It's time once again for The Designer's Notebook's annual compendium of goofs, screw-ups, and errors of judgment or taste—those elements that make a videogame less than what it should be. These Twinkie Denial Conditions (TDCs) aren't restricted to bad games only; sometimes they're just one blemish on an otherwise good game.
Almost all of these have been sent to me by readers (and if you have some choice remarks about designers who don't deserve their Twinkies, I'd like to hear from you too, at email@example.com). Unfortunately, I'm not rich enough to afford a PS2, an Xbox, a GameCube, a Dreamcast, a GBA, and a top-end PC, all at the same time, so I haven't been able to verify for myself all the examples mentioned. But even if a detail or two is wrong, it's the principle that matters.
Wrecking a Game's Balance for the Sake of A "Cool Feature"
Bryan Buschmann writes:
"The most recent gem I know of is from the makers of Silent Storm. They hand you a big box of turn based stealth action in a World War II setting. And then in the course of one mission, throw in walking tanks that are literally invulnerable to everything except the new weapon that exists only as a) a giant, unwieldy laser cannon you've never seen before, and b) a laser mounted on one of these walking monstrosities. Once you've found and used these laser weapons to kill the person inside the walking tank (not the tank itself), you can get into the walking tank and essentially turn your squad mates into a legion of unstoppable juggernauts and thus totally destroy the balance of the game. It truly was a sad moment, to see such an achievement of style and technology wrecked in the later stages by ridiculous game design. Thankfully in the expansion pack they listened to their user base and decided to rework their entire implementation.
"There were people posting on the forums with such brilliance as 'Well, if you just disregard all previous strategy that you were doing and just do this one thing that I'm doing, it's fine!' … I don't like being told halfway through a game that my previous play style is now invalid."
The infamous walking tank of Silent Storm
I think Bryan has summed it up pretty well. A lot of designers succumb to this temptation. Their desire to incorporate, like, totally awesome weapons overrides their desire to, like, balance the game properly.
Personally, I don't know what giant walking tanks are doing in a game about World War II anyway; it's been 60 years since D-Day and we still don't have giant walking tanks—I doubt if we ever will, since they're totally impractical. Science fiction, OK—historical simulation, not OK.
Dead Opponents Resurrected While You Sleep…
Or when you save the game. Anita Ray (and several other people as well) wrote to complain about this one. As she puts it,
"You have just successfully killed the Monumental Titan Demon of Krall and 18,000 minions. Your health and mana are exhausted, but now that all the titan demons are dead, the game will let you rest so you can continue your adventures. So you rest… and discover that magically the Monumental Titan Demon and his minions have been resurrected (probably before you've been healed, too). You die a terrible, nasty death. This problem seems to occur a lot after a save, too.
"This is lazy programming that kills accomplishment. It makes saving/resting a potentially deadly encounter that frustrates the hell out of gamers (at least me). And yet, it doesn't seem to be unusual in RPGs. I've had this difficulty with games that were otherwise decent (Morrowind and Baldur's Gate pop to mind). It has caused more creative use of the English language than the current political administration, and that's saying a lot."
Ah, if only it could be attributed to the programmers! Sorry, Anita, this one belongs squarely at the door of us game designers. The whole issue of spawning and resurrection is a complicated one that I'll deal with in a future column, but I do know one thing: when a boss is dead, it ought to stay dead unless you reload the game at a point before you met the boss. I'm not wild about bosses anyway, but I recognize that they're a standard convention, so we need rules for implementing them. A boss shouldn't be resurrected unless there's some clear reason why it's possible (and some way to prevent it). And a boss should certainly never re-spawn the way a normal grunt does.
Someone who signs off as "Deathbliss" rants:
"I just got through playing Brute Force for the Xbox and guess what? There is no way to map the controls the way I want to! This is becoming more and more of a problem on the Xbox, and I hear it's the same for the PS2. The best control mapping-scheme I ever saw was in Quake 3 Arena for the Dreamcast—that's the way it should be done. On the PC scene and loosely related we have titles like Silent Hill 2—WITH NO MOUSE SUPPORT! Or Gothic, with the mouse not being something you can configure and use the way you like."
I couldn't agree more. This is worse than a Twinkie Denial Condition; any big commercial game that doesn't let the player reconfigure the input devices merits withholding all snack food. This is especially true if it's a twitch game requiring high dexterity, where a tenth of a second counts. Configurable controls are trivial to implement, cost next to nothing in RAM and storage space, and make your game far more accessible. When are game designers going to realize that human factors engineering is not just something for fighter planes and nuclear power plants?
