I've been playing games for a long, long time. My first computer game - I vividly remember - was a sort of volleyball with characters with oversized heads which did nothing but go up and down, and hope to hit the ball. My first real game was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. My first experience with 3d was the original Tomb Raider. I have always approached a game as an interactive story, or an interactive experience. Immersion has always been the key, and the reward. From the mysteries of Laura Bow to the thriller of Gabriel Knight, from the adrenalide of System Shock to the revelations of Bioshock, from the engrossing Fahrenheit to the touching Digital: A Love Story, from the disturbing Amnesia: The Dark Descent to the downright unique Bad Mojo, I've played a lot of games, and each evokes an emotional response.
Thank you, designers and developers everywhere, for continuing to strive to give us good games, thoughtful game design, strong stories (which are becoming more and more complex), great atmospheric settings. My life is not so empty and devoid of thrills that I need to seek them in a piece of software, thankfully - but that does not mean I don't enjoy the occasional burst of adrenaline as I piece together a historic puzzle, fight my way to a morally dubious antagonist, or discover a shocking truth about a PC.
But there are issues that have been plaguing modern games. They've popped up and they seem to be here to stay. Some of the newer games have tackled these issues successfully, some haven't. But they need to be revised. I'm not talking about such abstract things as "more immersion, more interactivity, better stories" (though the story of Uncharted 3, in particular, was disappointing by being far too shallow - I expected more from Naughty Dog at this point). I'm talking about two very specific things that can become serious issues with the enjoyment of a game, by breaking immersion, frustrating, and seriously making me question whether I want to keep on playing.
Savepoints and gratuitous puzzles.
I understand the thought behind savepoints. Their history notwithstanding (how they were the logical step after the password systems), they remain a good way to up and maintain the challenge. Theoretically, allowing the player to save whenever he wanted would break immersion and game flow; would allow the player to cheat by trying the same scene over and over again. That would make the game less challenging, and make it more obvious that "this is a game", right?
Wrong. And this is what I want you to understand, designers and developers. The theory seems very sound for a thinker, for a creator, but as a player, I'm here to tell you that it just isn't so.
When I'm playing a savepoint-based game - as are most games nowadays - I am at the mercy of the game. Now, this is by itself an awkward position. In a table-top game, be it monopoly, chess, or pictionary, you can easily leave things as they were - at any point - and come back to it later if the game suddenly needs to be stopped. I can read a book and stop at any time to pick it up later. Same with a movie I'm watching at home. A savepoint-based game forces me to drudge on until I find a savepoint, or I risk losing some achievements.
But that's just the least frustrating thing about it. Let me tell you of my first experience with the sneak system of "Dark Corners of the Earth".
I had to redo a sneak-scene six or seven times. By the first time, I was psyched up. I was creeped out by the warehouse, by the chase I'd just finished, by these creepy characters out for my blood. They were people - they were threatening. By the third time, I was rushing past them, because I was crawling and close to the crates and I knew that, game-wise, they couldn't hear me. By the sixth time I was bored, because I kept making some mistake and having to come back to the beginning.
Do you see what happened? Every time I failed, and had to redo from the beginning, from a point I knew too well, instead of from a savegame of my own, I became less and less immersed. The characters stopped being characters and started being modelled obstacles. Their intelligence became an unimpressive patrolling A.I. The creepy warehouse became a series of walls. I started measuring light levels, and stopped bothering to sneak when I could just crawl, not because time was short - but because I was bored.
This is a common scenario. Savepoint-systems will force me to replay whole scenes. With repetition comes tedium. I was immensely enjoying DCotE. Now, I've downloaded a trainer so I can just blast their heads off with unlimited ammo, so I can move the bloody hell on.
I can skim to the end of a book to find out whodunit. I can go back some pages to compare a character's statement to his previous alibi. I can choose to reread whole passages. I can do the same in a film, if I want. It is part of my right as the person experiencing the story. I can choose to only hear the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth. I can even choose to skip the first half of Ravel's Bolero, and focus on the crescendo.
"Games being art" is an issue that's raised too often, provokes too much discussion and ends up with too little meaning. "Games being a powerful, emotive experience" is not - hasn't been for a long time now. That's why I can compare them to other mediums.
