Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Get to the point!

Above: Link actually gets to do something.

The first two hours of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword are just plain bad. You spend a lot of time reading endless boring dialogue; you receive lessons in the most banal gameplay mechanics, such as how to jump over a gap (you run toward the gap); you are leered at by grotesque circus freaks that represent some twisted Nintendo designer's idea of whimsy. You get a lot of minor quest objectives like, "Go talk to Pipit!" and "Hey, why not talk to Pipit again?" It's not a tutorial for people who have never played Skyward Sword, it is a tutorial for people who have never played a video game before, and it is excruciating.

When I complained about the slow start on Twitter, Kotaku's Stephen Totilo assured me that Skyward Sword becomes spectacular about 6-10 hours in. For a game that I've read is at least 50 hours long, that's perhaps a reasonable introductory period. In absolute terms, it's ridiculous. Only in a video game are you expected to log a work day slogging through nonsense just to get to the good part.

Every medium has its point of no return. If a book hasn't grabbed me by 100 pages, I'm likely to drop it. If a movie hasn't made its case within 45 minutes or so, I have no problem turning it off. In neither case does that seem like I haven't given the work a fair shot. In a video game, though, if I put 6 hours into something and don't enjoy it, people will still be counseling patience, telling me that it will all pay off eventually.*

Sure, some games have slow starts. All I ask is that it keep me interested during that period. One of my favorite games of the past few years, Far Cry 2, took a good 4-6 hours before it got completely up to speed, but it was good enough to start with that I was willing to make the investment. You do have to wonder: how good can a game become in order to justify a bad start? Isn't the beginning a part of the experience, too?

As usual, where you land on this argument depends on what you think the purpose of a video game is. Totilo made the analogy to learning to play a musical instrument: in Skyward Sword, he said, the game "is a piano and all you're doing right now is playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." But I think it's an imperfect comparison, because I already know how to play this metaphorical piano, and having to start with the simplest possible tune is, yes, a waste of my time. Where Skyward Sword deviates from the standard is by giving me 1:1 motion controls for the sword. So why not start there? Why not assume that I know how to jump across a gap without making some elfin freak explain it to me in numbing detail?

Besides which, I may have a more active role in playing a game than I would in listening to a song, but I'm still the consumer and not the artist. To use a different analogy, if Skyward Sword were a book, then the implicit agreement, when I crack the cover, is that I already know how to read. I don't need to be taken through the alphabet first.

I'm not trying to be cynical. I sincerely hope that the next time I talk about Skyward Sword, it's to say how good it's become. But no matter how good it ends up being, I can't imagine that it ever justifies such a slow start. There are only so many hours in the day.

*This was taken to extremes with Final Fantasy XIII, you may recall, when people talked about it getting good about 20 hours in. They weren't wrong, necessarily, but I thought the game was plenty fun from the beginning, thank you very much.


Daniel said...

I feel kind of dumb for saying it after reading this, but I actually really loved the whimsical cast of Skyloft. Everyone had a personality (even if they're just anime stereotypes) and you can go into their rooms and see that they're all uniquely decorated. I thought the opening was funny and fun in a way that Twilight Princess was not and it reminded me of the goofiness of Wind Waker, which is my favorite 3D Zelda.

Maybe I'm a sucker, but I was pulled in by the silliness and I loved the first two hours.

Contrast it with Skyrim which started big, but I've been super bored with. There's no atmosphere to that game. The attempts at photorealism just drive it so deep into the uncanny valley that I feel super disconnected from the game mechanics and everything is SO BORING. All the lore, every conversation, etc.

Mitch Krpata said...

Hey, to each their own! The more I think about it, the more I am starting to wonder if the world building is what has kept me from enjoying the 3D Zeldas. There is something I have always found off-putting about the characters and the locales, ever since Ocarina. Maybe it's as simple as that.

Re: Skyrim, that is exactly what is keeping me from playing it.

Alex V said...

Nice post.

The other problem with the "it improves after x number of hours" argument is, I would argue, that almost anything becomes more fun after a massive time investment. Because after that time you invest something of yourself into the process. Listen to the worst album in your collection for ten hours and you'll start to enjoy things about it.

Andrew Doull said...

The Witcher 2 was criminal in this regard. I'm surprised more people didn't call it (Edge magazine was the only review I saw that marked it down for this), but I suspect since game reviewers 'have' to play the game until the end, they don't tend to criticise slow starts.

Unknown said...

I totally agree. I challenge you to name a game Nintendo has published in the last 5 years (excepting the mainline Mario games) where you haven't had to press A to get through torrents of text before you could start playing and get to something interesting.

It's agonizingly bad.

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Mato said...

I'm a gamer, and so while I agree overall that for someone like myself, the "challenges" seen at the beginning of Skyrward Sword defy the meaning of the word, I do think Nintendo has put themselves in a rough spot. They're painted into a corner. They've advertised their console and games to nongamers. They've told them: "It's okay to be a nongamer, because we'll take care of you." and "You don't need to be a gamer to enjoy what we make." These not-so-subtle statements make serious (and I use that word in context of Nintendo's products, not gaming in general) products very difficult. They still want to bring the same universal appeal to a wide audience, but also don't want to sacrifice the nuance and verve of a title that doesn't compromise challenge.

I think they're doing the only thing they can do, albeit rather ungracefully.

Drew Norton said...

I think that games do get off some what easy for not starting off with a bang. For whatever reason, it seems to be expected that there will be something of a slow start. I suppose this is from tutorials and the gradual difficulty curve every game but Dark Souls has. I agree that this is a ridiculous assumption. If a game hasn't grabbed you in the first hour, then that's a problem. It doesn't mean that the game is instantly awful, but it is certainly a big negative mark. Six hours is a lot of time to invest before something is interesting.

I'm really curious about the world-building comment though. Are you saying that because 3D worlds are getting larger and more intricate that they're putting you off? I agree, to each his own, but I personally love exploring these places. This is especially true of Skyrim, where I would argue that exploration itself is the key to the game play.

Mitch Krpata said...

It wasn't a general comment -- I got completely hooked on Fallout 3, for example. I just have never liked the character design or the look of the worlds in the 3D Zeldas. I really find the characters to be grotesque and off-putting, whether they are allies or villains.

Daniel said...

I love it when Nintendo gets weird and bizarre. The stranger and Tingle-ier the better because otherwise LoZ gets more and more generic and boring (see Twilight Princess)

Bjorn Morrison said...

Great read, and I wholeheartedly agree. IN more detail here: http://www.purpledoggames.com/blog

As a potential solution to this problem, I wonder why more developers don't add a "I've played this type of game/the prequel before, skip the intro/tutorial stuff and drop me where the fun starts" button. It wouldn't be hard to include in-game narrative justifications for this. It's way more important than "After cryogenic unfreezing/waking from a coma we need to see if you can look up and down in order to calibrate your xyz suit thingy".

Unknown said...

I actually had a chance to participate at the demo panel here in Toronto. I really don't know what to expect from future Zelda games based on this one! LOL!