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There's a particular pet peeve in games which I have. It's one which, unfortunately, often seems to be at odds with a lot of more modern games, and often necessitated by the ever-climbing budgets required to achieve the presentation, polish and length of gameplay that gamers demand. Even so, it can be found in titles from just about any period, and I consider it one of the hallmarks of bad game design.
I'm talking, of course, about time-wasting - the very particular manipulation of players by game designers, level designers and writers, wherein gameplay is artificially limited, bloated or expanded in some way well beyond the point where it is fun. For this particular article, I'd like to explore a few facets of it, using Neverwinter Nights as a case study to explain how and why this particular breed of design isn't fun, and how it can lead to a very mediocre final product when "required number of hours" is too much a deciding factor in creating gameplay.
The "roundabout" can go by any number of names where appropriate - you can also call it "the maze", "the spiral", "the path" and so on. All of these conceits of level design share one particular element: a given level or location has a relatively simple and straightforward layout, usually with a goal in fairly clear sight, but in order to maximize the use of space and the size of the level, the level designers go to the trouble of adding any number of diversions, dead-ends and other routes just to give the player a sense that the level is much bigger than it really is.
In more detail, the sub-types can be described as:
- The roundabout. Literally a location where the end goal is clearly visible, but to reach it requires the player to follow a huge diversion, usually spanning almost the entire level's breadth, just to reach it. Bonus points if you aren't just using a big path that goes around in a redundant loop, but also winds and coils excessively to maximize use of floor space.
- The maze. Lots of winding, twisting corridors, most of them dead ends, from where there is no clear vantage point to ascertain exactly where to go, or where any one location exists relative to any other location. Usually mitigated by top-down games, as the camera has a better perspective, but if limited view distance is still a concern it can be just as effective.
- The path. An overlong, straight and completely uninteresting level punctuated and given meaning by forced encounters and scenarios which cannot be avoided, bypassed, or even significantly delayed. Usually extremely transparent because the only reason the path exists, and is as long as it is, is to delay the player from reaching the end point and completing an objective.
- The copy-paste. This literally involves game designers using the same level portions or layout again, and again, and again, in order to create two or three times the amount of content for almost no effort whatsoever. This can apply to sections in an individual level, or multiple levels that share the same layouts.
Neverwinter Nights, unfortunately, frequently uses all four of these, sometimes within the same gameplay span. One of its most common level designs involves showing the player a locked door, or giving the player a particular room to reach, but then sending him/her off down extremely long hallways, which usually wrap around the extreme edges of the level space, only to then, at the farthest point possible, require the player to them move through a number of individual rooms, which are numerous enough to extend gameplay even more. A characteristic of this game is to fill almost every single hallway or room with groups of trash enemies and containers to loot, which serve no purpose other than to add more game time (more on that later).
|The Creator Ruins in NWN, also known as "how I lost most of my hair."
I am not exaggerating when I say almost every dungeon takes this design and runs with it, and let's also not forget those Creator Ruins, which exhibit all of the traits above, up to and including using the exact same "puzzle" on each and every floor, three times in a row. There really is no good excuse for this style of level design, especially when it is so transparently an attempt to extend gameplay time longer than it should be. A level which is extremely large for its own sake isn't fun, nor is forcing the player to perform the same repetitive task over and over, and in the end it can cause more far more harm to a game than good. Which brings us to...Do It Again, Stupid
I'm lifting this term from the honorable Shamus Young
, although in this case I'd like to appropriate it for a slightly different purpose. While Young uses the term to refer to games which force you to perform the same gameplay task over and over if you make a mistake, while often outright forcing those mistakes onto the player through no fault of their own (such as traps that require precognition to avoid), I think the term applies equally to another conceit of gameplay.
That is, of course, gameplay features which exist to be performed over... and over... and over again. Now, we all know that games primarily revolve around repeated mechanics operations within larger systems in order to achieve win states. If every game featured unique gameplay mechanics and systems for every scenario, that game would either be extremely short, or extremely non-existing. But, there are also plenty of times where you can draw the line and say "does that really need to be that way?"
"Do it again, stupid" refers to a particularly nasty subset of these features which exists to do nothing but populate a game through extensive, repetitive tasks which are often time-limited in order to artificially extend game time spent. Neverwinter Nights has two such examples, with a sub-category each:
- Opening containers. Lockpicking is a standard RPG gameplay action and one that is pretty much critical. To its credit, Neverwinter Nights also allows the player to use the Strength stat to bash containers open, as well. However, almost every single location in the game is positively peppered with chests, barrels, bushes, and other lootables, half of which are regularly locked. Almost all of these containers have randomly-generated loot of very little consequence, especially as money is so plentiful that the player can buy pretty much anything in the game without all that much effort. That's not all, though. First, many quest-related items are stored in containers, which means that it is basically a requirement to loot every single one in the game in order to not miss anything (or even simply to proceed). Second, lockpicking takes about 6 seconds, per container. Multiply this with an average of 3-5 containers per room and you are looking at artificially lengthening gameplay through an arbitrary timer, to the point of inducing psychosis on your players.
