When it comes to deciding what game gets my attention and why, I am absolutely ruthless. I don’t care how much better it’s going to get, I don’t care that it’s actually an amazing game and I just have to give it a chance. No. If you mess up in the first hour of a game, I’m done.
I call these missteps ‘deal breakers’, in reference to when there is something you can’t overlook in dating — something that outweighs all other redeeming qualities.
Deal breakers don’t have to happen in the first hour, of course — most of them do for me because once you’ve already invested hours into a game you might feel obligated to finish what you started. There’s almost this expectation, right? That you can’t talk about a game unless you’ve played it from start to finish, even if we’re not talking about a review or anything.
This expectation/guilt is what drove me to finish Max Payne 3, even though I think I outright dropped the controller when Max said that even he has no freaking clue what’s going on in the game anymore.
Early on though, there’s no remorse. It’s quick and painless to drop a game.
Recently I tried picking up Planetside 2. I liked MAG; I’m excited by the idea of large-scale warfare. I figured that Planetside 2 would be a good idea to try out, since it’s an MMOFPS that promises “epic, massive combat” in battles that might last “days or weeks.” Alright, cool. That sounds like a great premise! Count me in!
So I boot up the game, I pick my faction, and I’m dropped into a match. I see players all around me, they’re running someplace else. I look at my map. I don’t know where to go or what to do, really.
But I figure the best thing to do is to just follow other folks — I mean, this is a shooter, right? How complicated can the objective be? I’m probably supposed to go somewhere, capture a point or something like that. Simple stuff. All else fails, I know that right click shoots.
I play for 20 minutes, following people, going off on my own, scaling buildings to get a better view of what’s happening. I die a few times. At best I understand there’s an area where I’m supposed to be, but I have no idea what to DO there.
Could’ve looked it up. Could have asked people. …Could play a game that just gets it right instead of rewarding shoddy introductory levels where nothing is explained. I’m not even sorry; again, no remorse — there are games that get it right and those are the ones I’m going to spend time with.
Then we have games that treat me like an absolute idiot and overexplain everything — the tutorial never effing ends. I hate those too, and have been known to stop playing a game if it becomes too grating. But at least these set ups make it so that I actually know what the heck is going on!
Planetside 2’s approach, where little is explained, CAN work. The most sophisticated introduction to a game is the one where nothing is explicitly said, and instead everything is communicated through design alone. In this, Super Mario Bros is famous: there’s a goomba coming, and you only have a few seconds to figure out how to jump. In jumping, you’re likely to find out about mushrooms — the breakdown of that level and its design genius is a fascinating read.
Worse than both the under-explained and the over-explained start to a game is the boring start to a game. A game that starts too slow, takes too much of its time, assumes that you will be into it merely because it exists.
These games probably won’t grip you with an en media res start, which is kind of like a running start in the middle of the action, as in Uncharted 2. They won’t even give you an interesting premise to go off from, as in The Walking Dead‘s opening scene where you’re in the back of a cop car. No. You will suffer through the boring and you will like it.
Unfortunately, as much as I adore Persona 4, I wouldn’t blame anyone for dropping it because of its 4-hour throat-clearing. The game doesn’t give you enough in the start to truly appreciate the sleepy town of Inaba, and if it weren’t for the strength of Persona 3, I’d likely not have put up with Persona 4 — which reveals that yes, deal breakers have some wiggle room.
And then finally we have a thing that is running the danger of becoming a deal breaker for me: games designed specifically to make you feel guilty about something, while absolving the developer’s hand in making the mechanics intoxicating in the first place. Like Andrew Vanden Bossche says in reference to Spec Ops: The Line, and more overtly, a trend in violent games in 2012:
Video games are pretty eager to blame players for killing when designers are the ones that turn on slow motion every time I score a head shot.
I think it would be pretty cool to have a game about how cruel oppressive systems survive by pushing their problems onto individuals.
If 2013 continues this trend, there’s gonna be a lot of unfinished video games in my library.
But ultimately, the reason that so many of my deal breakers happen at the start of the game is that it’s the most important segment of the game. It sets the mood, the tone, the pacing — everything, really. If my introduction to something goes awry, what is to say the rest of the game is redeeming? I shouldn’t have to stick around to find out.
Do you have any game deal breakers — stuff that makes you drop a controller and go, nuh uh, this ain’t happening? Share below!