Hated Video Game Mechanics I Actually Like
Can anyone give me a new word for ‘game mechanic’? I feel I used the term 'game mechanic' a bit too much in this blog and can’t think of another term that works.
Over the past few days I’ve been watching/reading a lot of Top 10 lists about stuff in video games that people hate and even a few rants exclusively dedicated to dissecting why certain video game mechanics in many people's eyes suck. I do think a lot of the aforementioned Top 10’s/rants were very well made (especially the two I've linked to above) and brought up good points, but for as much as I hate to ruin anyone’s fun time bitching and ranting, a lot of them also generalized things.
Often these lists/rants will talk on about why a certain gameplay mechanic is bad, but not bring up how they can be used well or if they ever have been done well. Just because several games poorly implement something doesn’t mean there aren’t games that can do the same thing well. And I was baffled to see some state that certain mechanics should be eliminated from games completely! Call this a defense of hated tropes, clichés, gameplay mechanics or whatever the bottom line is I’m talking about things in video games people rant about that I tend to like. I've always followed the philosophy that anything can be good if done right and these gameplay mechanics I think have been done right!
Sluggish Controls in Survival Horror games (specifically Survival Horror games).
Sluggish Surval Horror controls is less of something gamers like to rant about (Richard Coombs sure layed into Tank Controls though) and more of something the video game community has forgotten about. I love old-school Survival Horror games. Most video games are all about empowerment and making the player feel like an unstoppable, walking mass of genocide, which can be loads of fun and something I wouldn’t give up for all the Pizza Hut P'zones on the face of the earth, but there are more ways to have fun than producing a planet’s worth of carnage. Sometimes a game’s ‘fun’ can come from a sense of fear or sheer desperation.
Sadly, most mainstream horror titles are putting too much emphasis on action for my tastes. A horror game with an action emphasis doesn’t always need to be bad, I love Resident Evil 4 after all, but there is a dwindling amount of horror titles I find actually scary these days. A lot of people think this is for the best and looking at the popularity of ‘new-age’ Horror games they may have a point. Even at their peak old-school Survival Horror games weren’t nearly as popular as many of the ‘Action/Horror’ hybrids this current generation has brought and many point out that new age ‘Horror’ games control loads better than the tank control, delayed movement inducing titles from the PS1-PS2 era.
But that’s the reason I don’t think current generation Horror games are as fun as the older stuff, they control TOO well. It feels strange to complain about a game having too good of controls, but I prefer horror when I’m a stiff, pathetic, helpless being it’s scarier that way and one of the quickest ways to making a player feel helpless and scared is by having their character control that way. It’s difficult to feel like I’m in a situation worth becoming frightened over when I have smooth over-the-shoulder aiming and stacks of ammo on my side.
The character I control is a competent badass. Having a badass on your side always makes things scarier.
Current gen Horror-games feel less like ‘Horror’ and more like standard monster killing sprees with some slightly more grotesque enemy designs. I’ll agree with anyone who says there are some games that have tried too hard to mimic the ‘Old-School-Horror’ feel and control like crap to a fault. There is no way in hell I’d pick the cluster-fuck that is Amy over something like Dead Space, but I do think Horror is a rare genre that is actually improved by stiffer than normal controls and am a little sad that nobody seems to miss tank-movement and eerie, sometimes weaponless games where you must run for your life. There are some Indie games out there that have made admirable attempts at horror, but I think only a handful of them have succeeded (THE INDIE GAME 'WHICH' IS FUCKING OVERRATED!). As far as the current state of horror games goes, I think Games Radar’s David Houghton said it best.
“Fans of old-school survival horror have a big problem right now. And that problem is that no-one is really making much old-school survival horror any more. And as far as I see it, the reason for that all comes by way of a gross misconception. The assumption, in this more refined and oh-so-more-wise age of gaming, is that the controls and gameplay mechanics of traditional SH were crap. “Ho ho!”, people so wisely laugh. “How rubbish they were, with their relative orientation and ‘push up to go forward whichever way your character is facing’ ways. What a crappy old relic from the days before the PlayStation had analogue sticks. Now we have smooth, responsive controls and mega-athletic action-bastard characters, and so we are better human beings”.
