The 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey
We are here to condemn Grand Theft Auto IV, and other equally great games, not out of hatred, but out of love. For it does no good to point out the flaws in bad games as bad games by definition cannot be saved.
No, we aim to save gaming from the abyss by pointing out the sins of games like the Elder Scrolls and Half Life series, games made by creators who actually care. It is in that spirit that we proclaim the commandments that they have broken, so that they may be redeemed.
Who are we? Just a bunch of gamers who got really, really bored. What are the consequences for breaking these commands? Well ... we might start reading books or something.
Therefore, we declare ...
Thou shalt let us play your game with real-life friends.
Grand Theft Auto IV, MotorStorm, Shadowrun, etc.
Quick, tell us what the following games all have in common. We'll give you a hint, one thing is that they were all among the top 10 most popular games of 2007:
Guitar Hero III
Super Mario Galaxy
Madden NFL 08
Guitar Hero II
Mario Party 8
But what else? If you answered, "None of them contain male frontal nudity" then, well, you haven't gotten the 122nd star in Mario Galaxy. If you said that these games all have multiplayer that's intended to be played with friends in the same room, you're right.
Likewise, what's at the top of sales in 2008? Smash Bros. Brawl.
The advantage that consoles have over, say, PCs, is that you can play from your comfy sofa. The reason the sofa is considered the pinnacle of furniture technology is because there's room for other people on it.
Yet, here's Grand Theft Auto IV, boasting about its robust multiplayer, and if you think "multiplayer" means inviting the gang over to play, get drunk, laugh and high-five each other until the break of dawn, too bad. You can't do that. Want to play with friends, they must be kept at arm's length, faceless at the other end of a broadband connection. Grand Theft Auto IV multiplayer is a world without hugs.
They'll say that GTA IV's vast open world makes split-screen impossible. OK, what about MotorStorm? It's a goddamned racing game, and they won't let you play a real-life friend on a split screen. A racing game.
Sorry, you know damned well that technical limitations aren't the reason everyone is dropping split screen. Every previous generation had it, in times with much less powerful systems and few widescreen TVs.
This system had 4 MB of RAM.
You're dropping it because four players on a split screen are playing off one $60 copy of the game. Four players playing online need four copies ($240).
And these are the same people who're baffled about how the Nintendo Wii was able to depants the whole industry with its cheap, underpowered little machine. Hey, maybe it's because they're the one company that still seems to realize humans need interaction with other humans. Real interaction, not trash talking over a headset behind fake names.
By the way, some of you are scratching your heads about having the obviously single-player Mario Galaxy up there on the list. Well, it turns out Nintendo included an option so that at any moment, a friend can pick up the second controller and, with the pointer, help the first player collect items and shoot at enemies. It's a small thing, but it means a guy can get his girlfriend in on the action and cut off her complaints that his gaming is taking away from his time with her.
So when she comes over, do you think he's going to put on his GTA IV headset, or pop in Mario Galaxy? Here's a hint: The second choice gets him closer to touching boob.
Thou shalt not pad the length of your games.
Mass Effect, The Godfather games, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion IV, ah, fuck it. Any open-world game this generation.
See, here's the thing. We don't mind short games. Portal was a short game, everybody loved it. It was four hours of joy. Short is fine, as long as you adjust the price accordingly.
What you have started doing instead, game industry, is taking your short game and inventing some arbitrary way to pad the length. Such as:
Putting huge stretches of land between objectives.
Wow, what an awesome sprawling landscape your game inhabits. So sprawling that we have to ride a fucking horse for 20 minutes to get to the next mission. You also make it so that it's often not clear what the next objective is, and thus we must wander around aimlessly until we stumble across it. You then add up all of this cumulative horse riding and aimless wandering and boast that your game has "50 hours of game play."
"We must reach the citadel! It's 800 miles that way."
It's padding, plain and simple. And so is ...
Adding pointless, mandatory fetch quests.
The Metroid Prime series is guilty as hell of this, letting you get near the end before you have to track back across all the old levels and retrieve a bunch of shit. Twilight Princess turned us into a dog and made us go retrieve magical pearls for what felt like days at a time.
Games like Oblivion and Mass Effect give the illusion of almost infinite length, but their endless "go into another identical dungeon and retrieve X" side quests are just slightly remixed copies of previous levels.
Those games get a little bit of a pass because their repetitive side-quests are optional. Which brings us right to ...
Thou shalt not force repetition on the player.
Resident Evil 4, the God of War series, Heavenly Sword, No More Heroes, Dead Rising and every game with save checkpoints.
