Gaming Verisimilitude

On Thursday, I popped The Last of Us (TLoU) into the PS3 just to see if I needed to do some sort of lengthy install, but ended up playing for 5 hours straight. The game, simply put, is quite amazing thus far. However, I am experiencing some game design tropes that are grating on me to a higher degree than normal, perhaps precisely because everything else is so good.

Early on, you are basically told that while you can treat the game like a cover-based shooter to some extent, sneaking around is likely the best method given the chronic lack of supplies. That’s fine, sure. What is less fine is when you silently take down an entire warehouse full of guys very clearly armed with guns, and only happen to scrounge up 3 bullets of ammo from nearly a dozen corpses. Were the guns just for show? The last two guys were fine with shooting the conveniently-placed, waist-high obstruction I was hiding behind for almost a full minute, but in a moment of extreme bad luck, must have been killed right after they fired their last bullet.

I understand that this is One of Those Things in gaming in which we are supposed to suspend disbelief. I remember running a D&D campaign a few years ago in which I decided early on that I was going to rebel against gaming tropes and having the party’s human opponents drop everything they were carrying. In retrospect, it ended up being a perfectly foretold disaster: the party became understandably obsessed with looting each body clean and making frequent trips to Ye Olde Item Shoppe to peddle their warez. If I were able to loot full clips of ammo from each enemy I downed in TLoU, it would likely ruin the resource-tight mood by the end of the first hour of gameplay.

I am finding myself less sympathetic towards two other semi-related aspects that are not exactly TLoU’s fault but nevertheless somewhat jarring. First, the game is not and has never appeared to be an open-world sandbox or anything of the sort, which is fine. However, I feel subtly punished for exploring when the designers take the time to add in secret caches of goods in off-the-path locations. See, the issue is that I do not ever know if this “secret” door I’m opening isn’t actually the trigger for a cutscene or the path to the next area. I want to explore every nook and cranny of the game world! And yet I feel like I can’t, because I’m paranoid about inadvertently moving the story forward and being unable to backtrack. I’m seriously starting to miss the “Chrono Footsteps” feature from Singularity which highlighted the exact path you should take, so you know for certain which areas you could explore safely.

Compounding this issue is when I’m in the opposite scenario in which the game is clearly telling me where those story triggers are. “Oh, you want me to hurry up and walk over to that door? Good, now I know I can explore this whole half of the city instead.” The game is not Fallout, has never pretended to be Fallout, but I simply can’t help myself from treating every open building as an opportunity to scavenge for supplies. It’s the post-apocalypse! Let me spend hours combing the area for scrap metal and duct tape! I do this shit for fun.

Finally, Naughty Dog, really? I have a hunting rifle, shotgun, bow, two pistols, three Med Kits, a metal pipe with scissors taped to the end, three Molotov cocktails, a few proximity mine-like explosives, and a goddamn brick in my backpack… but I can’t carry more than 7 rifle rounds? Or more than four pairs of scissors? Inventory management is one thing, but limiting ammo to this degree is so overtly gamey that it sucks me right out of the narrative and back into optimization mode. “Hmm, if I use the shotgun to clear this next room instead of sneaking through, I can double-back and pick up those shells I left behind.”

Although I am complaining quite a bit, I need you to understand that it is only because these (ultimately minor) issues stand out in brilliant contrast to an otherwise amazing game. This isn’t so much a fly in the ointment as it is a hangnail the day after a big promotion. You know, minor, almost trivial annoyances that you nevertheless can’t quite stop thinking about.

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Posted on December 16, 2013, in Impressions, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think the first one arises mostly because gunning down people in video games is way too easy. In the real world, stealth is superior because winning a gunfight vs one person is iffy, much less a whole squad. So it doesn’t really matter that you have an MP5 with 100,000 rounds on you, you can’t realistically use it to do much of anything, whereas in a game you just unload and kill 10,000 people. But if they were to make gunfights realistic, it would arguably be more frustrating than anything else. So we’re left with arbitrary mechanics.

    • That’s a good point.

      I ocassionally go through a phase when playing certain videogames where I think that my actions are unrealistic but still plausible, and so I don’t go down the “gamey” optimization rabbit hole. “Okay, so main character has killed 50 dudes without dying… but it’s technically fine because all of them were from ambushes.” Later on, when I’m applying a medkit in the middle of a firefight, I just say “fuck it” and start rushing machine gun nests with flamethrowers and the like.

      I agree that a sort of “realistic” firefight is not going to be at all fun. I could never get into the Tom Clancy games for this exact reason.

  2. That “moving on before I’m finished the map” thing, intentional or not, is a major personal peeve of mine with certain games… the biggest offenders are the Heroes of Might and Magic (now called something similar but different, I think) series games. Being somewhat of an OCD completionist (as it sounds like you may be, although I’m not sure I’d classify scratching that itch as “fun”, exactly ;) ), I’d park my army right outside the gates of the final boss fight and sometimes spend A LITERAL HOUR running around grabbing things I’d bypassed during normal play to make sure my primary hero (and sometimes secondary heroes) got everything they possibly could from the map. There wasn’t just no benefit to finishing a map ASAP, there was a significant COST in that after a few maps your hero might be underpowered for what was necessary in the future and by then there’d be nothing you could do about it. That’s just piss-poor design in general, not just in terms of pushing my particular buttons. At least do something like automatically give HALF of the benefit of whatever you missed or in the case of the game you’re playing, put in some sort of “you’re about to leave this zone and won’t be able to come back, sure you’re ready to do that?” mechanic, even if it’s subtle (maybe have the screen darken quickly as you approach the exit area so you know it’s happening, or add a screen border glow, or something… stop now lest ye be annoyed for the next half hour for going through yon doorway before its time).

    • My “itch” has some OCD properties, but I do just genuinely find searching for supplies in post-apoc settings immensely relaxing and proper. I’m not sure if its the reason why I love the Fallout games so much, or if that is where the sensation originated.

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