A Time and a Place for Repetition

Day One DLC, on-disc DLC, and sinister micro-transactions are but a few of the problems facing game development these days. They threaten the very livelihood of the game industry by burying gamers under the weight of endless exploitation. They are important–but they aren’t issues I want to talk about right now.

We get so bogged down in these money issues that we sometimes ignore the bad habits being developed in actual game design. The boss battles of Deus Ex: Human Revolution were prominently criticized for feeling completely out of place, and that was deserved, but I don’t think developers get enough constructive criticism like this.

That said, there’s something that’s been getting under my skin lately. When playing Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the Playstation Vita, I was forced to play out the same set-piece for what felt like almost a half-dozen times. It went something like this: Drake and his friend turn a corner, stumble upon a turret emplacement, and Drake must platform around the environment until he can get a bead on the grunt manning the turret.

I couldn’t find a picture of the turret sequence, sooo Fat Drake!

This scenario was interesting the first time. It added a timing element to the platforming, as I had to jump from one spot to another whenever the turret reloaded. It was a novel little twist…the first time.

Games cost more than ever, and the resources required to build a simple scenario like this are immense. It’s no wonder developer Bend Studio wanted to get some mileage out of their creation. But by repeating it even once, the magic is immediately lost. Every reuse of the moment watered it down exponentially, eventually hurting my opinion of the game as a whole. I’m suddenly asking myself, how much of this game was built to waste my time?

The Uncharted series is notorious for this reuse of moments. How many times are environments divided by your buddy dropping you a ladder, or asking for a boost up to a higher platform? These animations play out dozens of times in each title. While they serve a purpose by closing off one area and moving you into another, they break immersion by showing the same animation over and over again.

How many times did Gears of War 3 recycle the same barb-wire fence/garage door lifting animations? And don’t even get me started on the dreaded turret sequences.

God of War, the original Dead Space, and even Mass Effect 3 padded out their lengths by locking you in a room for an indeterminate amount of time and tossing waves of enemies your way. Sometimes the context for why you’re trapped is so arbitrary it’s insulting.

What I want to know is, who is asking for this? I know many people want to feel that they get their money’s worth, but this isn’t the right approach.

Dead Space 2 largely solved this problem by adding a twist to every single repeated sequence. The notorious “grabbed by tentacle” moment is built out into ambitious cinematic moments, and in one brilliant instance, you’re suspended upside down while hordes of enemies surround you. They even do the “locked in a room for an indeterminate length” trick, but here the room’s air is vented into space, leaving you without the auditory cues that are so important to survival.

Simple but substantial twists can allow smart designers to reuse assets and gameplay moments without boring the player. Or, they could just omit repetitive moments entirely. Short games can be disappointing, but padded-out games are so much worse. And really, if you want to do everything twice, isn’t that what New Game Plus is for?

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