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Less Content, More Game

The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind from Bethesda is a prime example of a game that would have been better with less content

Last weekend, I had the enormous pleasure of gathering up all my old Xbox stuff and passing it on to a friend for his children to enjoy. Pulling my old games off the shelf, I encountered Morrowind and quite suddenly was struck by what an enormous waste the game represented. A fantastically detailed, living, breathing fantasy world over which you could walk or fly in its entirety, exploring to your hearts content. And yet, in spite of running several characters over many hours of play, I never finished it because the game was fundamentally flawed.

Some of those flaws are well documented. The character building system was fatally undermined by the ease with which you could build super-powerful characters, and by the way it sidelined mages. A senseless economic system that forced players to either beggar themselves or utilise built-in Easter Eggs. But those, surely, should be nothing more than a minor annoyances in a game that’s defined largely by its immense scope and story. As I stood there gazing down at the box it occurred to me that the game was in fact simply crushed under the weight of its own ambition.

Morrowind sold itself on creating a realistically immersive fantasy world, and invested immense time and effort to that end. Every square inch of the island was mapped, every inhabitant named and given a home, different people in different places had fates that would intertwine in unusual and evocative ways. I cannot begin to imagine how on earth all that detail was authored and programmed and managed before making it into the game. But the illusion which all that detail was supposed to maintain was constantly shattered at fundamental levels. When you talked to all those individually named people, they just repeated things from a tiny stock of phrases related to their location and allegiances. Many of them never left their homes, or never went in them. No-one ever went to bed. When you were on a quest, the quest giver would wait in perpetuity for you to complete the task. Worse, you could often completely undermine the quest and still complete it. Wherever you went, whatever you did, you were constantly reminded that you were just playing a game in a computer generated world, with all the limitations that implies.

Skyrim made minor improvements in realism over its predecessors but still fell well short of the mark, as demonstrated by the bucket on head trick
Skyrim was supposed to change all that with its radiant story technology, but it largely failed to live up to its promises. What was supposed to happen was that characters in the game world would react to your actions and reputations in a more realistic manner. What actually happened is that the game engine tied itself in knots over trying to understand your intentions, exemplified by the lovely anecdote from one player about the time he accidentally stole a book, put it straight back on the shelves, and then spent several hours fighting off hired thugs that the bookstore owner kept sending after him to recover the book. And radiant stories could do nothing about the fundamental unrealities that still riddled your interactions with the game environment, such as the now infamous exploit where you could put a bucket over someone’s head and they would stand quietly while you looted their house or shop. Simply put, modern technology has never been, and is still not, anywhere close to the level where it can mimic a vaguely realistic web of human interactions on the level that Bethesda keep attempting and as a result the central conceit of the Elder Scroll series has always been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, false.

The same is true of the wealth of side quests in the game series. One of the key reasons I never progressed very far in Morrowind is that I spent inordinate amounts of time wandering off the beaten track and fulfilling tediously boilerplate side quests for petty rewards. The game sold itself on the number of these sorts of things on offer, but the reality was that they felt rushed, being badly scripted and badly balanced and usually adding nothing to the wider narrative of the game.

The point I’m driving at here is that when it comes to game design, all too often less is actually more. Contrast the Elder Scroll series with, say the Fable games. The Fable designs failed in equally fundamental ways being generally too easy and having certain powers and abilities that were far more useful than others, resulting in stereotypical figher/wizard character builds but in their limited scope they succeeded far more than the Elder Scrolls games in creating believable, entertaining fantasy worlds. They were incredibly shallow worlds, of course, but in a curious way the fact that you were literally unable to poke them and find out they were only skin deep stops you from noticing or caring about that fact. By contrast, the attempt in the Elder Scrolls games to make them seem believable when computer technology is still so far short of that capability just leaves them looking ridiculous. If all the effort that had been put into radiant stories and side quests had simply been put into plot, imagination and characters instead, the result would have been a more believable, immersive and simply better game.

The Fable games are incredibly immersive and entertaining in spite of making no attempt at realism
This doesn’t undermine the validity of sandbox games though. It’s simply that there’s very little point in trying make a sandbox game realistic: instead the value is in making it as reactive and as explorable as possible, a lesson that Rockstar seems to have learned but Bethesda has not. The Grand Theft Auto games have always been fundamentally daft, and very little effort was made to make them seem otherwise. The result was that designers were able to leverage that stupidity to make their task easier, such as the closing off of central bridges for long periods of time in order to draw out the thrill of discovery, while the player was still largely free to explore and destroy things to his hearts’ content, which is basically the essence of a sandbox game.

One possible solution to this problem is simply to limit the scope of the sandbox. Limiting the scope means less to model, which in turn means less to go off the rails and end up looking ludicrous. This seems such an obvious fix that I’m amazed it hasn’t been tried more often. One game that does fit this model is Dead Rising, which I’ve never played but when I read about it, I was struck forcibly by how limiting the action to closed shopping mall filled with mindless zombies and only a very limited human cast inherently overcame many of the problems with realism in a sandbox world. It sounds as though the failings in the game had very little to do with its environment and I’d be interested to know if there are any other extant or planned examples of this approach. And again, it’s worth repeating that it’s yet another example in which a game is actually made better by putting less content in it and tightening the focus on what matters.

