So I’ve been playing a bit of Maneater for PC. It’s a charming, at-times-frustrating game where you play a shark. (A bull shark, specifically, which enables your, uh, character to operate in both fresh and salt water, and which avoids using a great white, which would be a little stale at this point.) On the plus side, the basic conceit is great, the Chris Parnell voiceover work is fun, and when the gameplay loop works it works well. On the downside, there’s a lot of empty grinding of the “go eat fifteen of this kind of fish” variety, the map can be unnecessarily confusing, and I don’t love the controls. But the big problem was alluded to above. Why do you need to grind, exactly? Because this game about a marauding shark utilizes one of the most overused concepts in contemporary video gaming, “RPG elements.” That is to say, you have some sort of experience meter, you dispatch foes and complete quests, and you are rewarded with greater abilities as you go. These “evolutions,” in Maneater, have the added bonus of being confusing and tied to different parts of your shark. (Like you evolve your teeth sometimes and your dorsal fin sometimes or whatever.) I have applied several evolutions and yet don’t know how they work. I don’t mind going from small shark to big shark. But I don’t want a lot of nonsense and convoluted “speccing” of my shark. I just want to tear flesh from bones in a shark game. Is that too much to ask?
RPG elements are everywhere, at this point, to the degree that I’ve seen some players express confusion when a game doesn’t involve some sort of progression system. It’s an inescapable set of mechanics, and for me an often unwelcome one. For another example, look to the Batman game Arkham Knight. Why am I upgrading Batman? There are like a dozen different categories I can expend points in, and I need to save up several levels worth of points to unlock some of the cool stuff, and there’s no in-world explanation of why Batman would suddenly be better at stuff, and I hate it. I just hate it. Let me be Batman. If you think the idea of a Batman game without character progression sounds crazy, let me remind you that we went several decades with Batman games just like that, and it was fine. Sometimes you just want to be the fully-formed badass from the beginning, and the game can present you with new and unique challenges as you go along that you can address with the same abilities, to keep things fresh. That’s a time-honored approach to game design, and to me it’s more absorbing than (say) modern Assassin’s Creed games, where you endlessly level up your abilities and your gear and yet in which the challenges you face stagnate over time.
Probably no gaming development has been artlessly wedged into more games than open-world design. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good open-world game as much as the next man. But see, again, the Batman Arkham series. The open-world elements add very little, to me. Yes, it’s fun to find little knickknacks that you can gradually tick off of a large counter, but then that gameplay element was included in mostly-linear games like Ocarina of Time without issue. There’s very little of the content in the Arkham games that you couldn’t elegantly include in a linear experience. Or take the modern Tomb Raider games. (Tomb Raider, Rise of, Shadow of.) These are games that desperately want to be linear, and the open-world elements mostly just lead to a lot of confused wandering. All of the fun parts of the game are well-designed set pieces, so why not just give them to me in a linear order? Of course, you need the open-world elements so you can (wait for it) level up with the RPG mechanics. Look, in an appropriate game, RPG elements are great. In, say… RPGs. When leveling up is core to the genre and the mechanics, it can be a lot of fun. But wondering if I’m investing my dragon points or whenever in the right upgrade path in a fucking Doom game is sacrilege.
The OG “why is this in here” overused video game mechanic is crafting, which fifteen years or so ago was suddenly in every. damn. game. There are perfect examples that escape me right now, examples where pointless crafting actively got in the way of the game. But a good example of great games with profoundly unnecessary crafting are the Divinity: Original Sin games. I consider those games, especially the original, to be CRPG masterpieces, classics that grasped the best of old-school isometric RPGs while including cool environmental effects and the fun of cool down-style abilities from action RPGs. One of the few things that doesn’t work for me is the crafting; it feels cursory, almost vestigial, and profoundly unnecessary. That it’s unnecessary also means that it’s easy to avoid, so no biggie. But it’s a good example of a game where crafting elements feel obligatory, the product of developers thinking that they had to have crafting.
I like to think about classic games and whether they’d be improved with modern mechanics. I think a lot about the original 1989 Prince of Persia, pictured up top. When I first saw it as a 7-year-old I was blown away by its fluid and realistic animation, and grew to find it a wonderfully organic adventure story with surprise after surprise in store. It’s a completely linear experience. Would it have benefited from some of the artificial non-linear storytelling you see today? No. Would it have benefited from RPG elements? God, no. You do develop over the course of the game, in that you add more bullets to your life bar. But the important change over time comes from iterating on the core experience - better sword fights, the mirror level, that fat guy. You use the same abilities in new and interesting ways. How about Half-Life 2? It’s a profoundly linear experience, and that linearity helps to add drama and intention. I’m sure if it came out today you’d be earning experience and choosing to put points in, like, Physical, Tactical, and Hacking or something, but it would be a worse, more diluted experience. The purity of getting the gravity gun? That’s all the progression I need.
The core problem: when you’re investing the better part of a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars, you try to make your game everything to every gamer.
Whenever I see a new game from a franchise I like adopt open-world mechanics, I sigh. I'm sure there will be people who love it, but not me. I like the Metroidvania approach, where the world is "open" but compact (the original Arkham Asylum was perfect in this regard). Once the game starts touting giant worlds with hundreds of hours of side quests irrelevant to the main story, my eyes glaze over. There is a type of person who likes it, but it's not for me.
I wish that the product management teams at some of these publishers would pick a smaller list of features to include in these titles, and try to be the best at them. Instead, as usual, they cram in a huge list of features, and be mediocre (at worst) at them. I second this call to scale shit back.