The Secret Worst Thing About Modern Games
I've noticed a problem with games lately, but I don't know what to call it. When it happens, I'm temporarily infuriated. Most of the time, I go back to shooting monsters or collecting shiny objects and forget what bothered me so much. The real problem isn't that brief moment where I was infuriated, but how trying to avoid that moment has rewired my game-playing brain.
What I'm talking about is that moment in a game where you only need nine out of ten jewels to “100-percent” a level, but you accidentally walk down the hall that starts a cutscene, yanking you from one level to the next—suddenly and unexpectedly. I'm talking about the moment where a fork in the road is the difference between a secret path and the point of no return, but there's no way to know which is which. I'm talking about the difference between starting up one last side quest or accidentally finishing the game.
In game design terms, you'd probably call that poor scripting. I'm calling it the secret worst thing about modern games.
Why is it so bad? Well, for one, it sets up expectations in your mind. I've only ever played the first chapter of Alan Wake, but I'll never forget the feeling I got when I found the first collectible, a page of a manuscript. The game had interesting bits of backstory tucked away in these pages scattered about the world—backstory I'd miss if I wasn't careful. As soon as I realized that, the way I navigated the environment changed completely. I stopped moving down the linear path the game made for me, and I started combing the edges of the trail instead. I zig-zagged left and right, inching forward ever so slightly for fear that I might trigger a cutscene and miss something.
As Alan Wake sat in my backlog of games, I've had a lot of time to think about that experience. When I finally go back and see the rest of what that game has to offer, it will be without those manuscript pages. I'm going to ignore them, because these incentives to explore didn't provide a sense of freedom. On the contrary, I was trapped—made paranoid by the invisible trip-wires that move the game from one moment to the next.
When I got Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, a friend and I spent a solid week experiencing its numerous delights. That game is packed to the gills with charm, but it also turns everyone who plays it into an obsessive hoarder. If you finish a chapter without collecting enough studs for “True Pirate” status, you might as well have never played it.
It's in the hunt for these collectibles that the secret worst thing rears its ugly head. As you push through the level, solving puzzles and collecting studs, it becomes a race to get “True Pirate” before the level ends. The problem is that everything you're doing is so damn bizarre that there's very little indication of what the final goal is. When we weren't questioning the intent of the game designers every step of the way, we were stumbling upon chapter-ending cutscenes, with no way to undo it.
We as players shouldn't have to account for that. We shouldn't be worried that if we walk too far ahead in Portal 2 that we'll miss a bit of GladOS's clever dialogue. We shouldn't feel stupid for missing out on the incentives game designers scatter all over their world. They're the stupid ones for turning their carefully crafted worlds and stories into minefields of dumb scripting.
A new game called The Stanley Parable, a mod for Half-Life 2, also has something to say about modern game design. As Stanley, you move through a linear environment while a fine English gentleman narrates your tale. You should really give it a try, because it has some really clever things to say about choice and freedom in games. However, even in this simple indie game, you must be careful to not walk too fast or the narrator will talk over himself. Even in a game criticizing linear game design and comparing it to our day-to-day lives, the secret worst thing is there, subconsciously holding us back.
Maybe this issue has gone unnoticed because there's no real life corollary. You can comment on the linear repetition of jobs or commutes, but I'm pretty sure there aren't invisible walls all over our world that suddenly force you to stop everything you're doing. When a door closes behind you, you simply go back and reopen it. There's nothing to be gained by building these ridiculous expectations in our mind. There's nothing clever to be said about them, and it's rewiring our brains to stress over what may be the single, dumbest thing our minds have ever stressed over.