I want to be given the chance to save when I want, where I want. I may be a bad platformer, or bad at sneaking. I want to have the chance to save before a difficult jump or a dangerous sneak - because I may be even worse at dealing with the consequences of failing the sneak.
And it does not hurt immersion for me to reload that save. What DOES hurt immersion is for me to go back from a pre-set save-point, have to redo God-knows-what, only to get to the part where it really matters - and fail again. It's not challenge. It's frustration.
DISCLAIMER: Some games seek to be so challenging that they manage their own saving systems with no possibility of turning back, like ADOM. Some are very particular about it, like The Last Express. These are birds of a different feather, and I don't refer to them, because they're part of the overall experience and add to it instead of detracting from it. You guys keep on as you are.
Egads, I don't know what happened, but there's at least a one-in-a-three chance that any given game will have sliding puzzles, or chess puzzles, or whatnot - I'm looking especially at Alice: Madness Returns and at Broken Sword: The Director's Cut (in fact, I'm looking also at Broken Sword 3, for the crates, and Broken Sword 4 for a whole sleuth of things, not the least of which are the networking puzzles).
I don't know what started this trend, but please please PLEASE realise this.
If I want to play a slider puzzle, I will.
If I'm not playing one, it's a good chance I don't WANT to play one.
Neither do I want my experience of playing an enjoyable game INTERRUPTED willy-nilly for a gratuitous puzzle.
You may not know the game "Black Dahlia". Seek it out. It's the perfect example, and every designer should play it, of a great game - a truly great game - completely brought down by the intrusive puzzles. There are genres of games - and I don't necessarily mean adventure games - which are all about these puzzles. Shivers readily comes to mind, closely follow byt The 7th Guest and Safecracker. That's ok, that's what those games are all about. But "Alice: Madness Returns" is certainly not about sliding puzzles. Broken Sword DC is about an investigation, not about ridiculous sliding pieces. BS4 could be about hacking, if the hacking weren't a glorified light puzzle which I'm forced to play when I do NOT want to play a light puzzle, and I didn't PAY to play a light puzzle.
I actually stopped playing BS4 at the Vatican because I ran up against a light puzzle I couldn't get past, and I had to stop and think whether I was having enough fun for me to justify drudging on. Guess what, I wasn't.
I don't play Tomb Raider: Anniversary to play that horrible "turn-one-column-and-the-others-will-turn-too" puzzle. Action slows to a crawl, tension disappears, and I'm completely takes out of the game.
Bioshock's hacking mini-game (pipes) was, I think, the best way to do it - it was simple, it had increasing difficulty and you could decrease it by splicing. You could also never hack anything, if you so chose. You could also - as I did - hack everything the first time around, and then get bored and start buying your way out of hacks, or using hacking tools. If I'd been forced to that minigame every time I wanted to hack something, I've have stopped hacking in a hurry.
I don't know, I really don't, what prompted this. Adventure games have a sort of history of including gratuitous, non-related puzzles - but even adventure games have been fighting that tendency. Now it's leaking over to other genres. Please please please stop it.
Games have allowed me to feel surges of adrenaline, of horror, of guilt. I've been succesfully manipulated by games into feeling what I was supposed to feel. I've felt for dying characters, I've rushed to save others. I've gasped when uncovering the secret behind Ludwig II, and again when I realised who the real werewolf was. I was severy creeped out by Innsmouth, and by the end I was rushing to get the hell out of there - and being told I had to go back, by characters who had no idea what there was in Innsmouth, made me angry, powerless, scared. Made my mouth dry.
I've been deeply moved by the end of Dreamfall (another game which falls short of greatness, not by gratuitous puzzles but by gratuitous action sequences). And by the end of Longest Journey. And by key scenes in Syberia. And Heavy Rain.
And the single most powerful moment in my personal history of game-playing, the moment when I was completely taken aback, the moment when I was reduced to muttering "oh God, oh God please no, it can't be", was the revelation in System Shock 2, and if you don't know what that revelation is, you should play the game - and SS1.
My point is, games are an immensely powerful vehicle for transmiting emotions, and experiences, and even for exciting new thought processes and new perspectives on various aspects of life (though very few games take that road).
Don't hinder them by clunky mechanics. Please.