Monday, October 15, 2007

In praise of the episodic model

Kotaku commenters are making much hay about Nintendo's proclamation that gamers were "bored" before the Wii came along. I don't know what Perrin Kaplan actually meant by her comment, but there's one way to interpret it that makes sense to me. When you settle in for a serious gaming session, which I'd define as more than an hour of continuous play, you do eventually reach a zone where it'd be hard to say that you are having fun in the traditional sense. Instead, it's about accomplishing the goals the game has set before you. What enjoyment you derive is from the satisfaction of victory, not so much the moment-to-moment action.

Consider some of the more robust single-player experiences of recent years, like Oblivion or the recent Zelda. Both contain long sequences where you're not actually doing anything. You're walking across a field, or engaging in a meaningless fight with a weak and inconsequential enemy on your way to doing something that will advance the story. Or take one particularly silly task in Final Fantasy XII, in which you have to run around sowing the seeds of revolt by proclaiming the resurrection of Captain Basch. Is this fun? It may be satisfying or addictive, but it's not fun in the way that Nintendo has defined the term. It seems that hardcore gamers are after something else entirely.

That doesn't necessarily mean that we're bored, either. In a recent post, I lamented that I can't devote as much time to games as I used to. I enjoy playing the Wii with my friends because it's something we can start and stop as the flow of the evening dictates. I can't do that with a more hardcore single-player game. The flow of the game dictates when and how I will play. (This is the reason why I've started Metal Gear Solid 3 three times in the past year and never gotten more than an hour into it.) It means, unfortunately, that when I do get to play something, it's more about plowing through to the end than enjoying the journey.

Enter Half-Life 2: Episode Two. Like the first two Half-Life games, as well as Episode One, it's a honed, focused action-adventure that represents the apex of the genre (full review to be posted next week). But unlike so many games, it's only five hours long. This has been the sole point of contention in reviews of the game. But is there any better way to split the difference between the immersive experience I want and the "pick up and play" dynamic that suits my lifestyle? Episode Two's clearly delineated chapters made it easy to find a stopping point, but its expert pacing and ridiculous setpieces ensured that I kept coming back. And the short length made sure that it was never -- not in any tortured sense of the word -- boring.

Maybe it's not ideal for everybody, but that's my idea of fun.


Matthew Gallant said...

I felt the same way about Portal. Many people complained that the game was too short, but in my opinion the length kept the story and gameplay mechanics from getting stale. The result is focused, concise, and excellent from start to finish.

Granted... I wouldn't have complained if they'd added just another hour or two to the game.

Mitch Krpata said...

I could not agree more. I was expecting nothing more than a cool puzzle game out of Portal. Somehow they managed a funny, frightening, and complete game in only about three hours or so. Quite a feat!