Note, the below has minor spoilers for Spiderman on PS4, The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2.
I was speaking to an Italian friend of mine recently, who was contrasting how differently Italians and British people approach food. She was lamenting her (British) boyfriend getting two scoops of gelato; one chocolate and one lemon. “My mum and I both agreed” she sighed, “an Italian would never mix those two flavours. Why would you? You end up ruining two great tastes, keeping things simple is always better”. When it comes to Italian food she is, of course, correct – classics such as the margarita or spaghetti carbonara work because they use a few ingredients very well.
I have started to suspect that the Italian food-rule might also be true for gaming. So many times, I have been enjoying a game only for it to inexplicably change character or even genre, nearly always hampering and distracting my experience. Other times, I have been refreshed by completing a game that only tried to do a few things, but just absolutely nailed them. Keeping things simple usually pays off, and throwing too many flavours in can sometimes dilute and ruin a potentially excellent idea.
To be honest, I blame Mario. So many things in gaming come from him, so it usually is his fault. I see this consistent notion of “mixing your game up” as just a natural evolution of the water level. The idea that you’ve had fun doing A for a while (platforming), so you may be bored of it so let’s throw in a tiny bit of B (annoying swimming) just to mix things up. This is fine in principle, but anyone who has ever played a water level knows that what actually happens is you are taken away from doing something fun, intuitive and masterful and forced to do something difficult and boring. Mixing things up only works if both things are fun, and compliment each other (much like gelato). Water levels never did this, the only benefit they had was making you realise just how good the other bits of the game where.
The one game that always swings to mind when thinking about this is 2018’s Spiderman for the PS4. Now, don’t get me wrong, I thought that was a great game – most of the time. Movement felt instinctive, fighting was varied and the story was significantly better than most of the films. The issue was when you were forced to play as MJ or Miles Morales. As they weren’t all-powerful superheroes (yet), instead of swinging through New York and masterfully knocking down super villains you were usually hiding behind a box. Then making a distracting noise, and creeping to hide behind another box. Sometimes, you’d hide behind a bin. Some of these levels were indefensibly long, and the way I play games (usually only playing for an hour or two), often I’d have an entire session of playing a Spiderman game barely playing as Spiderman. Then you had the electronic mini-games, that were so disposable that the developers even gave you the option to skip them. Instead of freshening things up, and complimenting the main part of the adventure, these mini-games and character-driven levels stopped any kind of momentum Spiderman had and significantly reduced my fondness for the overall game.
Spiderman is far from the only guilty party here though. So many AAA games feel the need to tack on side-quests, usually under the guise to help you get to know secondary characters. Assassin’s Creed Origins – which I liked, though it had a host of other problems – insisted on doing this throughout the story. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is an infamous sufferer of the ‘water-level syndrome’ due to their baffling insistence to drag you out of the parkour stabbing fun-times to walk around an office block tapping on computers for 30 minutes. While Origins greatly reduced (though did not remove) the jumping to the future sections, they instead forced you to play as Aya (your usual character, Bayek’s, wife) and give you brief command of a ship. You then have to go from point A to point B, fighting a few other ships on the way. These sections do the absolute bare minimum – the movement is limited, the oceans empty and the combat incredibly simple. It was jarring being removed from a lush, lived in-world, to play essentially a different and dull game until you’re allowed to have fun again.
These are just two recent examples, but there are so many more. Rogue Squadron 3 took the genre-defining and streamlined genius of Rogue Leader and ruined it by implementing clunky on-foot levels. Red Dead Redemption 2 plucks you out of one of the most gorgeous open-worlds ever created, plonks you on an island, and forces you to play a third-person cover shooter from ten years ago. Resident Evil 2, which is so tightly focussed elsewhere, makes you run around a sewer as Ada with an electrical tool or play hide and seek in an orphanage as Sherry. Luigi’s Mansion 3 pops you into a boat that controls like it’s drunk for an entire floor (a literal water-level, and my least favourite gaming experience from 2019). Even The Witcher 3 – one of the greatest games of all time – weirdly infrequently makes you play as another character for about 5 minutes. It usually leaves just long enough between these sections so you forget how she controls, and they are hands-down the worst parts of the game
But why? Why do so many games, some of them incredible feats of design and storytelling, insist on letting themselves down in such an easily avoidable way? It is also a problem which games suffer from more than other mediums – sure, there are films and books that lack focus but it is pretty rare to get a horror chapter in the middle of a romance novel, or for a comedy film to contain a scene of pure horror.
The answer, I think, is time.
Games are relatively unique in that they are designed to be dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of hours long. So the logic goes that doing the same thing for that sheer length of time would be boring, and you need to mix things up to keep the player engaged. Additionally, from a story-telling perspective, I’m sure some would argue that sections playing as another character helps them engage with their stories and perspectives in a way a cut-scene couldn’t.
However, these simply aren’t good enough reasons to dilute the quality of your product. While it is true that having some different mechanics can keep a player engaged, forcing them upon an unwilling audience is counter-productive. There is also another, much better way, to keep things fresh. While The Witcher 3 is culpable to an extent – it frustratingly also has the answer to the water level problem. Within the main adventure, there is an addictive and surprisingly deep card game – Gwent. If you are getting bored roaming the open world, you can stop by most characters and play a game. But you don’t have to – ever. You can complete the game and play hundreds of hours never touching it. The same is true for another open-world masterpiece, Breath of the Wild. Pretty much everything in this game is optional, meaning you can play the archery, cooking or riding mini-games to your heart’s content, or avoid them completely.
There are also some great recent examples of games which have learned to focus and are all the better for it. The recent indie darling Celeste only tries to do a few things but absolutely nails them. It is pure simplicity in design and focus, with the controls, structure and story all really hammering home one point. New mechanics are introduced from time to time, but the game never changes genre or forces you down any ill-thought-out minigame. On a bigger scale, Doom 2016 proves it is possible to be streamlined and have an AAA budget. This took the best part of shooters (shooting things) and, almost revolutionary, built an entire game around this. If you aren’t shooting something in Doom, then you are moving to the next room to shoot something. These margherita games only have a few ingredients, but they are of such high quality that the end product is infinitely more palatable than most other bloated and confused big-budget offerings. Non-coincidentally, both also have some examples similar to Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3, where you have the option to do something slightly different. Celeste had its entire precursor hidden in one of the levels, while Doom 2016 has optional exploring sections and original levels built within it. You can ignore them or play them, but the important thing is it’s up to you.
Ultimately, both Celeste and Doom 2016 are much shorter games than Spiderman or Assassin’s Creed, so they are able to have this focus before things get too repetitive. I would argue, however, that I would much prefer a 10-15-hour game that does something really well than a 40-50-hour game that has unnecessary chaff. Within Spiderman and Assassin’s Creed are incredible 20-hour games, just hidden inside slightly-less-good 40-hour ones.
With games, as with other entertainment media, longer doesn’t necessarily mean better, but developers and publishers are so focussed on players thinking they have their money’s worth (and avoiding trade-ins in the first few weeks after release) that they seem to be ignoring this. All we can do, as ever, is speak with our wallets and try and pick and promote games which have a focus on quality rather than length.
Buy the lemon or chocolate gelato, and maybe leave the other one in the tub.