It needs to be done properly, though. R. Alan Monroe writes to complain about…
Bad Configuration Mechanisms
Mr. Monroe says:
"When I'm customizing the keys for a game (like an FPS) I can click on the action and press a key, but how do I know which keys are free, and not already bound to something else? There are three bad ways to handle this: an error message saying the key is already in use; the new action steals the key from the original action; or me having to scroll up and down an endless list in a little bitty window to see if it's already taken.
"How about: a) showing a list of all unbound keys, or b) displaying the key remapping list full screen with four or five columns, so I can see all of them at once?"
Once again, getting this right is just as easy as getting it wrong and costs nothing, so why not do it right?
This one's a little bit difficult to describe in generic terms, so I'm going to let Jason Seip put it in his own words with a specific example. He says it happened in Splinter Cell for the GameCube and was just "a bad moment in a good game."
"I was in a building that was about to be destroyed by a bomb. I misinterpreted my orders, thinking I was supposed to escape, when in reality I was supposed to find and defuse the bomb. Checkpoint A was the moment I was told about the bomb and shown how much time remained before detonation. I ran as fast as I could through the level, bypassing the room with the bomb, and further fighting my way past enemy soldiers. Just before time ran out I passed a checkpoint ("B") and thought I had succeeded, only to have my game end about 5 seconds later due to the bomb going off. When my game restarted, it was at the newly acquired checkpoint, so the bomb went off again after 5 seconds. This kept happening over and over, with no chance of me backtracking to resolve the issue."
The moral, he says, is: "Don't let the player reach checkpoint B if he or she hasn't satisfied the requirements of checkpoint A." Checkpoint B should have been in some area that was completely inaccessible to the player until the bomb was defused.
Jason actually ran across one of the fundamental conundrums of linear interactive narratives: the Problem of Narrative Flow. How do you make sure that the player has done everything he needs to do by the time he arrives at the dramatic climax of your story, when you don't control his actions? There are various solutions, one of the simplest being: unlock the doors to the dramatic climax one at a time, so the player can't get there until he or she is ready. Jason actually got ahead of the story by skipping a step, so the story took a wrong turn and came to a dead end.
Yet More Fantasy-Killing Elements
In my very first No Twinkie episode, I mentioned fantasy-killing elements: elements of the game that are so stupid or inappropriate that they destroy your sense of immersion. As you can imagine, this covers a wide range of blunders. Gregg Tavares rings in with a few:
Music that doesn't fit the game. In many games an emotional connection to the game is important. Music helps create this emotion when done correctly (scored like a movie, for instance) and detracts when not (generic peppy "game" music, licensed music, user-selectable music, and so on). [I would add that the popular practice of licensing completely inappropriate bands to do music for a game is just as aesthetically bankrupt as that of doing it for movies. M.C. Hammer for The Addams Family? Excuse me? That’s marketing gone mad. —Ernest]
In-game dialog that refers to real-world things. In Metal Gear Solid, Commander calls Snake on the walkie-talkie and says something like "Snake, to open the hatch press A on the control pad." Huh? In real life no one would refer to a control pad, because it's outside of the game’s world. Grand Theft Auto 3 has a better implementation. In GTA3 game characters stay in character 100 percent of the time, and gameplay-related explanations are printed on the screen, detached from any of the characters.
Extremely ridiculous situations. This of course happens in lots of Hollywood movies too. For example, you've got 18 hours to stop an atomic bomb going off. Oh, I know, let's spend lots of precious minutes flirting with an in-game character (Metal Gear Solid). The world ends tomorrow, so let's go to an amusement park (Final Fantasy 7). I'm around the corner from a guard about three feet away, so let's have a conversation on the communicator with the commander (MGS again).
Jerry Strand and "loganb" both wrote to complain about movies that you couldn’t interrupt. Sometimes they're incredibly long intros that you have to sit through every time you start the game; sometimes they're cut-scenes that play right after a save point. If you keep getting killed and have to reload from that save point, you have to see the movie again. I'll add some more: the uninterruptible 15-second spell-effect movies in Final Fantasy 8. (I haven't played the others in this series, so I don't know if they're all guilty of this or not.) They're impressive the first time, interesting the next three or four, and exceedingly tiresome from then on. It discourages you from casting the spell or even playing the game after a while.
Now, I actually like cinematics in games (Dogma 2001 notwithstanding), so long as they're well executed, short and sweet, visually compatible with the rest of the game, and actually add something to the plot. Unfortunately, a harmonic convergence of all these qualities only occurs in about 25 percent of the cases. The rest of the time, they're corny, irrelevant, or both, and I want to button through them and get on with playing the game. Once again, the fix for this is trivial—so do it!
That's it for this edition of Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! Thanks to all those who wrote in and apologies to those whose suggestions I didn't have room for. But keep those cards and letters coming to firstname.lastname@example.org, because all of you can play far more games in a year—and spot far more Twinkie Denial Conditions—than I can.