Here's a very simple rule:
Humans only find repetition enjoyable when they choose it.
Let's say you sit on your bed one afternoon and, out of boredom, fling playing cards at a hat for two hours straight, just to pass the time. You amuse yourself trying to hit 10 in a row.
Now imagine it's later in the evening and you're about to have sex with your girl. Suddenly she sits up, her boobies hanging out, and says, "Wait! We can't do it until you fling 10 cards into that hat over there! It's a rule in the obscure religion I practice!"
Will you enjoy the card flinging this time? No, and in fact the repetition you found enjoyable before will become maddening, as you flip cards around your frustrated, wilting manhood.
Well some video games are like tossing cards: sports games, fighting games, racing games. The fun is in repeating and practicing them. But other mission-based games are like having sex. There's a specific progression and goal in mind, and repetitive interruption only ruins the mood.
Such as ...
Having to replay levels due to limited save points.
This is a throwback to the arcade/NES days when physical limitations in the system wouldn't allow you to save your progress just anywhere. There is no reason for this now. None. We're busy. We've got work, appointments, phone calls. We shouldn't tolerate an inability to save our progress in any piece of software.
DAMMIT I JUST WANT TO FIND A SAVE POINT SO I CAN GET TO BED
Half Life 2 did this perfectly--it auto-saved every few minutes, behind the scenes. You didn't have to worry about it and you didn't have to re-fight enemies you had already defeated.
There are people who say that preventing saves adds to the "tension" of the game. Sure, in the sense that the fact that your 360 could catch on fire at any moment also adds to the tension. Face it, if the only way you can think of to add suspense to your game is to disable a feature of the hardware, then you suck at making games.
This is almost as bad as when you ...
Force us to watch cutscenes repeatedly.
This should be the law: If you've programmed your cutscene so that we can't skip it, then you should have your game programming license revoked. If you have placed your cutscene right before a spot where we're likely to die, and given us no ability to save after it, then you deserve a beating.
God of War: Chains of Olympus does this. And you'd better hope you don't die during the long-ass Bowser fight at the end of Mario Galaxy, because you've got to listen to his fucking monologue every fucking time you start over. Unskippable cutscenes killed Nights: Journey of Dreams, as sure as a bullet to the back of the skull.
Oh, shut the fuck up.
Seriously, what could be worse than this? Oh, wait ...
Instant failure quicktime events.
This has got to be one of the most diabolical inventions in the history of gaming. If you're not familiar with the term, this is when in the middle of a cutscene, suddenly the words "HIT THE A BUTTON OR DIE!" flash across the screen.
If you fail to hit the right button in that split second, the consequence isn't that you lose damage points. No, the consequence is that you have to watch the fucking cutscene again.
Until we turn off the game, get in our car, and drive to your office to deliver your beating.
Thou shalt make killing fun.
Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles, the Half Life games, almost any game where you fight with sword.
There is a reason why almost every game on the market allows us to kill many, many living things. We humans have a primal urge to kill because, thanks to natural selection, all the homo sapiens who didn't have a primal urge to kill, were themselves killed.
Thus, we find killing very satisfying and video games allow us to go through the motions of killing without actually endangering ourselves or others. Why then do you do things that rob us of this joy? Such as:
Starting us with a bullshit weapon.
Yes, we get that earning bigger, fancier weapons is a reward to keep us playing. But don't make us start with a weapon we probably have in our real-life garage (hey, thanks for the wrench, Bioshock).
"Gordon, the whole world has been taken over by a race of malevolent aliens. All of humanity is depending on you. Here's a goddamned crowbar."
And once you give us the cool weapons, don't keep forcing us to go back to the shitty handgun due to lack of bullets for the non-shitty napalm-tipped shotgun. We're talking to you, Resident Evil series.
How the hell did this trend survive past Wolfenstein? We hate using the handgun. You specifically put it in the game because we hate it. You know you did. We paid money for the game; so why are you making us do things we hate? Ever?
Things like ...
Filling the game with tiny rodent enemies.
Every first-person game seems to have these tiny little enemies that hop at your face, are hard to hit and, worse of all, are unsatisfying to kill.
How many of us were enthralled with Elder Scrolls: Oblivion during the opening prison escape, only to find ourselves in a cave with a rusty sword, trying to kill freaking rats? Seriously? Rats? In the game that was supposed to change gaming forever?
How many of us still actually enjoy shooting head crabs in the Half Life games, having slain half a million of them? How many Wii owners were thrilled to have a frenzied shooter like Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles only to find themselves shooting those pathetic leech things off the floor in room after room?
