Spell It Out
I was playing GTA 5 this weekend, and one of the missions really reminded me of why I prefer game devs to just spell out what they expect you to do as a player.
The mission was technically a “side-quest” of a heist the main characters were setting up. This particular branch was to acquire a getaway vehicle, take it to a discreet location, then call Michael and let him know where it is. Not just any vehicle will do, but there are a million carjack opportunities in the game, so it didn’t take long to find one the game was satisfied with.
What did take an annoyingly long amount of time was figuring out A) where a “discreet” area was, and B) phoning the location in. Back alley? Not discreet. Docks? Not discreet. Area marked in green? Whoops, that’s an entirely different mission area. I tried calling Michael half a dozen times, but never got the option to “Mark the Location.” And I never knew whether that was because I wasn’t in a discreet location, or if I was but I had to be outside the vehicle to make the call, or if the quest was just fucking bugged.
There are a lot of challenges I enjoy in gaming. The one challenge type conspicuously absent from the list is being a goddamn mind reader. Or, more specifically, trying to figure out what the designers wanted players to do. Sometimes the issue is that I missed what would otherwise have been an obvious clue. Hey, it happens. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to wander around cluelessly for 15 minutes not playing the game. Give me a puzzle, and I’ll try to solve it. But I’m not going to fucking hunt for the puzzle, because I have zero faith in my ability to divine whether all the proper programming flags were set.
So, I looked the quest up. Turns out they wanted the car in a neighborhood area. Drove there, parked, and the option to Mark the Location came right up. Fantastic. If they could have just dropped some markers down on the map like they do with everything else in the game, I would have been done with this vanilla quest more than 20 minutes ago instead of it completely breaking the flow of my gaming session.
And looking at my experience with MMOs? Same sort of thing applies. I played WoW when it didn’t have quest givers on the minimap, when quest items didn’t sparkle, before addons highlighted quest areas, and when Thottbot was breaking new ground over Allakhazam (I think). You know what? I’ll say it: it sucked. Killing mobs and not knowing whether you were just unlucky with quest drops or if you were killing the wrong specie of bear sucks. Get lost in a cave sucks. The item you need to click on being the basement as you scour the other three floors fruitlessly sucks.
I’m not saying there can’t or shouldn’t be mysteries in a game. But it should never be a mystery that you are in a mystery. The difference between hunting for clues and being clueless is immense. It is the difference between playing a game and not.
Again, I have empathy for the players for whom their primary enjoyment is figuring shit out on their own. I hope there are addons or options for you to turn off all the quest tracking overlays. But if the designers want me to collect ten bear asses to complete a quest, that is my quest, not exploring the taxonomy of virtual Ursidae and/or their habitat. If you want me to stash a car somewhere “discreet,” you either tell me where that is, or allow me to stash it somewhere I think is discreet enough. Which was apparently 100 feet away from where GTA 5 said I couldn’t make the call.