When games don't let you see the digital wood for the digital trees
Ever had one of those pals who just loves to over explain everything? A few words are never enough, it’s got to be a full conversation about the most banal of topics and by the end you’re trying to mentally list the reasons for your continuing friendship. Well, I think (and here’s the hook) video games are a bit like that.
Right, here we go: less is more. It’s not true in all cases (less dinner will always be less dinner), but in video games, it’s definitely my personal preference. I like to fill in the gaps myself, relying on subtle world-building or the context of certain actions. Think about Bioshock, for example; Rapture is a utopia ruined by human ambition and the evidence is everywhere. Audio logs are used, but I remember them as being scattered throughout the game and used to provide depth to your surroundings and actions without being overwhelming. In essence, you were still given the space to build the history of Rapture in your head.
Obviously Bioshock wasn’t the first game to do this, it was probably just the first game I played as an adult where I was aware of the surroundings of the game feeding into the themes. I know I sound like a dick, but there’s a point to all this. And here it’s here: I think games are sharing too much and don’t trust the player as much as they should. Not all games obviously, but I can think of a couple right off the bat that either would’ve been vastly improved by giving the player time to breathe and think or just went overboard explaining every small thing.
Last night I completed Horizon Zero Dawn and really enjoyed myself. I’ve just read that sentence back, and it sounds like I masturbated after finishing the game. I did, but it wasn’t because I completed the game. I just want to make that clear.
Anyway, one of the aspects of the game I loved the most was the environment; the ruins of an advanced civilisation peopled with characters who treat technology like magic. I was very onboard with this right from the beginning.
Over time, and as you explore and play the game, the gaps begin to get filled in; why was the main character, Aloy, in exile? What has happened to the ‘old world’? Why are there robot bulls? Don’t get me wrong, I liked learning all this stuff and the reasoning behind it all is really good, but on occasion the game would get totally carried away and spunk multiple audio logs at you all at once. In one later section of the game, I was listening to an audio log and then suddenly another character was talking to me and an automated voice in the background started chatting. Three different streams of information, all clamouring over one another and I had fuck all idea what was being said.
There were parts of the game where I would unlock up to ten audio logs and even more written articles within the space of a few minutes. Now, for some, this is exactly what they want from a game like this, but for me it was overwhelming. Eventually I just stopped listening to all but the most important ones. The flood of information didn’t help build a world, if anything it pulled it apart and reminded me that I was just collecting items on a list; I wasn’t an explorer, I was playing a video game.
Just a wee bit of subtlety, or in this case restraint, would’ve gone a long way. Talking of restraint, there’s another recent(ish) game that really shot its wad at the end: MGS5: The Phantom Pain.
I’m pretty sure by now you’ll be aware of our feelings about MGS5 here at Bit Socket, but if there’s one thing we can all surely agree on, it’s those fucking tapes. To begin with, the tapes are drip-fed to us, filling in some of the gaps, fleshing out characters and events in lieu of the cutscenes we’d come to expect from the series. Then you finish the game and you unlock, I don’t know, like a hundred fucking tapes. It might as well have been a hundred.
Instead of Horizon Zero Dawn looking to build a huge world through its use of audio logs etc, MGS5 just wanted to distract you from its unfinished nature by throwing tapes about every single fucking thing at you. Loads of tapes explaining the exact nature of wolbachia; long, dry conversations designed to make you forget that the story itself was lacklustre. In the case of MGSV, it’s information for the sake of information. It doesn’t add anything to the game beyond making it longer. It’s like any scene in a Marvel movie featuring Hawkeye, only there to boost the running time.
I think one of the reasons folk have so connected with Breath of the Wild is due to how open and free Hyrule feels. Every ruin doesn’t need a story, because you know the Calamity has touched all parts of the land. You don’t need a big speech from Ganon because you already know he’s a bad prick from the outset. I didn’t need to know how wolbachia worked, not really. I didn’t need to hear an interview with personal number 300. What I need is the trust and the space to play and grow the world of the game in my head. Just like a lengthy conversation, you don’t need to fill in all the gaps if you build a rapport, and the best games do just that.