The only thing less satisfying is ...
Bullets that have no visible effect.
If we shoot a zombie in the arm, we want his arm to blow off. If we shoot him in the knee, we want him to limp. And if we shoot him in the head, we want his head to explode. We want our bullets to create wounds. Now let's watch a bit of Umbrella Chronicles, and watch the zombies go down undamaged, as if beaned with a baseball:
Oh, hey, there's some of those leech things, too. Yay.
Sword-fighting games like Oblivion are worse. You can slash the bad guy in the face with your blade and it does nothing. The enemy looks perfectly normal until he finally falls over dead, as if he had a heart attack from the excitement. Why give us a sword if we can't decapitate people? Don't tell us the system can't handle it, we were blowing off zombie limbs in House of the Dead a decade ago.
It's not about our blood thirst (well, not just about that), it's about making us feel like we're accomplishing something as we work our way through hordes of cookie-cutter bad guys. Oh, hey, you know what else we hate?
Filling the game with hordes of cookie-cutter bad guys.
This is another one of those problems that are exacerbated by new-gen graphics. Now that we can do photo-realistic faces, it's suddenly very weird that we're killing hundreds of identical clones.
How hard would it be to randomize facial features and skin tones? That's what we want, to feel like we're killing hundreds of different people. Not a bunch of clones or twins. We want to know, deep down, that there are hundreds of grieving mothers out there, lamenting the terror of our dreaded blade.
Thou shalt admit when enough is enough.
Turok, Gears of War, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Call of Honor, Metal of Duty: Honor Call
There are two times in a creative field when you know you have to move on: When something just isn't working, and when something has worked for too long. Some conventions that have never worked include:
So you've spent the first half of the game accumulating weapons and hit points and turning yourself into a zombie-killing machine. How does the game reward you? By forcing you to escort a completely helpless and unarmed dumbass through the war zone, and making so that you instantly lose if they get a scratch on them.
No one has ever liked an escort mission, ever, in the history of gaming. So why do they still exist?
CPU-controlled squad teammates.
This is supposed to be the flip side of the above, here the computer gives you a half dozen or so teammates to "help" you fight the Nazis or commies or zombies or whoever the enemy is that day. It doesn't work. It has never worked.
Either the AI is too stupid, or it's so sophisticated that it has become sentient and aware of the futility of living. Either way, as recently as Call of Duty 4 we've got teammates walking in front of our machine gun, eager to feel the sweet, sweet embrace of death. And then we get penalized for it.
First-person jumping puzzles.
There is no possible freaking way to jump accurately from a first person perspective. All of the things that would let you do it in real life (sense of balance and momentum, awareness of your body) are gone. Also, you can't see your fucking feet.
Yet, here we are in Half Life 2, entering the spooky, atmospheric zombie town of Ravenholm, ready for the fight of our lives. How do we defeat the undead hordes? Why, by jumping across rooftops, on wooden platforms and suspended cars, like freaking Mario.
This brings us to our second category of "enough is enough" gaming elements, which are ones that sold truckloads of games, but that need to be retired. Such as ...
World War II games.
The average gamer has killed more Nazis than the entire Russian army. Where the hell are the World War I games?
The grizzled space marine.
Doom introduced the grizzled space marine to the gaming world 15 years ago, dreamed into existence by someone at id Software, probably just minutes after watching Aliens. The grizzled space marine character so captivated the imagination of first-person shooter fans that they decided to have him star in every single FPS game since.
Gears of War
Haze (left) and Turok
Oh, look. We've come full circle.
Aliens: Colonial Marine
Will the gaming world ever get enough of the grizzled space marine?
Yes. Yes, we will.
Thou shalt make sure your game actually works.
Bully for the 360, The Orange Box for the PS3, too many others to count.
We're ashamed to even have to include this. This is like having to ask McDonald's to cook the burger before they serve it to you, or having to remind your dentist not to videotape himself slapping you in the face with his penis while you're under. It's the sort of thing you'd feel ridiculous saying.
Yet, here we are, telling the game industry to please only sell us games that function. Some sins that have been committed against this commandment:
Porting games after about five minutes of beta testing.
What's happening here is exactly what we were afraid was going to happen once every console was online (never mind that 30-40% of them still aren't): that they would start following the PC gaming method of using the early buyers as unpaid beta testers. Push the game out the door, wait for complaints, then release a patch later.
So here's Rockstar games, releasing Bully for the 360 and then having to do an emergency patch after it took gamers literally hours to realize it was broken. Over here is Valve (you too?) releasing a broken version of The Orange Box for PS3 and again scrambling to get it patched after gamers started screaming.
