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Too many distractions are burying the fun of AAA games

AAA gaming is annoying like my well-meaning dad. Allow me to explain. 

A couple of weeks ago I was on a train up to my mum and dad’s place for the weekend. It’s a fairly long journey on a fairly crowded train, so obviously I was taking the smart approach and opting for full sensory shielding from the immediate world and its various misshapen inhabitants. Sunglasses were on in order to avoid eye-contact. Headphones were blaring as a defense against ambient jibber-jabber. I had a few new albums to run through, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. But there was a problem. I was going up to my mum and dad’s house.

Thus, every 20 – 30 minutes, just as I getting a feel for the shape and flow of the new sounds in my ears, they would cut out, brutally and without warning, as my phone pinged or rang with yet another unnecessary communication from my dad. ETAs, line statuses, transfer options, current ambient air temperature in Bahrain… It’s great that he’s the kind of caring chap to think of this stuff when I’m travelling, but once I bought a smart phone I kind of hoped he’d just put his feet up. As positive as his intentions no doubt are, there was no way I could really enjoy the experience I was trying to experience, due to the illusion breaking, external distractions throughout. 

And it struck me afterwards that that’s one of the big problems I have with modern AAA gaming. 

You see there’s a definite irony in the way that big blockbuster experiences are often put together. We’re constantly told that the developers are going for immersion, cinematic spectacle, and affecting emotional empathy. But while the building blocks for all of that stuff are entirely present and correct, they’re frequently overshadowed by a whole raft of tertiary elements that seem utterly intent on poking me in the arm the entire damn time and obnoxiously nagging at me, like a drunken teenager in a cinema.

For me, Tomb Raider is the worst recent offender, at least in terms of the dichotomy between its immersive, cinematic aspirations and the distracting, arm-flapping reality. Now a lot has been said about the dissonance between story and gameplay in Tomb Raider, largely stemming from Lara’s instantaneous ‘evolution’ from scared, violence-fearing innocent to crackshot bow-twanging angel of death. But that wasn’t the problem for me. I found a far worse narrative bulldozer in the game’s incessant parade of on-screen announcements, acknowledgements, celebrations and XP updates, which seemingly appeared each and every time I did anything.

As I've discussed before, Tomb Raider does a great job of bonding the player with Lara’s developing character through the shared experiences which emerge from its gameplay. But I’d have found our evolution into cunning, adaptive survivor all the more satisfying if each successful domination of the environment hadn’t been accompanied by a cavalcade of jarring, Alan Partridge-style on-screen commentary. “Headshot!” “Surprise attack!” “Environmental damage!” “Shit! Did you see that!?” All too often the game’s affecting, empathy-building interactive storytelling was buried under a pile of numbers, maths and stark reminders of the traditional video game mechanics running underneath. And that surely is the opposite of what the developers were going for with the kind of world and story they were trying to create.

And it gets even worse when these kind of fourth-wall wrecking balls bleed out of the main gameplay. While it started in last-gen games, most notably the Burnout series, the practice of using loading screens to advertise gameplay mechanics and additional game modes now feels like it’s getting out of hand. It sometimes feels like no sooner have I hit start and begun getting myself psyched up for the meaty chunk of campaign story or multiplayer action I’m about to enjoy than the game itself is trying to talk me out of it by pimping out the other possibilities.

It’s a brutal mood breaker, and what’s more it feels a bit arbitrary. If I've already bought a game and have it happily sitting in my disc drive, there’s simply no need to keep advertising its content. The marketing job is done, and the chances are that my existing knowledge of the game’s features is a large part of the reason I've decided to pick it up. You don't need to sell it to me again. 

Now there’s every chance that this stuff is a conscious move on the part of publishers to reinforce the idea that their game is a multifaceted jewel of a thing, more than worthy of a long-term place on my shelf and certainly not fodder for a swift trade-in. I find it slightly suspicious, for instance, that the process was most aggressively kickstarted in the games of online pass originator EA. And to be fair, from that business perspective it’s not a bad idea on its surface. But the incessant, tireless execution of the whole thing just smacks of a hyperactive ADHD need to advertise a product I already own. And that comes across as a bit try-hard.

