I’ve created a ‘Time Wasters’ category in my steam list, which I find is growing at an alarming rate. This is the category where I discard games that attempt to flush away my time away with insubstantial, repetitive bloat. The larger this list becomes the more I visualize burning money and time subtracted from my trip to the grave.I’ve many games in my collection waiting to be played, so I’ve become considerably more judicious when buying anything new.
Games industry, if your game has any substantial amount of the following then your not having any of my money:
*Note, the fact that many of the below are ‘optional’ is irrelevant. Their mere existence has a tangible effect on my enjoyment. More on that later…
Which I define as:
Any repetitive task that has little or no connection to an overarching goal or meaningful side story.
I first noticed this in The Elder Scrolls IV, with the Oblivion portals/gates that appear and become more widespread as the main story progresses. Few are actually required for the main plot or even side story advancement.
To close an Oblivion gate you must enter the portal, fight through a barren lava landscape of monsters, climb a few towers and obtain the portal stone. The gate is then destroyed and you return to the main world.
You’ll encounter these gates more or less randomly as you wander and they can take roughly 15-20 minutes to complete.
At first I closed these gates out of curiosity, but eventually their mere existence became an annoyance and the effort required to close them soon outweighed any rewards. I still begrudgingly completed each gate I encountered because I felt nagged by the game each time it put one in my path – hating them the whole time.
Almost every other Bethesda game that contains ‘Radient’ (i.e Repeatable) quests or recurring events that have zero effect on the world or characters. Think of Preston asking for settlement help in Fallout 4 or UI prompts to defend settlers.
Bethesda have a habit of creating interesting worlds for you to explore, but will try their best to stop you from actually exploring. NPC’s stop to ask for help, pulling your attention away from your goal. Oblivion gates are dumped onto the environment. Dragons in Skyrim will attack long after they stop providing a challenge or useful loot. Random event NPCs (Raiders, Bandits etc…) will try to rob you. Frustratingly, completing these events won’t ever stop them from reoccurring. Either a main quest needs to be completed, or they simply remain forever.
See also: The Arkham series would have gang attacks, robberies etc… occur as you travel from one point of the map to the other, and if you aren’t outright looking for crimes to prevent, then it’s another nagging distraction from the current objective. GTA 4 Friend missions and Assassin’s Creed’s muggers, beggars and bards.
Final thought: I understand that including such events as ‘World Building’ can be valid, but once these events inevitably start to become an annoyance then they have officially been used too much.
Maps battered with Objectives.
Which I define as:
Side quests/activities that provide minor amounts of experience or upgrades, have little or no plot/story relevance, and need to be completed en masse to get any substantial reward. Corresponding icons will normally infest the world map.
Think of the Hunting missions in Far Cry 3 where you need to spend considerable amounts of time ‘Killing X amounts of Y’ in order to upgrade pouches, ammo holders etc… Or Dead Island (a coalescence of everything thing in this list) where laughably nonsense quests are everywhere, but rewards so tiny that substantial grinding is needed for any noticable improvement.
Ubisoft are particularly irritating in this regard because most of their games require you to waste time to see what quests are even available, usually in the form of climbing something and uncovering the map. You need to waste time getting the map to function as an actual map.
You know the drill. Get to a new area and perform standard map maintenance before anything interesting happens. Find the unlock point, climb it, reveal the map. Get rid of the icons by completing quests that provide you the upgrades you want to proceed. Then, when you are either best equipped, or just sick of the process, move onto the story quests. For me, this is a way of the game saying ‘not until you finish your dinner’. Complete all this stuff before you can get to the interesting parts.
This is also what marketing refer to as ‘Content’ – a term that gives no information on quality. Sure, Fallout 4 had 130 hours of content for me, but I found less than half of that to be substantial or of any quality.
Other offenders: Again almost anything produced by Ubisoft, Far cry 2 onwards. Assassin’s Creed has loads, with businesses to buy, races to run, assassin missions and so on, peppered everywhere but no single mission will wield a satisfying reward.
