Save the world? Sure, but let’s collect every bit of treasure first.

queenpam and I have been playing some old (or not-so-old) PS2 games: we’re totally done with Kingdom Hearts 2, are going back through Ratchet and Clank to pick up all the skill points (optional mini-challenges), we’re about half done with Shadow of the Colossus, and God of War is currently on hold because we got fed up with the underwater stay-ahead-of-the-thing-that-smashes-you-into-the-wall task, after being smashed into the wall … I’m going to say at least two dozen times. So I am in a mood to blather about game design.

These games all feel very different, but fundamentally they’re the same kind of game: single PC (possibly with one or two helpers) goes through 3D world in over-the-shoulder-vision, fights monsters using a variety of hand-to-hand and ranged weapons, solves lethal puzzles, eventually confronts Big Bad, saves world. (Or maybe just Athens. Or his dead girlfriend.) And they all have the same odd relation to time: time only advances when player actions trigger plot events. This is most blatant in Kingdom Hearts. You fight the Nobodies all the way to the top of their castle and drive their leader to retreat into the giant floating candy heart. Mickey Mouse¹ tells you that you must follow immediately, and defeat him once and for all. But there is a save point. Like all save points, it allows you to warp back to the over-map, which means you (the player) can spend as long as you like polishing off all the optional challenges, collecting every single treasure chest, and leveling up the PC until the final battle is a cakewalk. In terms of gameplay hours, I think we spent almost as long doing optional challenges as we did playing the main game, and we weren’t done! We gave up on some of the ridiculously hard or irritating ones.

This doesn’t especially bother me in Kingdom Hearts, because, after all, most of zones in the game are the settings of various Disney movies. You’re not playing this game for the internal self-consistency. Also, I haven’t ever played a Final Fantasy game from beginning to end, but I have the impression that this is part of the furniture of that series. It would bother me more in Ratchet and Clank, which is trying for internal self-consistency (if not for plausibility), but it’s also rather less blatant there: you have the option of delaying the final confrontation as long as you like, even though the Big Bad is going to destroy your planet Real Soon Now (and you may need to, in order to earn enough bolts to pay for the uberweapon without which defeating the Big Bad is ridiculously hard) but the Big Bad is the sort of lunatic who would postpone the completion of his project just to laugh at you for showing up just barely too late. (Also, you can go back and do the optional challenges after you defeat him.)

It really, really bugs me in God of War, even though they may not be doing the postpone the final confrontation indefinitely blatant version (we haven’t got there yet) — the PC has to go off to some desert and find a weapon that can kill a god, so he can defeat Ares, who is laying waste to Athens. Right then. With an army of monsters. Retrieving the weapon takes something like a week of in-game time. I don’t see how there can possibly be any of Athens left by the time the PC gets back! … Really, though, my objection here is not to the timescale, but to the whole plan of saving Athens by sending a hero off to the desert to retrieve a god-slaying weapon from such a deathtrap of a temple that Indiana Jones himself would quail. We got him smashed into the wall at least two dozen times. That’s twenty-four universes in which he never came back. Never mind all the other traps, many of which killed him at least once. And did I mention the monsters? If I were Athena I would go kill Ares myself, and worry about how to patch things up with Zeus later. (Or maybe I should just kill him too! He ate my mother because he was afraid their child, me, would kill him! This is Ancient Greece! You know that means I’ve got to do it one of these days!)

It doesn’t come up at all in Shadow of the Colossus, but only because that game’s more linear than any of the above. You can’t even kill the colossi out of order. (There must be something preventing your dead girlfriend from rotting away all this time, but I’m prepared to assume the disembodied voice who’s promised to resurrect her if you just do this small favor for it first [Wikipedia tells me its name is Dormin] can do that.)

… I had a point somewhere in here. Maybe it’s that this is another way it’s hard to make a game also be a convincing secondary world. My suspension of disbelief is impaired because these games have done enough that my brain is filling in things that should happen and being tripped up when they don’t. But if you made those things happen, the game would actually be a worse game! You don’t want to force the player to do the final battle before they’re good and ready. Also, I probably wouldn’t have noticed so much if the optional side quests had all been interesting rather than tedious; and if there are simple adjustments one could make to the plot to alleviate these problems (like, Ares’ army is going to be in Athens in a week, and Athena wants you standing at the gates with the godslayer weapon when they get there) one should make those adjustments.

¹ Yes, that Mickey Mouse. The same one who’s in Steamboat Willie.