But those people are full of crap. What they don’t get is that Resident Evil and Silent Hill’s clunky old ‘tank’ controls were a very conscious design decision, and fundamentally important to the success of those games. They made navigation awkward. They artificially weakened your character. They made sure that you were always on the back foot, and that every single enemy encounter could be serious trouble. That’s why a lot of current players hate them, but the serious horror fan knows that that’s why they worked. They worked by putting the player right into the shaky shoes and panicked mind-set of the over-faced, grossly outnumbered protagonist, and turned what would otherwise have been flagrant monster killing sprees into genuine horror experiences. They were essentially the video game control equivalent of method acting.”
With stuff like Lone Survivor and Amnesia: The Dark Descent coming out some of my acquaintances claim a surge of ‘true horror experiences’ is on its way and I can only hope so, because right now I’m dying (pun intended) to find something to scare me.
Quick Time Events
Ah, the much loathed quick time event/QTE. At their core QTEs are just a bunch of commands and ‘press X, Y, and B in time or die’ scenarios that fill the screen usually during a game’s cut scene and GREAT, GROANING, GREGACIOUS GRAVY do people hate them too much! There is probably not a single gameplay mechanic to have been popularized in this current generation of gaming and is hated more than the QTE. Think I’m exaggerating? Go Google the words, “Quick Time Event” and you’ll see, “Quick Time Events Are Stupid” pop up in the second search recommendation.
So QTEs and the video game community aren’t exactly on good footing and right off the bat I’m going to have to say, I see why many people are annoyed by this mechanic and I have seen QTEs done badly in a fair share of games. When people rant about quick time events they tend to rant about one of two ways a game may use the mechanic badly. The game in question either features quick time events very infrequently, making them unexpected and difficult to react to or features and abuses them to the point of complete ad-nauseam, turning the ‘game’ into a giant, cinematic, wank-fest with very little actual gameplay. The first example I’ve seen in games like Uncharted and Red Steel 2. A game that uses them in this manner has never made them annoying enough to ruin an experience for me, but it is a valid complaint, a game that uses QTEs infrequently is bound to have a few cheap deaths the player can't see coming. The second example can be found in titles like Asura’s Wrath and Heavy Rain neither of which I personally care for and think implement QTEs HORRIDLY!
So if I openly admit QTEs have been problematic why do I still like them? Because they’ve done great things for other games, they’ve done great things for the titles that do find a balance between QTEs and regular gameplay. Along with being an excellent way to keep a game engaging during cut scenes, QTEs are useful for letting a developer allow a game’s character to perform specific maneuvers they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do in game and quickly telegraph commands to a player. A game like Shenmue where the QTEs are spread evenly throughout cut scenes and the game itself still features a massive world to discover is a fine example of a game that uses QTEs well and is a better game for it. I especially like games like Mad World, God of War, and No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle that use QTE finishers to ramp up their level of carnage, gore, and the satisfaction that comes with it. The fact that failing to perform a quick time event in these games never instantly leads to your death is another one way they make quick time events work. Then there are the games that get really creative with QTEs.
Despite what certain g1s who like to show up on After Dark may think, I consider the battle commands used in games like Legend of Dragoon and Paper Mario to be quick time events and good examples of how even something like a turn-based combat game can be improved by QTEs when done properly.
If I have to be honest though, I’ve never brought the idea that any game OTHER THAN Rhythm titles could hold its own only using QTEs, usually due to the sheer dullness QTEs can bring when they’re used as the back-bone of a game. Let’s face it the unbelievably, fist-pumpingly epic 70-man, Mad Angels brawl in Shenmue would have been significantly less epic if it was a bunch of quick time events instead of a beat-em-up/fighting system you as a player had learned moves in and master.
By the end of the day a quick time event is a tool that can be used to either shatter a game’s flow or improve it it’s all up to how the developers use it, which is why I think it’s idiotic there are people who want them completely removed from games! Some games may overuse them and others underuse them, but QTEs are still valuable to others and can in fact improve games. I don’t think there are THAT many games that use QTEs badly.