A live news ticker on a title screen I can deal with. As games increasingly become evolving platforms rather than standalone products, ads for new content like DLC and multiplayer updates make a great deal of sense. But the constant sandwich-boarding for on-disc, day one content makes me feel more like I’m juggling plates than playing a game. It doesn't make me excited for the many other possibilities contained within. It just gets in the way of me fully enjoying the possibility I've chosen. Could we chill out with it a bit during the next-gen, please guys? Oh, and if we could make HUD reduction a standard part of the options screen, that’d be just dandy. 

(And if anyone at EA wants to put real Alan Partridge commentary in FIFA '15, I'd totally get behind that). 

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

20 comments

  • mothbanquet - August 13, 2013 8:15 a.m.

    Any article that references the indomitable Partridge is noteworthy but you were absolutely spot-on too. Assassin's Creed II's more garish HUD and incessant reminders that I was actually in a game was a massive let down. I much preferred AC1's minimalist approach and far more ambient cities. It was like stepping back into the 1100's, rather than simply playing a game set within them.
  • sternparez - August 13, 2013 3:12 a.m.

    THAT...WAS A GOAL
  • CitizenWolfie - August 13, 2013 12:44 a.m.

    I don't particularly mind the loading screens so much, even more so now that instruction manuals are becoming a thing of the past. Unless the game gives you a tutorial for a new move or something (also annoying) you might not even know it's there. But perhaps giving us the option to turn loading screen hints off would be nice. My main gripe is perhaps a result of the Achievement generation. It seems like developers are under pressure to give us reasons to keep getting achievements/trophies and saturate the big AAA games with hundreds of bits of crap to collect. Tomb Raider actually had a fairly decent story but I completely lost focus in it because I felt obligated to scour every area for artifacts and GPS caches. Same goes for Bioshock Infinite and Last of Us - Elizabeth/Ellie are pushing ahead in a desperate story moment while I'm a hundred yards behind hugging each wall and corner trying to collect every audio diary or document. And don't even get me started on all the arbitrary shit we're encouraged to do in Assassin's Creed since the second game. As someone mentioned previously, Far Cry 2 was one of the last games I played that was truly immersive. The fact that you could look at a map in the character's hands while keeping the game in play, having to patch yourself up in the middle of a desperate gun battle, skills evolving organically. The only extra nonsense was the diamond collection and a few side missions but the story missions were so good that I never felt the need to do them. The trophies also felt like they were earned naturally through actions I were doing anyway. I have no idea why Far Cry 3 decided to go back to the pause menu for skill progression and item management.
  • awesomesauce - August 12, 2013 9:30 p.m.

    AC3's mutiplayer really grinded my gears because everytime you died the respawn screen's text felt the need to try and analyze the situation and correct you. Like everytime you died it was your fault and it could have been avoided.
  • ultimatepunchrod - August 12, 2013 5:12 p.m.

    David Houghton once again showing why he's the best writer working at GR.
  • PBC13 - August 12, 2013 4:51 p.m.

    I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this kind of thing. There is a part of me that loves the little flickering of numbers and words that indicate what you have just done. But at the same time I don't like it when I am bombarded with stuff all at once. Assassin's Creed III has the worst example of this. I enjoyed the game, seemingly more than most, but the constant notifications of what you have collected and the various things you have unlocked got a bit overwhelming. Especially as it was sometimes hard to tell quite what it all actually meant even if you did read it. But worst of all is the mission constraints. I have no real problem with the concept but it was so unavoidable in AC3. Some missions where I should have been able to really immerse myself into it were ruined by the massive blocks of text telling me exactly how I should play it. And, even worse, turning a bright, vivid you're-an-idiot, shade of red when you got them wrong. So I suppose I don't mind it if it fits nicely into the background. But it's a pain in the arse when it won't allow you to ignore it.
  • Timstertimster - August 12, 2013 2:20 p.m.

    As a professional designer I feel qualified to make this remark: I blame game designers 100% for all of this. They do not spend enough time and effort on DISCOVERABILITY. Instead they take the easy way: "oh you'll never figure out that you can attach your grappling hook to two things at the same time. Let's tell you in the loading screens so you won't miss the fun". How many times have we struggled to progress through an on-rails type if game like Tomb Raider because it wasn't apparent that THIS TIME you can indeed climb a ledge even though it's not normally possible. Stuff like that is lazy environment design. Meanwhile, some decent standards are emerging: wondering which way you're supposed to go? Most likely you will find a few birds fluttering away just off that ledge.. "Aha! I'm supposed to jump from there". See something blinking up in the corner? Must be some sort of collectible. Even more irritating is the totally immersion-breaking nonsense of placing random crates all over the joint just to force me to explore. It's the lamest, most boring aspect of almost all of today's AAA games. I also blame programmers. Loading screens really ought to be a remnant of the past altogether. Come next gen I will not consider any game with constant loading screens every time I enter it exit an interior. There are many ways to make that transition transparent to the user and still accommodate necessary load times for assets.
  • garnsr - August 12, 2013 1:30 p.m.