I can’t resist closing this column by contrasting the problems that video games have in creating a believable setting and atmosphere with board games. Oddly this is because board games are a less immersive and immediate environment. A video game occupies all your attention and makes you feel like you’re right there in the world that it’s creating, so even small anomalies can destroy the suspension of disbelief. In a board game most of the work in terms of setting and narrative is done by the imagination of the players and as long as you’re engaged with the game and enjoying it, that imagination will fill in all the blanks for you as you go along. Perhaps that is ultimately the reason why less is more when it comes to content in video games too. If so, then it’d do everyone good to avoid games like Skyrim in favour of more crudely drawn, but ultimately more thrilling fare.

Final Thoughts on Max Payne 3

I’m not going to call this a review of Max Payne 3 even though my time with the game is finished. I played the single player, on easy, and completed it. I didn’t touch it on the harder modes, nor did I attempt New York Minute mode or arcade mode. The former was not unlocked due to my meager difficulty setting, the latter may have been unlocked, but I didn’t check. I also didn’t touch the multiplayer for even a second because seriously, why would I do that? Other people may be interested in new multiplayer experiences, but not this guy. We can take it as a given that I’m going to suck at multiplayer, regardless of the new bells and whistles implemented therein, so why waste everyone’s time?

Don’t get me wrong, I have a pretty strong opinion of the game, I’m just not comfortable calling this a review given that there’s so much of the game I didn’t touch. That being said, let’s get to it.

I played the previous Max Payne games on the PC and while I remember loving the hell out of Max Payne, there is very little about Max Payne 2 I remember, save for the cover. I know there was someone named Mona although that may be a lingering memory of that terrible Max Payne movie. I have a feeling that the new setting and the diversion from the noir-heavy feel of the previous Max Payne games may hamper long time fans’ appreciation of the game. For me, though, all I remembered was bullet time and James McCaffrey’s excellent voice acting.

Both of these things are back in spades, so if all you want is slo-mo shooting and gruff, sarcastic delivery, there’s more than enough of both here to keep you entertained. If what you want is an excellent story and deep character development, prepare to be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, there is a story here, and it is thankfully devoid of the larger thematic attempts that traditionally dog Rockstar narratives but by the time the big twist is revealed, a story element that is as trite as it is financially untenable, you’ll likely be looking to see things through just to give Max something to be successful at, and less because of some sense of moral outrage.

Despite the narrative stumbles, I still really, really enjoyed this game. Half of that has to do with the portrayal of Max and the game choosing to get away somewhat from the noir roots. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good noir tale, but I seem to remember Remedy choosing to make the game noir by giving Max a mouth full of noir phrases, each one more clichéd than the last, a choice that wore on me as the series moved on. This game has noir elements, certainly, but Rockstar chose to tone it down, instead portraying Max as less of a noir anti-hero and more as a guy who completely screws up everything that he touches.

Any by everything, I mean everything. There’s a reason Max was chosen to come and protect the Branco family, the roots of this choice explained via flashback missions that have Max and his new friend Passos shooting up beautiful Hoboken, and while Max’s ability to wield pistols has something to do with it, his constant state of drunkenness makes up the rest of it. As the game progresses, everything Max touches turns to shit but he persists, doggedly chasing the notion that if he keeps at it, maybe he can fix the next thing, or the next thing, or the next thing. By the end of the game, I wanted to finish it because Max wanted to see it through and I thought that maybe if he could do something right, he’d find some measure of peace. The fact that Max understands why he was chosen for the job, and he sees that as coming back to bite those responsible on the ass gave me an incredible sense of satisfaction. As Max says, “Say what you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism. You buy yourself a product and you get what you paid for.”

The game’s use of Tony Scott style, “Man on Fire” cuts and drawing spoken words on the screen may further push away those looking for the noir angle, as will the bright streets of Sao Paulo but for me, it worked. I admit to being sometimes enamored with style over substance, and in this case, I think that’s a fair criticism but at the same time, it allowed the environmental artists at Rockstar to flex their technical muscles and create the best looking Rockstar game to date. When your main character is only good at one thing, killing bad guys, you can’t rely on a steady progression of powers or abilities to keep your player interested, interest has to be maintained via a selection of excellent set pieces and gunfights.

It is here that players of the previous Max Payne games will feel right at home. Max can still enter bullet time, charging up his ever dwindling meter with precision shots, as well as perform shootdodges, slo-mo dives for bite-sized chunks of ballistic mayhem. Max still chokes down painkillers to restore health, but with the added twist of Last Man Standing, by which you can automatically restore some health via painkillers provided you can single out whoever fired the last bullet with your name on it and kill them before you bleed out. All of the combat elements combine to form glorious, violent dances where men crumple where they stand, drunken heroes dive for cover and the last enemy is dispatched with a slow motion symphony of cold steel, cordite and exploding brain matter.

I have a feeling that your enjoyment of the game will come down to whether or not the excellent gunplay and voice acting is enough to make up for the lack of story or supporting characters with real depth. Plenty of other games have excellent gunplay. Plenty of other games have excellent voice work. I’m having a hard time coming up with a game that had both in the same amount as this game does, but I’m sure there are some out there. For me, it was more than enough. For others, particularly those that have a deep affection for the series, it may not be enough.