Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Third-Person, No-Save, and Consolitis 1

The infection of consolitis is spreading within the population of PC games.

I noticed today that Dead Space, which I had been looking forward to as another take on the wonderful System Shock, is not only third-person-only, but apparently the developers also decided to impose a checkpointing "feature" instead of allowing players to save their game when and where they choose.

So now I'm forced to reconsider buying this game. Now I have to miss out on what otherwise could have been a great game because its developers -- for whatever reason -- chose to impose game design concepts from some cramped console spec onto a PC version of the game that doesn't need them (with Dead Space being the latest example of such a game).

As a gamer, I'm really unhappy about the particular trends toward third-person and no-save designs. I do not find them immersive, which is what I want from a character-based game in a detailed gameworld.

I'm aware that some people claim it feels more "immersive" to them when they can see their character. I want to find these people and say to them, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

To me immersiveness is about suspending disbelief in a high-bandwidth gameworld to the point that I identify with my character and can easily pretend that the gameworld is a plausibly real place. Seeing the gameworld through the eyes of my character helps me to achieve that suspension of belief. That makes my gameplay experience of a very world-y game much more enjoyable.

Getting to watch my character's back as I move him or her through some landscape for fifty hours is not immersive -- no one's back (or other body part) is that interesting. All this forced third-person perspective does for me is prevent me from enjoying the more direct, personal, visceral experience of the gameworld that I enjoy.

Being able to save my game whenever I choose to do so also enhances my enjoyment of a detailed gameworld with a branching storyline by allowing me to back up and try different options. As I previously noted, I can cope with a checkpoint system in a game like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare because it's intended (in most parts) to be a very fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping action game, and saving/loading/replaying does slow down the action.

But in a more thoughtful game, such as a narrative-based or puzzle-rich game where thinking about options and exploring alternatives is the primary form of fun, a checkpointing-only system is unnecessary to the point of abusiveness. After promising a game with lots of conversational or interactive possibilities, the game then takes them away from you by not permitting you to save and restore in order to try out alternative approaches. How does that make any sense?

In some checkpoint games, the only way to see more of the game's content is to restart the whole damn level from the last point at which you were generously permitted to save. Maybe that works for the kind of mindless Mario/Kratos cotton candy that constitutes most console games, but it's absolutely wrong for a detailed-world game that takes advantage of a PC's capabilities. Here the developers have gone to so much trouble to make a detailed world full of interesting characters, ripe for exploration... and then they lock down the gameworld with a heavy-handed "we know what's best for you" checkpoint system that marginalizes the urge to explore.

If Dead Space is an example of a trend toward this kind of developer obtuseness, I guess maybe my gaming days are coming to an end.


Of course I know that the days are long gone when good games were made first for PCs and then ported (maybe) in reduced form to consoles. Now they're built pre-crippled for consoles and ported (maybe, or maybe not) to PCs.

That doesn't seem like progress to me. It feels more like "we don't want your filthy PC gamer money."

Too bad.

And why is EA so often the offender here? Madden NFL 2009... console-only. Mass Effect... console-only for months, and third-person-only. Dead Space... third-person-only, no save. Has EA under John Riccitiello really given up its lust to control game designers? Or is EA already back to its old tricks by insisting that all its third-party developers distort their games to meet some corporate "design-for-consoles-first" demand? (Of course it's possible that the developers of games published by EA all happen to be following a consoles-first design choice independently and voluntarily, and EA has nothing to do with it. But what fun would that be?)

Meanwhile, thank you, Todd Howard and Bethesda for resisting this stupid trend. Oblivion demonstrated (and I expect that Fallout 3 will follow suit) that it's possible to design and launch a game for the PC that supports console SKUs as well, and without having to be massively dumbed down in the process with third-person-only and no-save restrictions that degrade the immersiveness of the game.

Maybe there's still a glimmer of hope left for PC gamers....

EDIT 2009/01/23:
There is yet another utterly stupid issue occuring to PC games designed first for consoles: PC gamers using widescreen monitors actually lose big chunks of the gameworld as displayed on the top and bottom of their screens compared to gamers still using 4:3 glass monitors.

Instead of displaying more of the gameworld to the left and right (to fill the greater area available on a widescreen monitor) by increasing the horizontal field of view (FOV), designers who take the console-first approach actually zoom in on the gameworld and clip the top and bottom sections of the screen.

According to the invaluable Widescreen Gaming Forum, the reasons for this seems to be that many console games today are designed for a default display with an aspect ratio of 16:9. When they port their game to the PC, they simply don't bother messing with a FOV setting that would allow PC widescreen users to see the same amount of world vertically and more of the world horizontally as a 4:3 PC user.

This laziness afflicted BioShock until a clever gamer created a solution. (Months later, Take Two finally issued a patch of its own.) It afflicts Far Cry 2. It afflicts STALKER: Clear Sky. It afflicted Spore until the 1.001 patch. Strangely, it does not afflict Assassin's Creed or Dead Space, but those games (especially Dead Space) are so cripped by the other common symptoms of consolitis -- lousy controls, no quicksave/quickload/3rd-person only -- that while they may look good on a widescreen monitor, my experience of trying to play them on a PC was an non-stop exercise in boredom punctuated only by frustration.

So poor widescreen support for PC gamers isn't as common as the other aspects of the dread malady of consolitis. But it's bad enough to warrant a mention here.

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