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May 19, 2008

Respect My Time

So, lately I've been playing Dark Cloud 2. Honestly, I'm no longer sure why, as I've stopped taking much pleasure in it. Generally speaking, I love Level 5's games -- I played about 100 hours of Dragon Quest VIII and beat every available puzzle in Professor Layton's Village (even helping Stephen Totilo over at MTV's "Multiplayer Blog" find one he had missed). I even played quite a bit of the original Dark Cloud, though I had gotten stumped at one point, being unable to beat a boss due to how I had upgraded my weapons or something. When my original PS2 was stolen in a burglary, including the memory card, I was glad at least that I no longer had to be guilty about not finishing Dark Cloud¹; although I really enjoyed the hook of the game, being stuck in that spot with no way forward nor back was frustrating.

I was really drawn in by that hook: the "georama" elements. The bad guy was out there destroying the world by sucking up all the people and their homes and villages and what-not, and imprisoning them in little spheres that he distributed through dungeons. Sure, it's not the most amazing premise, but what it underlied was a fun little puzzle game. You'd go through the randomly generated dungeons, finding the little bits of geometry and the parts you needed to put everything back together, and then you'd return to the original village's spot and lay stuff down. The real fun for me came in interacting with the newly regenerated villagers: they would complain about not wanting to live next to so-and-so, or "wouldn't it be nice to have the river nearby", or some other simple requirement, and then you'd go and move everyone around until you had found an arrangement of homes and other cultural objects that made everyone in the village happy. It was not so much a process of restoring the world as restoring it and granting everyone's wishes in the meantime. It was immensely more satisfying and innovative than I had a right to expect in such an early PS2 title.

The things that reviewers faulted the game for were things like how generic the dungeons were, or how generic the story was, or that the action combat was just button-mashing, or whatever, the usual complaints. But I was quite happy with all the effort they had put into the little villages -- the feeling that there were lots of individual little people living out their fairly simple lives, yet who had enough personality to describe in nicely written prose (no voice acting) what would bring them contentment. If you had simply looked at the GameFAQs list of things to do for each village, you would have robbed yourself of all the little pleasures that the game offered.

So, I was really thrilled to move forward and play the sequel, which I finally picked up recently for a song. I remember being quite busy when it came out, and so its release passed me by, but it garnered significantly better reviews (and checking game rankings, it looks like it nearly hit 90%, whereas the original was just under 80%). Lately I've had a little more time and so I pulled it out and started plowing in some hours. The thing that has been biting me again and again is one of the points that Margaret Robertson made at her GDC 2008 talk, "Treat Me Like a Lover." This game has absolutely no respect for my time. Here are the principal issues:

