Too much of a good thing

The other night, I went with some friends to a tiny shack a few miles in northern Seattle called Lunchbox Laboratory. They offer custom made gourmet hamburgers with meats like buffalo, “dork” (duck and pork), and “churken” (you get the idea).

Their default burger is a half-pound of beef, or cleverly named beef substitute. And while I love me a good hamburger, that’s just too much meat for one sitting. While my two dinner companions wisely saved half of their burgers for later consumption, I chose to play it on hard, if you will, and finished the whole thing at the table, black truffle mayo and all. A half-hour later, my body wondered what the hell my mind was thinking.

So what does this have to do with anything, other than a random video game joke dropped halfway through the second paragraph? It’s that feeling of too much of a good thing. Our games have evolved to the point where it’s no longer sufficient to excel past a certain level. Sometimes, you have to worry about what happens when you eat that whole burger.

Let’s look at a relatively recent example: Fallout 3. Now, that game has certainly been picked on enough in the past year — sometimes unfairly so. They do a ton of things right. But during my first and second playthroughs of the game (obviously they can count me as a fan), I noticed a few examples of things they did a little too right.

For instance, their “exploding head” technology. Now, I’ve played pretty much the same character in all three main titles in the Fallout series — a Small Guns specialist. So when I played through the game both times, I boosted my Small Guns skill to the point where I was maxed out long before I reached the level cap. This ensured that whenever I encountered an enemy, all I had to do was enter V.A.T.S. and deliver a few shots to the target’s head in order to defeat them.

And oh, how I would defeat them. When your Small Guns stat is high enough, then every kill turns into a shower of nearly black blood and body parts. Curious if Bethesda Softworks accurately rendered the intricate components of the human head? Just get that Small Guns stat up to 100, and you’ll have more evidence than you’d ever need. It’s a good thing they added a 5% damage bonus to the Bloody Mess perk, because otherwise no one would ever need it — every enemy turns into a bloody mess when you shoot them with a high enough skill.

Another example of Fallout 3 eating the whole burger is their implementation of “what is the character looking at” technology. This is, of course, great technology to have, as we learned in the first Halo when it decided your initial control scheme. But in Fallout 3, as best as I could tell, the only time it was ever used was to check and see if the player was looking at something that could be lockpicked or stolen. How do I know this? Because within a half-second of looking at these objects, whether I meant to or not, someone nearby would suspiciously yell at me for where my gaze settled.

A more recent case of “too much of a good thing” is Rockstar’s downloadable expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned. For those of us who haven’t touched the original game in nearly a year, the initial few minutes of the expansion can be a little jarring. You’re thrown into TLAD with no preamble and asked to remember how to drive, fight, and survive. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem — Rockstar has honed their craft to the point where even if the player doesn’t immediately know what’s going on, the story will be enough to carry the experience for a while.

But when the player, controlling Johnny Klebitz, goes to the biker gang’s clubhouse, things get complicated in a hurry. TV! Internet-enabled computer! Pool table! Arm wrestling! Wall of portraits of fallen bikers! As someone who hadn’t even remembered how to take cover or jump over obstacles, this barrage of extraneous activities was a little scary. It’s great that I’m able to do all these things in one location — and it feels realistic, seeing as how I’m a biker. But drawing out the introduction a little would have gone a long way.

Mass Effect had a similar issue early on in their progression. Once you complete the action on the initial planet and finish your business at the Citadel, the entire damn galaxy opens up. There are dozens of planets to explore, with side quests at some of them, and resources to harvest at most of them. When I played through the game and reached this point, I digressed for almost twenty hours just doing side quests and exploring the galaxy — and promptly burned out on the experience. I shelved the game for six months until I was ready to play it again.

Now, in all of these examples, the problem may lie more in the way I played the games than in their designs. But it’s hard to argue that a few minor (?) changes wouldn’t have made them better. Like making exploding heads and body parts only be an occasional treat for getting a string of critical hits. Or increasing the timer to two or three seconds for the “is the character looking at something they want to try to steal” check.

Maybe it would have been a little less overwhelming to roll out activities in The Lost’s clubhouse over a few visits, rather than all at once. Or just let the player discover them on his own organically. And maybe there could have been some kind of territorial dispute that makes it unwise for Spectres to approach certain star systems.

Would any of these changes have made their respective games significantly better or worse? Probably not. But little things like this can add up — and sometimes, they can make the difference between going home hungry and being just about perfect.

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