I’ve been increasingly quitting games early these days. And I don’t mean just letting them slip away, thinking that I’m going to come back to them, but coming to a hard stop where I say “Forget it, I’ve had enough, I’m not playing this any more”. Partly it’s because, with most console games, I don’t have the luxury of just putting them aside. I’m increasingly getting games via a rent-by-mail service, so if I don’t make a clean break, hanging on to a game without playing it, I feel like I’m wasting money, and like I’m forgoing time with another, better (or at least different) game. On the other hand, I’m the sort of person who is bothered by leaving something incomplete, so my default choice is usually just to power through a game, even if I’m not particularly enjoying it. Hence I think it’s important to look at what it is that pushes me over the threshold from tolerating a game to abandoning it.
Focusing on three very different games I’ve abandoned that have stuck with me – Wolfenstein, Grand Theft Auto 4, and The Last Remnant – I think I’ve found the magic formula. First of all, I have to be completely disengaged from the narrative of the game. I like being told a story, almost any story, and I think games are great vehicles for telling stories. Even a little bit of interactivity can be enough to draw me in. But sometimes, like with Wolfenstein, it feels like a game just isn’t trying. It actually starts pretty strong, with an attack on a train leading to an explosion and these unsettling pockets of anti-gravity. But from there, every mission is just go here and shoot Nazis. No attempt at cohesion, or character development. There’s an antagonist, General Zeta, that I’m allegedly trying to kill, but I couldn’t even tell you what he looks like, let alone how the missions I was doing would lead to him. The most hilarious part is that after each mission, our hero reports back to his HQ, reciting on-screen text. Now it would make sense if this was used to place the mission in some sort of context, like the Invisible Man debriefings in Mass Effect 2, but instead it’s all just “I went here and there were Nazis and I blew them up”, as if the designers were concerned that I, as the player, need to be reminded of what I just did minutes ago.
Then there’s GTA 4. Like Wolfenstein, it has a strong start, and it even manages to maintain this momentum for a couple of hours. There’s a novelty to being in the world of the game. Trying to make it in America, helping out our hero Niko’s quirky cousin Roman with his business, slowly getting drawn into a web of criminality, it made sense and it felt true. But the game goes on and things spiral out of control, and not in the good sort of way. Niko starts gunning down more and more people for little to no reason – the first big warning sign: a mission where Niko is hired to murder a dozen drug dealers in a drive-by shooting as a publicity stunt. Like Wolfenstein, actually, there’s ostensibly a reason for this all this, “That Special Someone” that Niko is trying to track down. But so much time is spent committing murders in the service of mission givers who are unlikable, petty, deranged, broad ethnic stereotypes that this central goal gets lost, along with whatever power it could have had to engage me, and so again, whatever story there could have been gets boiled down in my head to committing random acts of violence for no particular reason. The overall structure of the game hurts the storytelling too. Plot-threads get dropped and then picked up again based on which mission-giver I chose to focus on, and progress through missions keeps getting interrupted by “friends” wanting to hang out, or having to resupply between missions. It lead to the whole thing feeling muddled and hard to follow.
And then there’s The Last Remnant. I don’t even know what to say. Maybe, Reader, you should just take a look at the opening cutscene. It’s sort of like that the whole way through. Sure there’s a story in there, and a world, but it does such a terrible job at explaining any of it that it might as well not be there at all. It doesn’t help that the game relies a lot on awkwardly written, unvoiced text monologues to communicate with the player. It even undermines itself spectacularly at one point. There’s an “Aeris dies” type moment, but the deceased character is immediately replaced in the party by her functionally equivalent, near-identical looking daughter. It would be spectacularly insulting if I had actually cared about the story up to this point.
So why does this matter? First of all, obviously, if the story falls flat, then it puts that much more pressure on the gameplay and non-narrative progression to compensate. In turn, this makes me pay more critical attention to the gameplay, and to be less forgiving of other flaws. Sometimes this works out. Red Faction: Guerilla, for example, is a great game despite never being able to tell much of a convincing or coherent story rebellion premise. This is a case where the story maybe just wasn’t forefront in the designers’ heads, and the lack of attention to story gets repaid in brilliant gameplay. But there are other cases – The Last Remnant and GTA 4, for instance – where the intent must have been to grab the me with the storytelling, and when it didn’t, it was hard to recover. I guess that’s what it comes down to – if you tell me a good story, an interesting story, I will follow you almost anywhere, regardless of how much of a mess the rest of your game is. If you don’t, then you better impress me elsewhere.