A lot of video games have received unconditional love from me in the past, even when they are peppered with mechanics and design choices that frustrate or puzzle me. It can sometimes be hard to reconcile. How can a game have so many faults, but still be so enjoyable overall?
Take Mass Effect 3 for example. While in many ways (most notably combat) it improved over the first two games in the series, there were also a number of things that bothered me to no end. I’ve been slowly replaying it and often find myself yelling at the TV over poor design.
- Side quests that are completely lacking in context. Run through the Citadel, and your quest log fills up with 2 dozen fetch quests. Occasionally you overhear people talking about these quests, but you don’t need to stop or listen to them, the quest just appears as if you’ve accepted it. There’s rarely any information offered in the quest log other than what star system the item can be found in. These kinds of quests are terrible for immersion.
- Related to the issue above, the quest log in general sucks compared to the first two games. A bare minimum of information is offered.
- There’s no sense of place. Every location is restricted to small, contained areas. You fast travel everywhere.
- Speaking of fast travel, the Citadel Rapid Travel terminals are still in the game and you can interact with them, but you can’t actually use them. You need to use the elevators instead. (Why the hell can you interact with them when you can’t use them?!)
- The entire game is fan service. Except the ending. Ba dum pssh.
Or how about the Twin Peaks-inspired Deadly Premonition? This game is a cult classic which people tend to either love or hate. I just finished this game after starting it more than 2 years ago, because I could only take the game (specifically the combat) in small doses.
- Poorly designed combat. Tank controls, an awkward control scheme for aiming, not being able to aim and move at the same time, bullet sponge enemies.
- The worst final boss fight ever. Long range shooting is awful.
- Everything is so slow. When you examine something or try unsuccessfully to pick up some ammo but can’t because your inventory is full the text appears, one letter at a time, at a glacially slow pace. You can hold down a button to speed it up, but it’s still slow. A lot of the time as you’re smashing buttons trying to make it go faster you accidentally examine the damn thing again.
- Lack of inventory space, and irritating inventory management.
- Cliche “serial killer murdering women” story.
Wasteland 2 was just released a few months ago, but is an old-school isometric RPG in pretty much every way. In trying to hold on to the Fallout 1/2 aesthetic and feel, it makes a number of design decisions which just don’t appeal to modern gamer sensibilities.
- Terrible inventory system.
- Weapons that jam, effectively wasting a whole turn in combat.
- Antiquated skill system. Try to pick a lock or brute force a door and you’re shown the % chance you have of doing it successfully. A lot of time is spent repeating these actions when you fail and if you critically fail, the item you’re working on just breaks and you can’t access it anymore.
- No ability to respec your party’s skills (unless you hack the save file, which I did a lot), meaning if a party member leaves or dies you might be left with no one who can pick up that skill at a high enough level to be useful.
- Ugly character models. If you want to make your own characters rather than use the pre-made ones, the character portraits are also hideous.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a game I call one of my favourites of all time, despite it having a host of problems.
- Bugs! So many bugs. From minor annoyances like graphical clipping, to crashes, to game breaking issues at certain points of the story.
- Character designs look nice in close-up, but watching your character move in 3rd person view just looks wrong.
- While the beginning locations of the game are wonderfully detailed and rich, as you get towards the end it seems like the quality drops off.
Then there are point and click adventure games. All of them. Well, maybe that’s unfair. Let’s say 90% of them. Convoluted solutions to simple problems are a mainstay of the genre. Almost every adventure game I’ve played has had that moment (or many of them) where I have no clue what to do and furiously try to combine each item in my inventory with the others, or with the environment. Or painstakingly move the mouse cursor over every pixel, trying to see if I’ve missed an object. Often the solutions to puzzles are things no logical human being would ever think of. Like combining an inflatable duck with a bandaid, a metal clamp, and a rope to retrieve a key from the subway tracks. Or throwing a pie to ward off a yeti, as opposed to using a weapon or magic. It’s like they were designed to sell hint guides (when those were still a thing).
It might seem like I’m writing this post just to rant. There may be a little truth in that, but overall it’s about how many problematic elements I’m willing and able to overlook in games because the whole is better than the sum of its parts.
Mass Effect 3 may have many frustrating design decisions but I still love it because, well, feelings. I’m attached to Commander Shepard, Garrus, Joker, EDI, and the rest of my crew. I love seeing them interact with each other, I love running into characters from previous games, and watching the story come to an end is both heartbreaking and satisfying. Plus I love being a renegade and punching out anyone I can.
Deadly Premonition is certainly not top quality at a technical level, but it pays homage to one of my favourite shows in an oddly sweet fashion and features so many quirkily lovable characters that it’s hard to resist. What’s the frustration of one 8-minute long quicktime event compared to the strange joy of listening to the hero talk to his other personality about attending punk concerts as a teenager?
Wasteland 2 may have used some stale mechanics, but that doesn’t overshadow the detail and love that went into it. The annoyances didn’t prevent me from spending 50 hours in the game, and enjoying most of them. For every annoying dice roll fail there’s some great little detail that brought a smile to my face, from finding Teddy Ruxpin dolls to the hidden cache of Atari ET cartridges. Choices mattered in the game, and being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland meant a lot of times where were no right or wrong decisions, just different shades of gray.
VtM:B may have been riddled with bugs on release. It may have once broken my save file right at the end of the game so I couldn’t finish the game. However, it’s also one of the most darkly atmospheric games I’ve played, with a deep backstory drawing from the World of Darkness RPG, and a collection of great characters. Though I’ve only beaten the game once, since the quality does dip a little near the end, I’ve played through the Santa Monica section more times than I can count and playing as a Malkavian makes a great game experience even better. I’m not the only one who loves this game. Ten years after its release, fans are still making and releasing patches to iron out all those bugs.
And adventure games? Well, they may be frustrating and highly illogical, but not enough to stop me from replaying my favourites like Quest for Glory, The Longest Journey, or Gabriel Knight every few years.
So, does a game need to be of “good” quality in order to be enjoyable? Clearly not. I can overlook quite a lot of issues in games and still find the overall product most satisfying. Pull at my heartstrings, give me a great story and atmosphere, unique and interesting characters, or just amazingly fun gameplay and I can overlook a lot of negatives.
Of course it’s not just technical or mechanical issues that can detract from games. Another question I ask myself a lot as I play games is how problematic portrayals of characters – generally female characters – impacts my enjoyment of those games. This will be a topic for another time though. As soon as I finish Saint’s Row: The Third I’m going to have a lot to process and talk about. It’s something to think about.