Monday, December 23, 2013

Games Without Gameplay

I have in-laws now. In-laws with a whole lot of disposable income. Because "disposable" is exactly what money is, if spent on a Day One edition of the Xbox One - which I shall henceforth refer to as the Xbone.

Being family - of a sort - I got to sit in on it and even play a little. And man, do the new launch titles suck. Dead Rising, Call of Duty, Ryse, all very shiny and impressive and absolutely devoid of actual gameplay.

Okay, I'm not being fair. I only watched the new Dead Rising and as zombie killing mayhem goes, it looks pretty fun. The game never stopped so CGI actors could try to emote at each other and there was a road sign that fired lightning. And I didn't even see the new Call of Duty but I feel safe in declaring it to be linear and clunky as its own PR campaign has proudly proclaimed they didn't change a damn thing about the formula.

Whereas this formula should never be changed...
I did get to play Ryse though. As much as one can play Ryse, in between the cut scenes and quick-time events and scripted turret sections. I managed to waddle around like an angry turtle for two minutes. And climb a thing. I'm sure it has a deep and complex story framed by its pretty skyboxes, but I only had a few minutes in between beers so found the hacking and slashing of this purported hack and slash game shockingly minimal.

But it did give me an idea for a new metric by which we can quantify video games: The Half-Life Minute! Start a game, any game, and count how many minutes between when the game starts and when you get to actually do anything. If there's a title or loading screen, it doesn't apply for these purposes - though a cutscene does. Additionally, playing the game can be anything from jumping on top of goombahs to pressing "X" to not die. The only requirement is some form of input from the player.

Now compare that number to how many minutes it takes after starting Half-Life to get to the gameplay. You may notice that everything but old-school platformers and Doom immediately fail this little test. That's okay though, you can't expect every sequel and movie tie-in to achieve Half-Life perfection. It just serves as a handy baseline - the closer a game gets to the zero minute mark, the better it is at getting you to the whole damn reason you're playing a game in the first place.

And in its defense, Ryse gets you to the action pretty quickly. After a few minutes showing off the Xbone's processor with lots of gaudy Roman imagery, it drops you right into a big bloody barbarian invasion! So you can waddle around and stab things.

However, the Half-Life Minute has more applications than just game start time. Let's say we count the minutes from when we first start the game to when we're interrupted by a cut scene. Believe it or not there is indeed a cut scene in the original Half-Life!

After about five hours of play, depending on how l33t you are. And this doesn't apply to set pieces, like Half-Life pioneered and like you find littered across modern shooters, because while a set piece is scripted it doesn't stop you from running off to a corner and trying to find the secret portal to the old-school sprite dimension or just twirling around in a circle trying to make the textures pop when you stop.

Let's be generous and not count the first cut scene in Ryse. It doesn't help much because after a minute of stabbing, we're back to watching the Jerry Bruckheimer cut of Gladiator. And it goes on for so long I was able to go grab another beer without missing any gameplay, so let's use the Half-Life Minute for one final test: how many minutes of gameplay between cutscenes.

This one will require a little more quantification. Let's have our variable M be the Half-Life Minute, and our variable R be the risible Ryse. Starting from that five-hours-in cut scene in Half-Life, how long until you have to sit there and let the game talk at you again? Again, depending on how fast you blow through alien critters and inexplicable ninjas, anywhere from forty minutes to four hours. So let's just say M = 100.

Now for Ryse. Again, we'll skip over the whole opening as it's mostly exposition anyway. Going from when the game actually actually begins, with Marius seeing his whole rich Patrician family stuffed in the fridge, we have a grand total of... Well, about five minutes of stabbing between every movie break. And the movies last about as long, or longer. And there was gonna be an equation of these two variables but math jokes are not funny.

Let's try another take - how many minutes between gameplay being interrupted by instructions on how to play the game? Or so you can hit one button to trigger a scripted finishing move that's so much spectacle you can set the controller down and grab some popcorn?

Now I'm just picking on Ryse but my God - I have never played a game so ploddingly slow, uninteractive, and so dominated by expository cut scenes that they could've cut out all the gameplay and just released the damned thing as a movie! And this is a launch title for the Xbone? This is the face of next-gen!?

"It's-a me! Marius!"
Ryse did have one redeeming quality though - a gladiator mode where you waddle around in your Grecco-Roman pull-ups, stabbing waves of barbarians and starting fires to the cheers of the debauched Roman crowd. No cutscenes, no turret sections, just waddle and stab. If you play "Yackety Sax" in the background, it's actually fun.

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