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.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.