    I don't want to go back to the days of RPGs that didn't tell you if something you bought was better than what you have, or whether you could even equip it. Some streamlining and having the game do some of the work for me is good. I like some transparency in games, telling you how far it is till you level up, and stuff like that. There are times when the notices that pop up aren't that important, theough, and they still drag my eyes to the side of the screen, away from the action. Being able to turn off each type of notice is helpful.
  • shawksta - August 12, 2013 11:05 a.m.

    Neat article David, you put out a neat point, there are just somethings that distracts you from being immersed and a lot of games these days have it. Frankly im just getting annoyed of the whole "AAA" shenanigans stealing spot lights for other games just because they are of a certain series or made by a certain company.
  • phil-winkel - August 12, 2013 10:52 a.m.

    I agree to an extent.. games are catered to ADHD kiddys with 2 second attention spans; there is no denying that. However sometimes those 'tips' in the loading screens (or wherever) can be useful. I can't count the number of times those tips have taught me something about the game that I did not know or fully understand. It is nice to have them as an option that you can turn off, once you understand the game and don't want to see them anymore.
  • garnsr - August 12, 2013 1:26 p.m.

    There aren't any instruction books anymore, so you have to give us information in hand-holdy tutorials or tool tips now. You have to go online to look for how to do something now, though, you used to be able to go back to the book while you were playing to remember how to do something they introduced a while ago, but now you only get tutorials and tool tips, and usually no log that tells you what you've learned, and no way to tell when that useful tool tip will pop up.
  • archnite - August 12, 2013 10:45 a.m.

    While I agree with the present points it seems like these complaints could get turned around if they were taken. Especially in reviews if games didn't advertise or communicate features, with so many being in modern games wouldn't they be chastised for being too oblique and having poor user interfaces? The Tomb Raider things in Tomb Raider though are to over the top. I already yell "Headshot" into the void of my life when I get one, I don't need the game making it worse.
  • Rhymenocerous - August 12, 2013 10:32 a.m.

    Once again Dave, you're absolutely spot on. I think in regards to the HUD, more games should ape the style of The Getaway in that there was no HUD at all. Characters' damage was represented visibly by blood, cuts and bruisers, directions to locations whilst driving were relayed to you by following your car's indicator lights (which I always felt was genius). The aiming was great too (the free-aim was at least), in fact better than the much-loved Resi 4. Instead of using a laser sight, the camera went directly behind your character's hand/gun - but still far out enough to be considered 3rd person, and it functioned perfectly. I think gunplay in that game took a lot of flak, simply because people were always trying to use the lock-on/auto-aim mode, which was admittably pretty terrible. I must say that I appreciated the trend of a lot of current-gen games that used a very minimal HUD, such as LA Noire and GTA 4, while I had to go in the options and turn off every single helper in Deus Ex 3 however. Now, loading screen hints and immersion spoilers... Please die. "Stomp corpses to find supplies." That's from Dead Space, (or something like that). I haven't played the new Tomb Raider yet but "Tomb Raided!" is certainly not something that would ever appeared in the '96 original - it just does not fit the atmosphere.
  • PatHan-bHai - August 13, 2013 4:42 a.m.

    Yep. The first time I played The Getaway (borrowed from a friend) I was shocked that there was no HUD. Now, how was I supposed to find out how much ammo I had; how much health I had left and so on. After scouring the net, I found out that there was no HUD. :/ But, that kinda helped with the immersion. I counted every single bullet I shot off; listened closely to what everyone said (my hearing is a bit impaired and so, I would always leave it to the 'Objectives' menu), gave ample time to my Guy to relax. I somehow managed to finish the game and I'm kind of proud of it. :)
  • Zeos - August 12, 2013 10:17 a.m.

    I too agree with this article, well done.
  • Mr.YumYums - August 12, 2013 12:18 p.m.

    Far Cry 2's immersion was fucking outstanding. Felt like a true warrior out in the wild. And the malaria always kept me paranoid and on edge, love it. Maybe I'm a masochist but I loved the experienced.

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