS genre.

The reviews of any number of action games with “tacked on” single or multiplayer suites bear out the fact that this approach does not work, particularly when the game types are very different or incongruous. Syndicate is another game that splits its resources between two halves, weakening its own strengths. It’s hardly an overall failure and it’s definitely a “good” game, but neither half is exceptional. Or complementary.

If Starbreeze had designed Syndicate strictly as a four-player co-op game with a short-form mission structure, deeper customization, variation akin to Left 4 Dead, bots, and more content all around, I think it could have been an A-grade game. But somebody- whether it was EA or Starbreeze- wanted this game to follow on with this bifurcated design concept. Syndicate offers two suites of decent but unexceptional content instead of focusing on core competencies and doing what it does best.

The model isn’t exactly new. Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, and any number of games in the 1990s had this sort of dual-purpose design, but we’re also talking about a time when the cost of developing, making, and marketing games even at the highest levels of the business was literally millions of dollars less than it is today. It probably cost a lot of money to design levels, assets, and gameplay components for Syndicate’s single-player game, not to mention paying for music, voice acting, writing production design, playtesting, and other costs. And all of those resources could have- and should have- been brought to bear on the stronger co-op game. Or, the entire single-player game should have been scuttled and the co-op game released as a $15 download with optional content purchases. As it stands, the single player game feels like a tremendous waste while the co-op area feels lean and hungry.

When you’re looking at development budgets and project plans on a Call of Duty or Halo scale, having a “complete” package that appeals to the broadest audience possible and that has offerings for any type of player coming into the game makes sense. At this level of sales and public expectation, it’s good business to divide development and resources between these two areas. Yet we still see time and time again that the single player tends to be the weaker part, because when you get right down to it it’s the multiplayer component that provides longevity and fosters brand loyalty- not to mention long-term monetization and fewer aftermarket copies in circulation. Simply put the ROI on a strong multiplayer component is far better and long-term than what comes out of a strong single player game.

Then there is the issue that comes up every time a AAA shooter comes out where some people inevitably comment about how they never touch either the single or multiplayer part of the game. And then there’s folks like me that do both. Why are we all being sold the same $60 product again?

The games that fall outside of the Halo/Call of Duty tier are the ones where splitting development along these lines hurts them the most. Did Dead Space 2 or Bioshock 2 really need multiplayer? Has anyone checked in on those servers lately to see if there’s anyone playing them? Could the resources spent to create those multiplayer games have been better utilized elsewhere? It seems like such a waste- both of those games had very strong single-player content, and then a slapdash multiplayer that serves little purpose beyond filling in a bulletpoint and likely appeasing some guy in a suit somewhere.

The point of this is that games like Syndicate are shooting themselves in the foot by adhering to this fragmented product model. Purpose-built games that are very specific and limited in focus are the ones that tend to be the best. Not every game should have a single player campaign, and not every game should have a multiplayer option. If you’re going to half or quarter ass it- witness the single-player “challenges” in Gotham City Imposters, which are nonsense like checkpoint races in a game that should be a strictly multiplayer shooter- then don’t do it at all.

Granted, this doesn’t all fall at the feet of developers and publishers. Whenever there’s public outcry about a game not having a campaign or not having multiplayer, game makers respond. When the top-selling games mostly have extensive multiplayer, then that’s the success trend and it will be followed. When there’s money to be made from one type of game or another, they’ll keep doing this. And as Mass Effect 3 hits next week with a full-on multiplayer game in its traditionally single-player mix, it’ll be interesting to see if BioWare has weakened the single-player content of what will certainly be one of the top-selling and best reviewed titles of2012 by bifurcating its development.