Marble Madness

I’ve now spent two nights playing Metroid Prime, a couple of hours all told. I remember playing the game around five years ago, but I didn’t finish it then. I can see why easily now: while the game is quite beautiful and has some interesting ideas, it’s also rather repetitive. Most condemning is the player flow control common to the genre of action adventure ever since whenever.

It’s accidental that I’m playing Metroid Prime this month; I went to it a couple of days back to unwind a bit after a long day of writing. The Gamecube has been gathering dust since I finished Ocarina of Time, but I’ve been eying Metroid Prime, thinking that it might be appropriate to give it another look – I couldn’t remember anything particularly negative about it exactly, just that I had something better to do and didn’t finish it at the time.

There’s a lot of good in this game; I went to it already bored on two nights, but the engaging exploration aspect hooked me right quick both times – the game has this system where you can switch between different “visors” of Samus’s battle dress, and one of them is a scanning visor that’s just used for researching the environment. I imagine that this aspect of the game might be deeper still, but it’s surprisingly rewarding to hunt for hotspots in the 3D world and be rewarded with small bits of backstory. A very integral part of the gameplay experience, that.

The controls are also fluid and easily mastered, graphics are nice enough for polygons and playability flows well in general. A very high-quality product, I couldn’t fault the production values. It’s a shame that the game itself ultimately fails to engage me – I suspect that, being that I’m not nearly as bored as I was in 2003 or so, I probably won’t bother to continue the game even as far as I played last time. I know that these flaws I see in the game are really common and exist in practically all modern video games, but that should kinda point at why I do so little electronic gaming nowadays.

Flow Control

You know how an adventure game that boasts an integrated game world with no levels still has limited areas that are opened for the player by picking up special items that allow new movement modes? I’m calling that flow control today. As in, game flow – video game designers use this conceit routinely to make sure that a player jumps through the hoops in the correct order and doesn’t miss any. It’s also useful in gauging enemy strength and making it suitable in comparison to the bonuses doled out for the player, so that the opposition is always balanced with the player’s progress. Old computer games used to have wacky stuff like if you went west instead of north out of town, you might end up in the dragon country that you weren’t supposed to enter before endgame, and then got quickly killed. That’s what is prevented here. Oh, and plot, of course – when you know the order of the hoops, you can write location-based fluff that tells the story in the right order as well.

This same kind of flow control was there in Ocarina of Time as well, and I have to say that I hate it in both games, and every other game I’ve ever played. It sucks to be on rails, especially when the rails are painted with pretty colors to make them more palatable – having my progress blocked by a “magnet rail” that can only be traversed with a “spider ball” doesn’t really sucker me into thinking that hey, what a realistic world; the railroading is pretty thinly disguised, frankly.

It’s interesting that I don’t find this kind of stuff bothersome at all in a shooting game like, say, Doom. The obvious reason is that those games are split into containable levels and the flow control within those levels is there to disorient and challenge the player instead of coddling and channeling him. In Metroid Prime the flow control means that I’m walking a rewalking through the same areas again and again, but what’s worse, I’m also not going anywhere interesting or doing anything interesting – all the areas have just been designed as a piperun for me to experience.

Challenge level

As intimated by the Doom comparison, the ever-present careful flow control in these games wouldn’t be so bad if the game was actually difficult. A good example is the original Legend of Zelda, which I consider one of the high points of the action adventure genre. The game has containable breadth and an interesting challenge level – it has a clear action aspect to it. Of course the flow control is much more rudimentary as well, but the main point is that you can actually lose in that game, in the short term.

Compare with Metroid Prime, which actually doesn’t have anything dangerous in it apart from the boss fights. I understand that this is part of the concept – it’s an exploration game instead of shooting game. That would be swell if there was exploration to be done apart from finding the descriptive hotspots with the scanning visor. However, the game being utterly linear, there’s not much to be done in this regard. And there certainly is enough enemies around and respawning to annoy me and force me to smash the firing button a bit.

The issues of flow control and challenge level are fatally intertwined in the game design philosophy presented by modern mainstream action adventure games. Players are limited to a given order of play to control the challenge level of the action parts as much as to provide a vapid plot. The difficulty level needs to be regulated to provide imaginary progress – adventure games are rather stuck with a bastardization of the roleplaying game character development model without any understanding of how and why that model exists in the first place in rpgs. In Metroid Prime I was mostly amused by the conceit, as I collected energy tanks carefully regulated to coincide with enemies that conveniently cause more and more damage – meaning that nothing really changes in the play experience, apart from the numbers flowing on the screen.

Alternatives?

I suppose that it’s my own stupidity that I’m playing a game in a relatively low-brow media – mainstream console gaming is oriented towards providing excellent narrative and audiovisual experiences, not so much for providing an interesting and challenging game. It’s not like I couldn’t hunt for some actually interesting game instead of playing with the ol’ Gamecube.

Still, all this stuff goes firmly into my file in case I ever need to design an adventure game. You can bet that my version won’t have lockstep progress of weaponry vs. enemies, a zoned world and a clichéd plot spoon-fed to the player.

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3 Responses to “Marble Madness”

  1. Dean Says:

    The flow control is exactly why I stopped playing Metroid Prime, and Metroid Prime:Hunters…. though I had no idea how to explain it. Thanks for the write up!

  2. Sami Koponen Says:

    All this repeats what you wrote about role-playing adventure stuff in Nifur scenario. And, if I recall right, also with the project Theomachia. It just leads me to think that if it’s a sandbox adventure you are looking for, the Grand Theft Auto games should fill the bill, if one could trust the hype. That is to say, I’d be interested whether you considered those games to be just as railroaded as the rest.

  3. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s an interesting premise – I guess I’ll have to get one of those GTA games and check it out. For what it’s worth, I did play quite a bit of Morrowind some years ago; it’s an open-ended computer adventure game (CRPG for those who use those terms) where the premise is pretty much that the player is allowed complete freedom of the world, he can go wherever he wants in the setting. That game certainly was more appealing, but ultimately it got ruined for me when I realized that a) there was no real challenge set-up, I was doomed to wander around combing the setting for character-building bonuses for eternity and b) the short-term quest-type challenges that were in the game had all been built to scale with character competence, so improving the character actually just a waste of time in the overall campaign structure. Oh, also c) the point-buy-based character improvement subgame (the high point of this adventure game genre) failed to engage me in the long term; I seem to remember that this had something to do with the ease of min-maxing and mechanically limited opportunities for using the more interesting craft and social skills. That last one is a big dealbreaker, I imagine that I might play something like Morrowind happily for quite a while if it had an interesting character building system. Certainly Diablo carried for me considerably longer on this sole virtue.

    But anyway, I’ll probably be writing more about this stuff later in the summer. I did continue playing Metroid a bit at least, you see, and I have some notion about the factors that affect my engagement there. Ultimately the railroading in the roleplaying sense is not the issue with these computer games, but rather the presence of challenge.


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