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.