Responses to “Save the world? Sure, but let’s collect every bit of treasure first.”

  1. madmanatw

    Yeah, that’s one of the hard things. Making a hard time limit means that if you lose a fight because you weren’t ready, you have to go back some huge amount of time and do a lot of things differently- you can’t just reload to before the fight. And no one wants that. It would suck to have a week to perform Critical Mission, fail, and go hmm, how could I shave 12 hours off of the time that took me? All I can think of is doing this part from Day 2 faster… at which point the next click is more likely to be Quit than Reload.

    For the purists among us we may wail and gnash our teeth that most players just don’t really care about that much realism, or at least that piece of realism. The main example of it I point at is Ultima VII, where the Big Bad is waiting for a planetary alignment. Your handy orrery has the planets click to their next positions each time you finished a plot point, but it would happily hover at Real Soon Now for as long as you wanted to wait to get to the final room.

    Not really sure what to suggest, though- U7’s system would have worked fine if it hadn’t been modeling a natural phenomenon. Do something like that only have it be sentient agencies who are advancing their own agendas and I have no real problem with it. While you’re doing sidequests, maybe so are they. ;)

    1. Zack Weinberg

      I like the notion of sentient agencies advancing their own agendas. It also might help with the thing where you can level up the party until the final battle is an anticlimax: who’s to say the end boss hasn’t been leveling up, too? It can’t just scale linearly, though, because you want the player to feel that the leveling was some use - I envision a curve where, say, you can fight the end boss at level X but it’s ridiculously difficult; at level X+5 it’s much easier; X+10 only a bit easier than X+5; X+20 not much point.

      And then perhaps there can be in-story consequences to putting off the endgame too long; not fatal ones, but maybe not-getting-the-optimal-ending ones. Works best in a context where there’s a range of outcomes, not just Win and maybe also Bonus Win. Doing the endgame as soon as possible should be like doing a challenge ascension in Nethack - significantly harder but also significantly cooler.

      Speaking of Nethack, I wonder how it is that contra all other games, roguelikes manage to get away with making you start from scratch when you lose. Is it just that everyone is used to that in that genre (but no others)? Seems too simple.

      1. madmanatw

        A scaling bad guy is fine, IMO, but you are right that it can’t scale linearly with the player- Oblivion did that and it is by far the #1 complaint I hear about the game. Awesome game, but if you spend a few levels learning non-combat skills, suddenly every little bandit on the road is running around in uber armor and can kick your ass.

        If you want it to look natural, with each sidequest you perform that increases your power somehow, the badguy has a few more guards in place.Not enough to counterbalance the increase in your own power, but enough that it is clear that he’s taking advantage of the time you’re taking to do these quests to beef up security. :)

        For your nethack question you’re going to have to define lose. I would daresay that most RPGs don’t actually let you lose in the first place. (Ultimas IV-VI, for instance, had the King rez you if you died.) The ones that did just make you go back to the last saved game. (The SSI goldbox games, which I’m replaying, actually just say The monsters rejoice that the party has been destroyed. and then dump you to DOS!) Nethack and its ilk’s uniqueness seems to me more in the save scum prevention.

        1. Zack Weinberg

          I remember the The monsters rejoice … line!

          The thing with roguelikes is people accept and even embrace the rule that death means you start the game over. There are other single-player games that have similar characteristics (e.g., right now what my brain wants to do when it’s tired is play ridiculously hard solitaire card games) but none of them have the dozens of hours of gameplay that goes into a winning roguelike run. And if you tried to do death means start over with a Final Fantasy or an Ultima I think people would throw the game across the room in frustration. So what’s the difference? Is it just that when you start playing a roguelike you die dozens of times in the first few levels, so starting over isn’t annoying, and then you’re used to it?

          1. madmanatw

            I really don’t have a good answer to this one. I mean, the one time I’ve won a roguelike (ZAngband), I did so by save scumming—and, having won once, I haven’t save scummed since. So somehow they got away with it by making it part of the culture of the game, but beyond that I really don’t have a good explanation for it.

      2. elsmi

        Two interesting aspects of rougelikes that might matter: First, if you die, it’s never because you didn’t quite twitch your finger at the right time – no screens full of moving objects and if you touch one you die; it can be legitimately claimed that all nethack deaths are the player’s fault for not planning better. Second, when you do start over, random generation means the game is totally different in detail, so it’s not god I have played this level thirty times I am so bored make it stop like most modern games would be.

        Not that I am a useful resource on games, since I never play them, but maybe it gives a useful clue!