How many times has a videogame saddled your onscreen persona with amnesia to tell a bad story? Given you expansive interaction options, but not allowed you to do anything but kill obviously scripted bad guys? Taught you a frustrating control set, then simply made you practice it?
I want to talk about tedium, by comparing some points from a handful of games, and suggest a cure.
The most tedious games to me, are the ones that mistake difficulty for challenge, instead of creating more challenging environmental contexts for simple actions. It's like when you're learning to drive a car. It's challenging until you get the 'feel' for the car- after which, driving becomes pretty natural. The challenges then become the random, unforeseen events that inevitably occur. A deer in the road, hydroplaning, etc. Each of which teaches you a new context sensitive version of the simple skills you already know. Then you're comfortable again. Well, maybe not comfortable, but more assured of the specific handling properties of your car. And more confident about handling new challenges.
it's the environmental changes that re-engage your involvement with the controls. It's the "I'm doing it" feeling.
The Ugly: Mirror's Edge
is a game that handily captures the reverse dynamic of what I just described. It has a fluid (if quirky) movement system and a crippling combat system, and then forces you to deal with more and more enemies, rather than more complex chains of movements. Why? Why instead of having FUN with movement, do you end up just trying to survive a level? Having unseen enemies spawn behind you to shoot you in the ass the moment you negotiate a difficult landing is one of the worst excuses for challenge I can think of, and ME sticks it to you for the entire game. It takes 10 minutes teaching you how to jump, then shoots at your ass for 10 hours. This is survival horror. There's nothing to do but survive.
It's the gaming equivalent of being in rehab.
The Good: Portal
, on the other hand, doesn't have this problem. Each level requires more lengthy chains of simple movements, but it doesn't punish you for standing still (at least, not till the very end) or not knowing where to go next. It's challenging in that you need to think ahead in terms of a more complex environment as the game progresses. Figuring out the double cannonball to get over a high barrier is a great moment. You feel involved and rewarded for stringing together 2 mechanics that create a new movement. And you have the sense that not only are you having fun, but that the designers are, too. That's not surviving, that's living.
The Dull: Final Fantasy XIII
has the opposite set of problems that Mirror's Edge
does. It has a thoroughly nuanced combat engine but has a world design that sends you running down narrow pathways that offer no environmental interaction, save for save points. As movement becomes meaningless, you raise the player's expectations of a "moving" narrative. But here Final Fantasy XIII employs a Rashomon-style story that is relayed primarily through flashbacks. Flashbacks are a double edged sword in storytelling. They fill in backstory that better fleshes out the characters, but they also remove immediacy... that's death in a game that's story is movement driven. Where the story goes is where YOU go. And where is the story going?
It's running from point A to point B, period. With endless options for movement and interaction, the designers chose none of the above. You don't get to take the road less traveled, which is what role-playing is all about. As such, FF XIII feels more like Final Fight (but not in a good way).
The Surprise: Batman: Arkham Asylum
is an example of a recycled story driven brawler that keeps the action feeling fresh. How? By giving you environments and tactics in a familiar stealth/arcade format, and then slowly adding more options for engaging larger numbers of enemies that feel right for the character. Simple, and finely tuned. There's nothing new in it, but by staying true to the source materials and keeping structure varied, the overall experience is fun and involving. The designers clearly wanted the player to FEEL like Batman, whether it's zipping around on wires, using computer skills, or being able to do a vertical takedown in the shadows - what you fantasize about being able to do as Batman- the game gives you. Add expert voicework and writing from the animated series? It's just a good formula, even with borrowed gameplay.
The Thing in the Closet: I suppose I should mention Resident Evil
if I'm going to use survival horror as a catch-phrase for tedious gameplay. RE1 certainly had it. At the time it was released, many of it's gameplay contrivances were unexpected. A camera change when you entered a room would mean quickly re-orienting your movements. Remember backing in and out of an area repeatedly because you kept holding the forward button? Oof. Those perspective jumps and feeling disoriented certainly helped sell the feeling of fear the game was playing on, as did the pop-up enemies.. but really what the game was offering you was extremely limited choices for movement and combat, and then altering the POV and therefore the control scheme to throw you off balance. That's not really gameplay. It's abuse. Then add deliberately bad voice acting and a borrowed premise, and you have a classic. Classic at the time anyway, but from the standpoint of a newer generation of gamers, RE is probably responsible for more mainstream acceptance of tedious gameplay tropes than alot of other titles.
The Myth Cycle: Getting from point A to point B shouldn't be enough. A game should engage the player in the same way a story does: describe the world through the actions of a character, then give that character an escalating problem that requires an escalating set of skills to deal with it. Tie new skills to new areas, and ramp up the level of obligation. Have the character cross paths with the antagonist (not the central villain) and fail to stop him/her several times until finally reaching the battle with the real enemy that requires ALL the character's skill AND the player's involvement... if done right, a kindof transference happens where the player takes the action personally...
The Suggestion: We're jaded as to escalating skills in videogames;
It's a power-up, or it's a health bar increase, or it's a double jump, or it's a BFG 9000, etc. There's nothing new there. The only place where a game can create it's own unique narrative solutions is in the execution of it's in-game environment.
Game worlds don't have to behave like the real world, we enjoy them more when they don't. So as we move towards more realism in graphics, can't our game worlds become less restricted by a perceived need for realism and become the fantastic springboards of imagination they should be? Take a tip from Red Faction: Guerrilla - knocking down a building with a hammer is ludicrous AND incredibly fun. Take a tip from Okami - using a giant paintbrush to draw a bridge is strangely satisfying. Take a tip from Ico - it's not getting from point A to point B, it's how to get Yorda to do it. Take a tip from Flower - it's nice to be the wind...