Thursday, July 2, 2015

Video Games: Quest Marker Overload

For some time now I've been feeling like I must be getting old. Its not because of my creaky joints, or lack of athletic ability (that's always been there), or even my curmudgeonly attitude toward kids-on-my-lawn (spoiler: I want them off of it). No, its been because video games just don't hold my attention like they once did. No matter how flashy and excited they seem to be, after just a couple hours I'm just not into it anymore. I've just started Batman Arkham Knight and already can tell I'm going to lose interest before too long. Lose interest? In BATMAN? Not possible, right? Well, rare is the new AAA game that comes out that I actually care enough about to finish. So what is wrong with me?
Wait, why are you VIDEO-calling an unmasked Barbara Gordon all the time while traipsing around the city, Batman? And she calls you "Bruce" regularly in the calls? How do you even still have a secret identity?

Turns out, I've decided I can take a smug look outward and say "Nothing is wrong with me, everything is wrong with the games designed these days!" (my walking cane raised angrily overhead). But its true. Game design these days focuses on two things that didn't exist in the past golden games of yesteryear: Quest Markers and Fast Travel.


While on the surface it seems like these two things would be at least innocuous or even beneficial to a player. I mean, why not just ignore them or turn them off if you don't like them? Its not the problem that I can't help but use them, the problem is that the games are made nowadays by the designers with Quest Markers and Fast Travel in mind so you must use them to make any sense of what you have to do in the game. Herein lies the issue.

Quest Markers - Games Designers of AAA games feel like they need to cram as much possible content into the games they make so that there is something that would appeal to everyone. This is why in Assassin's Creed games, games that are supposedly about assassinating historical figures, you open your map and are bombarded with 1001 collectible feathers, sea shanties, and secret chests to collect. Oh, sure, you can ignore them on the map and just head to where you want to go. But the whole map was designed in such a way that the only way its really all that interesting is if you're chasing a piece of paper across rooftops. Plus often you turn a corner there's the "Thing nearby!" sound that often begins a chase scene or just doesn't go away until you pick up the damn widget.

Its like google maps with severe schizophrenia.

Over-populated trinket Maps like this don't make gameplay any more fun, they just aggravate our inner OCD and keep us working on the game without even realizing it. Maybe they make people's OCD worse, who knows. I know that in Assassin's Creed Black Flag I took the time to clean the entire city of Kingston map out (much like the above map), and finally felt some peace of mind. Then I sailed over to Havana, took one look at that trinket-overloaded map, and realized that I was being bamboozled by fake game play-extention tricks. I wasn't actually having fun collecting all the secret chests, I was just trying to play the game as the designers intended, thinking it would help the narrative. But it doesn't. They don't give a crap. You're just wasting time.

Then there's Fast Travel - Now this on its face may seem like a great feature for a player. "Hey, I'm a busy adult with many important responsibilities! I don't have time to walk from one side of the map to the other in these big rpgs!" Fair enough. It probably was a great feature when it was first implemented, because the game designers weren't counting on it being used when they designed the levels. So they made the Quests that required you to travel much more rational. But nowadays, game designers just assume that fast travel will be used non-stop, so they design much-advertised "HUGE WORLDS!!1!" that are completely uninteresting between the Quest locations. Even Skyrim, as pretty as that game is, suffers hugely from a design idea that any player will only see the locations between the cities once, and then always teleport between cities after that, so you can pad out the in-between places as much as you want for no reason. Also, you'll never get lost in the looks-all-the-same world map, because there'll be that floating Quest marker on the screen, always beckoning you toward it in the most unimaginative way possible.
Why make the world immersive to travel in when there are so many spots to just teleport to?
"So they want us to have convenience, and be able to move quickly about the map. Why are you such a fun-hater?" you ask. Well, that's not the problem. I like saving time on overland journeys. One of the best rewards in Fallout 2 was getting the Car so you could move across the map much faster and avoid random encounters. The problem lies in the fact that the designers are looking at the map above, and need to make the flimsiest excuse to make the player go to each little site. So much so that every "Quest" you take on requires at least two Fast Travel-sessions all the way across the map and back, and usually for stupid reasons. Often these quests are things like "Please go fetch the sweet roll I left at my house when we fled Riften and bring it to me. I know its the equivalent of 80 miles away, but I really wanted to eat it!" Boom, another pointless quest filling up your quest journal. The only way to get rid of it from cluttering up your journal? Fast Travel to Riften, get the sweetroll from the dilapidated house (the one with the floating quest marker over it), then Fast Travel back to Markarth, and give it to the guy (again, the one with the floating marker over him). There. Quest complete. How heroic do you feel now? Like you've really accomplished something important? No, not at all. It was a waste of your time. And the only reason it was even a quest is because the Fast Travel ability exists and that means the designers don't need to edit out any stupid quest ideas during their brainstorming sessions. "Throw 'em all in!" they say, "The player'll just teleport wherever they want in our viking-age role-playing game."

If Fast Travel and Quest Markers didn't exist in video games, then the designers would be forced to make the maps make sense and help tell the story. It would provide a lot more immersion to the world. Like it did in past games, e.g. Half-Life and Thief. In fact, Thief and Thief II are probably the most immersive games that were ever made, and I say that as an authority on knowing what things are funnest. If you don't believe me or you want more excellent ranting on the subject, check out Dom Guica's Youtube discussion of Thief I and II game design vs. today. Its 27 minutes long, but absolutely captivating and worth every minute. Its really eye-opening, especially if you're a old-school grognard like me who likes to have your opinion on "here's whats wrong with the world today!" validated. Or, you know, any human ever.


I guess it just goes to show that tabletop gaming will always be the best. But when you can't tabletop, try to find/buy video games that don't patronize you with quest markers and garbage. Or just get back to painting those miniatures you left half-finished a month ago...

Game On!

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