Wednesday, 17 April 2013

"Get on with it!" -- An Impatient Gamer's Lament

I know this is more my TV Blogger friend Yogesh's remit but I'm one of those people that are always trying to get people to watch a TV series called The Wire. I ruthlessly offer to loan out my DVDs and often buy Season 1 as a present for people as a form of encouragement but all too often I see people giving up on the show early on. This is where I insist that they must watch the 'first three episodes' before I agree to leave their home and untie their family by which time their appreciation of the show is sufficient for them to continue watching without my dogged insistence. This is because people have the astounding realisation that the show is great.

I'll let people in the know do the voice in their head. It's way more fun!

But for the longest time I was very indignant about the amount of persuasion people required from me in order to really get into the show. I was frustrated by how much the show depends on word of mouth hype to persuade folks to get past the first couple of episodes without losing patience. I stopped feeling this way over the weekend when I tried to play a series of games published by Rockstar in succession. I tried L.A. Noire, GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption over the course of a long afternoon and found myself getting very agitated by the slow pace at the beginning of each game. It will only be due to the insistence of my gaming friends that these games are worth persevering with that I'll even bother to return to these titles. It's for the same reason that The Wire can lose a lot of people early on and that is because it is such a slow burn in terms of the early pacing.

This is an illustration of slow pacing. You do better.
The only thing is that I can accept slow pacing from The Wire because it was adapted from what was originally a novel. What's more, the story and the world is actually deep and intricate enough to warrant the level of set up and exposition and you can vary up the action plenty due the number of distinct plot lines and characters than the medium of TV allows you to juggle. I won't pick on exclusively Rockstar in this article but to begin with we have Red Dead, GTA4 and L.A. Noire taking its sweet time padding out the early levels of their game with mind numbingly simple stuff. What's worse is that the 'story' we're being told during these tutorial segments is often of relatively little consequence. 

...and you, the player, have to choke it all down.

The first hour or so of L.A. Noire doesn't provide the in-game intrigue to keep you interested in the overall story arc they're building. The newspaper and flashback cut scenes are way more engaging then the mysteries I'm solving at this point and it's sad that the playable narrative content is the dullest thing about what is going on, especially if you pad out the experience further by doing the street crime stuff too. Red Dead has me spend a lot of time trotting about on a horse at the start. It takes forever to actually ride to the tutorial section, which is a largely uneventful horseback tour of a ranch, before I get to my first real mission which is a horse race...

and this is where I turn the console off. Grand Theft Horses indeed!

Not even the modern GTA series lets you see any of the real story until you've plodded through the first few gauntlets of missions. It's almost like these games won't even trust us with their main storylines until we've mastered the most basic controls and game elements. It is to the detriment of the game experience too. The opening of Far Cry 3 takes it's sweet time getting to the point. At least the story is present from the beginning but I feel like I had to jump my way through quite a lot of cut scenes and 'This is how you buy a gun' type hoops before I was allowed to run wild on the island like all my friends had been doing.

I might sound like an old fart here but it's not often that a triple A release comes along where you can just get right into some satisfying action within five minutes of starting a new game. Spec Ops: The Line did a fantastic job of this by getting me right into a firefight straight after the opening chopper section. I had to swallow about a minute's worth of cut scene and that was all. In fact many shooters of the modern era can actually pull off a short badass in media res, opening sequence to get the pace off to a flying start.

Let's look at Final Fantasy 7. It has a killer opening sequence at one of Midgar's Mako reactors . This just goes to show that a longform genre of game like FF7 need not take its sweet time getting to the fun. I don't know how the same company also developed Kingdom Hearts 2 and Final Fantasy 13, mind you. Those games took forever to get going... and were very if they ever did get going.

Seriously, was it an intentional joke that the main character of such a slow paced game is called "Lightning"?
At any rate, third person adventure games like Red Dead certainly do not need to start off as slowly as they do. Less so if the game is a frickin sandbox world of all things. The sheer size of the game world is more than enough padding if padding is what you're trying to deliver. There is no need to pad out the start. It's the worst place to do it. If you're setting up a vastly complex narrative then at least find an engaging and concise way to do it, gamers are there to game after all.

There are only so many long-form products that I'm willing to convince my fellow gamers to press on with despite their shaky starts and I'm afraid that The Wire is quite a tough level of quality to live up to. I don't believe that the in game storytelling of Red Dead is quite up to snuff so you may as well let me use the horse mounted flame-throwers immediately and let me have my fun (Spoiler alert!!)     

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