Seriously, you guys want to go down the road that PC gaming has gone? Really? Because piracy isn't the only reason PC gaming is dying a slow death. It's because when you mention PC gaming to a casual gamer, the hairs stand up on the back of their neck. They're remembering long, frustrating afternoons downloading patches, eventually deciding that to be allowed to play games on the PC, they had to fucking be Hugh Jackman in Swordfish.
But almost as inexcusable is ...
Releasing games the console can't really run.
Look, we know with PCs it's hard as hell to make sure your game runs smoothly on every system--every PC is different. But you know what's inside an Xbox 360. There no reason, none, ever, under any circumstances, that your game should stutter and slow down because the console is choking on the graphics. This is like selling us an L-shaped condom. You know damned well what we've got to work with here.
Which brings us to ...
This is going to being the Achilles heel of this generation. It utterly breaks the spell of an immersive game to freeze the action while a "Loading ... " bar comes up. This would be like going to the theater and having the lights come up between every scene, so they can put more film in the projector.
This has got to get fixed somehow, and there is no solution on the horizon. Blu-ray isn't better, its worse. You've got the PS3 having to do huge installs of their games on the hard drive (yeah, that's you, Devil May Cry 4), not to eliminate load times, but to keep them under a level that completely cripples the game.
The 360 meanwhile has to spin its disk so fast that it sounds like a jet taking off--you can hear it over the game at times. These disks are like a wheelbarrow full of pudding the console is trying to eat with a straw.
When you sit down to design the next generation of game machines, start with this.
Better graphics do not equal innovation and/or creativity.
Sony, Microsoft, countless developers.
Here are the three competing new-gen consoles, adjusted so that their size roughly reflects how powerful their hardware is in relation to each other.
Here are the same three consoles, adjusted so that their size reflects their worldwide sales in 2007:
Fascinating how that worked out. And yet, guys like Epic games president Mike Capps are out there making stupid-ass statements about how they would never lower themselves to develop for the Wii because that would be "going backward."
This is epidemic in an industry that defines "innovation" purely by graphical horsepower and nothing else. Guys like him are utterly baffled that anyone could ever want a Wii, just because it, you know, offers a completely new playing experience.
Somehow these guys have gotten it in their heads that nothing counts for innovation except bump mapping and pixel shaders. "However can any human enjoy these outdated graphics without literally vomiting with disgust?"
Well, if these people would bother having a conversation with someone outside their own offices, they'd realize that the entire concept of "outdated" graphics is meaningless to 80 percent of gamers.
Want proof? Nintendo DS games look like this:
So let's see how that machine's sales compare:
Go check for yourself. They've sold more than 60 million of them. Tell you what, Mike. The next time you see some casual gamer tapping away at their Nintendo DS, show them a screenshot of Gears of War:
Don't be shocked if they point out your game seems made up of three colors (brown, gray, and muzzle flash). Sure, hard-core gamers know the difference, they know the game is a marvel of technology. The rest of us just want to have fun, or be told a good story.
And guess what, there are ways to give us that, and it doesn't involve spending millions on a whole new game engine that pushes the hardware to its limits. Such as ...
Hiring real writers ...
Hey, you know why Portal was such a great time? They hired top-of-the-line writers to write the story and dialog.
... then hiring competent voice actors to say the lines.
Don't skip this step. Otherwise you get this ...
That retarded clip is from Final Fantasy X, a game that cost $32 million to make. Come on, guys. Fork over a tiny bit of that to your story team. They need the money. And after they're on board, remind them ...
Put some work into the ending.
You owe it to us. We worked hard to get here. Don't send us away with a 30-second cutscene of the hero riding into the distance on a jet ski before the credits roll. Whatever happened to the Final Fantasy VI endings? You know, the one that was 20 minutes long and wrapped up the stories of every single character even briefly glimpsed in the game?
It's cool-ass endings that make us want to keep playing. Instead, we get games that graduated from the Metroid school of single-frame congratulatory text.
After all, the idea is to reward the gamer for playing.
Hell, maybe we should have just said that and skipped this whole thing.
David Wong's descent into madness is chronicled in his horror novel coming out this fall. You may also enjoy his Gamer's Manifesto or his rundown of 7 Viral Videos You Didn't Know Were Staged. And speaking of video games, remember when the premises used to be about dinosaurs riding giant birds and all other manners of clown shit insanity? Ever wonder why? Find out in Video Game Pitch Meeting (1979).