Whenever I bring up the Metroid franchise the biggest complaint I hear from anyone who can’t get into the series is, “I don’t like backtracking in games”. There are games where I have become aggravated by their backtracking (I’d use Oblivion and Okami as examples, though ironically most people can’t seem to get enough of the backtracking in those games), but as a concept I think backtracking is fine if a game is built in a non-linear fashion and when a world. In fact when a game is tightly built with the idea of backtracking in mind I barely notice the fact that I’m treading through common ground. As I mentioned before I’ve seen a lot of lists about video game tropes people hate and backtracking was up there on a lot of lists, which surprised me. Every open ended game NEEDS backtracking in some form or another, that is a pretty basic fact and given the popularity of sandbox/non-linear titles in games these days I always figured it would get less flak.
I’ve never brought the idea that backtracking automatically means bad in fact there can be a lot of good things that come out of a player re-visiting an old environment with the new experience they’ve gained. Re-visiting an old area will often reveal new secrets about it and new branching paths that a player either didn’t notice or wasn’t able to access at the time. I recall being really giddy when I first played Zelda Ocarina of Time and started re-visiting areas to find those mounds of rock once I realized they could be destroyed with bombs. Not to mention backtracking through a level that was once a tough challenge only to smash through it with new found abilities on a second visit can be immensely satisfying. Anyone who has played Pokemon as a kid and became annoyed by a particularly pesky cave that KO’d their entire party at least 3 times then returned to that cave 20 levels later to eradicate every living creature in it knows how this feels.
I think the video game community ignores the more enjoyable aspects that come with backtracking too often. If a world looks good, is designed well, full of secrets to find, and specifically built with non-linearity in mind I not only won’t care if I backtrack I’ll ENJOY doing it…Then again maybe I’m just too big of a Metroid fan.
With every other game mechanic I’ve defended so far I gave at least 1 example of a game that implemented the mechanic poorly, but I’m going to be 100% honest here. I cannot think of a single game that I felt used a day system poorly. I’m sure there are examples of it being done badly and I don’t think the mechanic would work in every game, but as of now I love EVERYTHING about day systems from the sense of urgency they give to the feeling of a real, moving, and living world they produce!
Many of my favorite games such as: Dead Rising, Shenmue, Persona 4, and Deadly Premonition feature a day system in some form or another and they all do wonders in producing worlds with lots to do and only so much time to do it all. Heck even the original Fallout, while incredibly mediocre as a game *flame shield up* was still much more entertaining during the first half when I was given only so many days to get my fellow vault dwellers water before they died of thirst. Sure, none of the vault dwellers had any personality and I couldn’t have given less of a shit about the game’s narrative past that, but it was still a great way to boost immersion and give a slight, but not overbearing sense of urgency to me.
Games that give time limits also work great in setting up moral conflicts and forcing players to decide what they prioritize most. Going to save a helpless survivor being swarmed by zombies? Good luck, but remember you’ve got to fight a psychopath in an hour and you could really use that katana lying around in the sword shop. Want to assist a couple in being re-united? That’s sweet of you but keep in mind all 3 of your days will be completely gone and the whole world will be screwed over in the process.
Technically they do limit how much stuff you can do in a single playthrough, which is what tends to detract a lot of people, but as I said I have yet to play a game with a day system where I felt unnecessarily crunched for time or thought the game implemented it badly. Maybe it’s because I’m really easy going in how I manage my real life’s schedule, but that’s how I am with these sorts of game. If I miss something or end up spending a lot of my time dicking around I say, “Fuck it, I’ll do everything right on a second playthrough”. Deadly Premonition is one of my favorite games to bring up when talking about this and uses its day system in a pretty strange/unique way. Even though the player is expected to follow a schedule, there isn’t any true punishment for not following it and the game’s protagonist is constantly encouraging the player to, “take it slow” and supports every choice they make.
Regardless of whether I’m playing through a game urgently or am just horsing around I always complete these games feeling at least somewhat rewarded for all the stuff I had experienced despite the limited time I had to experience it. I know I’m not alone on this many people defend Majora’s Mask’s day system fervently as a good mechanic. I may have limited time, but DAMMIT IT'S STILL MY TIME and my time to spend however I please! I guess by giving you less, the game makes you value what you have more. Maybe that’s why I like time crunchers so much…And no, this blog was TOTALLY not made to jump onto the Majora’s Mask defense bandwagon.