Also seen in the Tomb Raider reboot, Watchdogs and The Arkham Series.
Which I define as:
Any challenge that is restricted by character stats, as opposed to any sensible ingame reason. Where your numbers must match the enemy’s numbers, or you have no chance, regardless of your skill.
You may have the reflexes and time to wear down a higher level boss, but since they have much higher levels and more powerful, unavoidable attacks – you won’t survive the encounter or kill them until you’ve reached a specific level or obtained an item/ability via grinding.
Examples: The Fallout series to a certain degree. Baldur’s gate had an element of this. The Dragon age series. Every Final Fantasy game. Usually seen in, but not limited too RPGS
Games that avoid number gating: Bloodborne, Darksouls and the Witcher 3 are great examples of this. You can absolutely try and take on a much stronger boss/enemy and even have a chance of success, but you are trading level requirement for skill and an increased challenge.
Accessible bosses can encourage well paced grinding if needed. When balanced well, the player will be able to take on the challenges as they appear. If the challenge is too difficult then some grinding can help close the skill gap – but not hours and hours.
Otherwise, the developers are saying you cannot pass here until you have wasted x hours.
I approach bosses like I approach puzzles – challenges that need to be worked out with the tools I have, with a degree of skill and execution. Arbitrarily requiring stats that make no ingame/story sense is again, time wasting. My level 50 character is swinging a sword in the exact way they swung the sword when they were level 10, why is the boss only falling down now?
It’s like wanting to complete a crossword with a perfectly functional pencil but are told you cannot continue unless you acquire a pen. Now click some buttons for 3 hours to get your pen and then you can take on the boss.
To quote Yathzee Crowshaw (admittedly from memory):
‘Why do you think I spend all that time grinding? Because it wasn’t for the fucking fun.’
Not all bosses need to be immediately accessible, but progress needs to be gated sensibly and without tedious grinding. Metroid, Zelda, Dark Souls among others implement this more sensibly, (for example; get the hammer to break the wall which allows access to the boss area).
Remember, I said substantial amounts of these things. Crafting isn’t inherently bad, but most games have bloated the process to insane degrees.
Example: Fallout 4, Dead island, Witcher series (part 3 to a slightly lesser degree), New Vegas, most modern games.
Which I define as:
Any game where many different ingredients and materials are needed to create the weapons, armor and items. Where literal schematics are required and important items are kept rare to keep you wandering around the world clicking on cupboards and trashcans – as opposed to actually playing the game.
More egregious systems will have multiple layers of crafting, whereby you have level 1, 2 and 3 versions of armor and weapons. (See Fallout 4).
The Last of Us had a great crafting system. Barely a dozen crafting item types existed in total and their use all made sense. You immediately knew what was important to collect. This also encouraged exploration of the level (which were never huge) allowing you to take in the environment and environmental storytelling. Bioshock also had a simple and satisfying crating system. No more than about a dozen different types of components to collect, all easy to combine from a menu.
A game takes the piss when crafting involves hundreds of items for almost every item that can be used.
If these items also take up weight or inventory space (requiring return trips to home base to free up space) – then your game is officially a bastard.
I’m playing the role of a character that’s a hero/villain, or at least the main subject of drama, not a street cleaner.
There is no scene in the original Dawn of the Dead whereby the characters search 20 minutes for toilet paper. It’s not important to the events of the plot, and would not be fun to watch.
This is a step worse than the UBISoft icon generator (whereby you have to work to get the map to create icons for you to clean up). Here you need to work hours and hours to get basic clothes and weapons. You can’t just pick up a gun or an armored vest, you now need to spend hours finding every screw and thread so you can knit it.
Games that refuse to end
I find that my interest in a game’s world completely dies after the main plot concludes. Many games (open world games usually), won’t end when the ‘main’ conflict has ended. The credits roll and the character is planted back into the world to proceed through the icons and side quests on the map. This is the point where I turn the game off, usually never to return.