- Past the intro of the game, at least 50% of containers are trapped, and later in the game a good number of these traps will stun, paralyze or debilitate you in some way, often for 20 seconds. This either forces you to play a class that can disable traps or to take a follower who can (there's only one or two out of all of them, and you can only have one at once), unless you want to suffer spending regularly half a minute doing absolutely nothing, for something basically completely unavoidable if you don't want to miss game content. Thanks, BioWare!
- Combat. While combat in D&D games is supposed to be tactical and exciting, in Neverwinter Nights it is anything but. This is largely because the game is completely crammed full of hack-and-slash filler combat against filler enemies who are extremely easy to kill and do very little damage, but who also have inflated health bars. This is literally just a level designer copy-pasting the same enemy 100 times throughout a level. For bonus points, the level can also feature infinitely-respawning enemies too, which is always fun (not). This all ensures that combat is very frequent, regular and always takes 30-60 seconds, yet also has utterly no challenge to it, so it's almost never interesting to actually play. You can literally walk away from the computer and return to find your character has won a battle - I did this all the time just to endure my way to the end of the game.
- It's also worth noting that in the second half of the game, many enemies frequently encountered have spells which are capable of stunning you, or better yet, inflicting fear and sending your character running uncontrollably away, often into certain death. These always last 10-20 seconds, further inflating the time battles take on average. While they can be resisted through spells, potions, etc., most character classes that excel at combat (and are basically required to play the game comfortably) aren't going to have high enough saving throws to ever resist these effects, or enough means to do so through buffs.
All of this means that Neverwinter Nights is full of levels which take about 1-5 minutes to explore on foot, yet take regularly 20-60 minutes to play through. Very little of the gameplay you perform in this time is interesting because it is easy, repetitive in the extreme, and thoroughly uninspiring. I am pretty much certain this was all a contrived way for them to hit an "80 hours of gameplay!" mark, and unfortunately these game elements, deliberately engineered to waste time, are insultingly boring and un-fun.
Sometimes gameplay-lengthening isn't done directly through game design or level design. Sometimes it also comes down to the writers, and the way in which they construct the narrative. Let's face it, most videogame plots are very simple - you've got a bad guy, a good guy, motivations for each, and then the rest of the game is filler that has to explain why the good guy can't just go after the bad guy directly, walk up to his/her house and throw a molotov cocktail at it, etc.
This is no more obvious than in Neverwinter Nights. Not only are long stretches of the story almost completely irrelevant in the big picture, but every chapter of the game takes the exact same format of the player being forced to hunt down three MacGuffins - whether they're ingredients to cure a plague, journals to prove the involvement of individuals in a cult, or magic words that command dark and mysterious powers. It's always three or four, and you can bet the game will send you to the farthest reaches and darkest depths to uncover each and every one of them.
The problem with this sort of structure to the plot is that while it creates ample gameplay, the repetitive nature also leads to, yes, repetitive gameplay as well as repetitive storytelling. By centering the entire game's story around the acquisition of MacGuffins, there is very little room for drama, plot twists, and other things that keep the story and gameplay fresh. The "hunt the MacGuffins" plot also forces the designers on auto-pilot because they're basically doing the exact same thing for every part of the game. If the goals are the same, then variety in scenario design is also going to suffer greatly.
|Aribeth's fall is one of the most baffling and illogical things I've ever seen in a game, and it passes for the "drama' in NWN's story. It's also almost compeltely irrelevant to the plot itself, as far as gameplay and structure go.
It doesn't help, of course, that the story has more plot holes than Swiss cheese, character motivations which make absolutely no sense whatsoever, and all sorts of other problems which are glossed and painted over in the thinnest of ways. Videogame plots can get away with lots of plot holes, and still be excellent and enjoyable - but when the plot is so simple, repetitive and, frankly, boring, that all of those holes have attention drawn to them. After all, if the only elements adding any depth and interest to a story make no sense, and the rest of it is structurally flawed or simply insipid, how is the player going to feel about what he or she is doing at any given time? Probably not very enthusiastic.
I admit, this article is a bit of a "bad game designer, no Twinkie for you!" of my own. To their credit, BioWare have improved a lot when it comes to creating both stories and gameplay in their more recent titles, and some of the bits and pieces I've mentioned here tend to be a thing of the past. Yet if one looks to modern titles like MMORPGs or even first-person shooters, it's often plain to see these same contrivances all adding up and contributing to boring gameplay - especially when one takes away all the explosions, scripted sequences and cutscenes from the mix.