Warning: Stream of consciousness ahead!
I’m bored and a little annoyed, so let’s ramble for a little bit.
I’ve spent a chunk of time lately rambling and grumbling about the gaming industry and gaming lately, because I myself have been having issues lately with it. While it would be fun to simply write it off as the market being terrible (with jRPGs heading the pack here), that’s a little unfair. It isn’t like there aren’t perfectly acceptable titles coming out. So I’ve been kind of at a loss as to why I’m having this annoyance.
As I sort of mulled over this idea (and then threw up my hands and went back to playing Mass Effect 2 for a bit), a little bit of enlightenment came to mind. At least so far as jRPGs are concerned.
I suppose a large chunk of what’s been driving me crazy is the massive disconnect that comes up throughout a lot of games. I mean, at the basic level, you’ve really got a big issue in that the game is divided into, well, game and cinematic. Which is annoying.
I mean, yes, awesome dialogue is awesome and stylish scenes are stylish. At that point, though, you start to get into the old fashioned question of “Well, if I’m gonna watch shit, why don’t I just pop in a movie?”
Fundamentally, when I plop down to play a game, I’m plopping down to do something instead of act passively. If I wanted to just watch something, I’d toss in my Burn Notice DVDs or something. I’m looking to be engaged when I pick up a video game. I’m looking to spend my time being proactive!
“But wait, Andrew!” You cry, “Aren’t some of your favorite games games with a ton of dialogue? And I see some RPGs at the top of your lists! Mass Effect has a ton of dialogue, doesn’t it?”
“Shut up, jerkface,” I respond.
Seriously though, there really are some noteworthy differences in the way these games are designed and executed, compared to what I’m ceaselessly bitching about. They are small, but they make a very big difference. So let’s talk about them through a couple games I like.
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter has a lot of elements of your classic jRPG. Random battles (admittedly via on-screen enemies). You have your standard division of gameplay (dungeon crawling and beating up monsters) and cutscenes. What works here though is the general ratio (which is definitely in favor of gameplay quantity) as well as the very nature of the cutscenes: short and to the point. I could be totally insane here, but I don’t think any single scene in BoFV really exceeds, like, the five minute mark if you can read at a decent clip.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, certainly has longer scenes going for it (especially when you consider full voicing and what not). Of course, at the same time, the game both establishes a framework in which the conversation emerges naturally (you are seated behind Harry, thus you are being addressed when he is, further evidenced by a swap to first person for sequences like this). Secondly, ridiculously minor as this is, you have the ability to look around and adjust your view.
Mass Effect 2 is a Bioware game. You have, like, a quadbillion dialogue choices plus the ability to occasionally click a mouse button to do awesome things (Press X to shoot some bitches! Press Y to hug grieving teammate! Press X to deliver the taste of the back of your hand to some disrespecting punks! Etc). Otherwise, most of the dialogue that you don’t control occurs in the background.
So, looking at my own rambly thoughts (or not, who knows if I actually wrote what I meant to), there are about two common threads that make the games work for me.
Length: Despite what all the girls say, size does matter. And, in this instance, shorter is better. The simple fact of the matter is that really long cutscenes, especially enmasse, are immensely disruptive. The difference between “me playing game” and “me watching game” is not really pronounced when the breaks aren’t that long.
On the other hand, if I hit a 10 minute cutscene, play for a few minutes and then hit another 10 minute cutscene, I’m going to REALLY feel like the game exists in two separate modes and that’s disruptive and unpleasant and doesn’t contribute to a cohesive, interconnected and smooth experience.
Short cuts work well because you don’t really have the time to register the difference between the modes, because, by the time you’re starting to realize that you aren’t playing, you’re back to playing. There just isn’t room for the scenes to drag.
Participation: The other noteworthy factor to all of these is that, if they are not short (or, in some cases, even if they are), that they provide you, the player, things to do. I mean, even in the Silent Hill example, where your control is limited to looking around the environment, it still helps you feel invested or involved in the scene. You are, literally and in the game, watching the events unfold. It maintains immersion.
Mass Effect 2 (and wRPGs in general) are honestly pretty good about this because they give you the ability to actively participate in the conversations, which creates a pretty firm connection between what’s happening on the screen and what you’re doing. Yes, it is just talking, but its talking that you are guiding along. You just never have the chance to disengage from the game.
So yeah. I sort of lost track where I was going with this (consequence of doing it in two pieces), but I think I had some sort of fundamental message about my problem with RPGs stemming from a sensation of disconnect or bumpy gameplay or something.
Yeah, that sounds right. In fact, there’s a lot more I have to ramble on about that, but I’ll save that for a future post. For now, I’ll keep this one contained to a simple idea.
Games are interactive. Watching things happen for long periods is not. Either keep it short or give the player some involvement.
PS: No, I know, longer cutscenes do work sometimes. In direct contradiction to what I was just saying earlier, the uninteractive Omega 4 relay sequence in Mass Effect 2 was pretty awesome, if a little long. But even that was STILL broken up by gameplay AND had the benefit of being about the only instance of that in the game.