  • There are keys in the game that only unlock one thing. This is fine; for example, each level has a monster who will drop the key to exit the level, which is a one-time use item used when, bingo, you wish to exit the level. (Some levels also have rooms with their own locked doors with a separate unique key. And there are also chests which are locked which have a third type of key.) What is not fine is that every time I go up to the exit, I have to open my inventory with a button², and page through all of my stuff until I find the item. If I accidentally select the wrong item, I am "rewarded" with a little, unskippable animation of one of my lovable little avatars shrugging his or her shoulders at me. "Too bad, you doofus," they mock, "that's not the item. Come on, you can do better than that!" This whole thing should have been a one-button procedure -- bump into the exit and get a dialog which asks, "Do you want to use the Airy-Fairy Key to move to the next level?" or "You need to find the Airy-Fairy Key to progress."
  • There are chests that are empty. Admittedly, a chest that were placed by a level designer in a hand-constructed dungeon would be even more perverse, but in the use of randomly generated dungeons, somewhere someone built a treasure table and included a line in it that said, "1% chance: empty". As the player, I go up to the chest, I hit a button to "open" it, and then I watch slowly in anticipation as the chest opens to deliver... nothing. Just another few seconds of my life. Gone. This is another easy thing to fix -- if you want to have some chance that some dungeon floor will have less loot, you have a weighted distribution of the number of chests on a given floor. One percent of the time, a floor has nine chests, and the other 99% it has 10. Fixed.
  • Dialog lines are skippable. Woo-hoo, right?! I can read the dialog and skip ahead at my own speed. Terrific, since I read far faster than the voice actors can deliver their lines, especially the old tree god thing, which talks as if it had just woken up and hadn't had caffeine in the last thirty or forty millennia. Except that, although I am able to skip over the dialog, I am unable to skip over the animation which accompanies each voice line, so in 90% of the lines, I read through it quickly, skip over it, and then wait while some culturally generic shrugging or hand-waving gesture is displayed on screen. The solution is obvious -- we have the ability to randomly access memory, guys... we can skip ahead in the playback. If you are streaming animation data from disk... well, it's time to look into animation compression so you can load the whole shebang in at once.
  • There's a health item vendor. Terrific! Except... well, to get one of those villages back up to 100%, I had to install her there. Which means that every time I want to load up on bread, I need to sit through two load screens (one to exit the dungeon, and then another to go to the place where the bread vendor is) to get there, and then another one to get back into the dungeon. This is meaningless time-wasting, and there are design solutions. Just go ahead and give me UI elements between floors of the dungeon; I'm certain that every player has had to exit the dungeon at one time or another to fill up on health stuff, since you can only carry 20 of them. There is no reality issue here -- I'm playing a game where I am placing all kinds of stuff into the world and moving it around as if it were SimCity. No one would have quibbled... and in fact, if you wanted to preserve "realism" as a player, you could certainly make the trip any time you needed to.
  • There are several mini-games going on that I'm not sure whether I need to participate in. For example, I can photograph stuff and combine the photographs to come up with ideas to invent things, for which I can buy the requisite parts. However, I'm not sure that's necessary and hopefully it isn't -- since I stopped doing that a long, long time ago. You can also gain medals by doing various things in playing the levels, like beating them under a time limit, or only using one of your weapons, or catching fish of a particular size. By the time I realized that wasn't necessary to do, I had already amassed quite a few of them. These "collectible" elements are part of a "more is more" strategy that has just completely backfired here.

I think these are the major culprits. There are some minor quibbles which have more to do with not having a good idea which way to power up a weapon, which isn't really an abuse of my time, it's more just an anxiety generator as to whether I've made the right choice. There's the scaling of difficulty -- I've had to replay early dungeons tons just to power up my weapons enough to get through the later ones. I lose time every time I die because I want to skip over the "GAME OVER" fade-in and go right back to the main menu so I can continue my game from the last save point, except that there's no way to do that and I instead end up pausing the game by mistake.

All of this would be reasonably fine for me if they hadn't replaced all the charm of the georama world-building with an element whereby you have to recruit people from the town in which you originate to populate the new towns. Gone is the back-and-forth with villagers about what they're looking for, and instead, you have a charmless task of simply filling in the blanks that are generated by a list of requirements you slowly uncover -- it largely becomes a UI game at this point. "Oh, I need to put this person here. And his house has to be purple. Why couldn't I ask him that?"

Well, now that I've gotten all that off my chest, I actually find that I have no need to play further. Wow. I didn't expect that. Catharsis! Geez, I guess I should blog more often! ;)

¹For those playing our home game, the other I was most glad I didn't have to feel guilty about not finishing was Kingdom Hearts, where I had gotten as far as the Tarzan levels. That was another game I really wanted to enjoy but... well, not so much. And for the sake of full disclosure, I also didn't come anywhere near finishing GTA III, but I didn't even care enough to feel guilty about that one. (back)
²Not the X button -- the square button, which I usually forget, so habituated am I to the right thing to do is always the X button on the PS2 controller. Why I am I habituated to do this? Because it's a recommendation in the TCRs Sony makes everyone follow - make the X button the right thing to do in any given situation. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:27 AM | Comments (2)