Fallout 4? I’m done with it. I chose my faction, experienced their ending, and now have no interested in staying in a world that has established a status quo. The institute in FO4 is never going to rise again. None of the side missions are substantial enough for me to hang around. FO4 has nothing to offer me and it’s not nearly engaging enough to play twice.
I have a great respect for games that choose to end. Where the developers declare ‘Here, this is where the story stops, we have nothing else to say, or anymore story to tell. We know you have a life to live and now you can return to with it the memory of the experience.’
It’s another reason why Fallout 3 is superior to Fallout 4.
**FALLOUT 3 SPOILER IMMEDIATE**
It’s because the end sacrifice of the Vault Dweller IS the end. You sacrifice yourself for the greater good. The credits roll and your time in the Capital Wasteland has come to an end. The game is happy to end and feels no need to waste it’s time or yours.
A ‘Point of no return’ notification is appreciated though – so I can get to anything else before the finale.
During a discussion with a colleague of mine they stated how they wanted to experience the world as the Hero after they have saved it, and appreciate the fruits of their victory.
But I find that my effect on the world ends with the main threat, regardless of that world persisting afterwards, or any new lines of dialogue spoken by NPCS. In Skyrim I can still complete recurring quests for the companions, or assassination missions with Assassin’s creed, but the drive is long gone for me by then. The game becomes soulless because my purpose is done.
I can only hope to cling onto the atmosphere of the world, now inhabited by transparent soulless NPCs eternally giving the same quests over and over until the end of time – NPCs that will never possess the same energy or life as they had up until then.
Remaining in the word after the main drama concludes is as hollow and depressing as a doe trying to get warmth from its mother’s corpse – a refusal to move on.
Though mechanically these games may still be fun – there are hundreds of other games waiting for me with the same mechanics, but a new story to tell.
Optional is not okay
Claiming that all the above ‘Content’ is Optional and is ‘Choice’ is useless to the discussion. If you are not participating in the optional content then you have to actively ignore it’s existence.
IGNORING SOMETHING IS NOT PLEASANT, nor is it a passive process. If I have to actively ignore something then I’m being constantly bothered by it, I’m just choosing to hold my temper.
A smoker may ‘choose’ not to smoke, but they are also choosing to experience the horrible anxiety that follows. You may not sympathize because they started smoking in the first place – but that’s like saying it was a mistake to buy the game at all.
Games can get you addicted to the check box approach of completing every task. Not for fun – but to remove the annoyance of a tasks existence, in the same way a smoker will have a cigarette to kill the craving that bothered them in the first place.
If I told you that a movie took 100 hours to watch you would tell me to fuck off. Most TV Series aren’t that long.
You wouldn’t care if you could fast forward the pointless bits of a movie, or skip the side stories in a book, you likely wouldn’t bother.
Or put it another way. An Album with 3 great songs and 10 filler songs will be considered mediocre at best or terrible at worse. The album is not excused because you can skip through to the 3 best tracks.
Time is not free
A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
As I get older I want things to get to the point. I have limited seconds on this earth so why block the interesting and fun stuff behind different forms of progression bars? I play games to progress through a story and experience a world through it’s design and mechanics – and want things to be constantly be moving forward. I’m happy to get distracted the odd time, but I get incredibly irritated when the bulk of a game’s ‘content’ is just a mix of different distractions.
I believe that playing games in moderation can relieve stress, provide enjoyment, educate and provide all the other positives a medium can provide as part of your life on earth.
But if I’m playing a game to just sink time then I’m actively avoiding life. If I’m getting nothing out of a game other than progressing numbers with little meaning or substance then that’s not the game being ‘Good’, that’s a game exploiting my problems. It’s a game offering me a non-threatening, non-demanding distraction from things in my life that need addressing. Everything listed here exploits this desire to escape, which I find frighteningly unhealthy and exploitative – even if it is sold as ‘Choice’, it’s another form of addiction.
Get to the point game, or get off the store page.