There comes a point in every game where the player asks themselves why they’re wasting time on a terrible game. It’s a scenario no gamer wants to be presented with – and it’s a developer’s worst nightmare. Depending on how the storyline is integrated with the game, a game’s quality can be easily determined within the first few hours of playing. And like the movies that go straight to video or are shown at awkward times during the weekends, sometimes they’re impossible to tear yourself away from. How much worse can it get?
While technical problems are usually the first to surface, it’s not the calling card of the bad game. Games with big budgets and an overabundance of advertising are often released before they’re even ready, with a patch issued before the game even hits the shelves. It might end up being half decent. Conversely, some of the best games I’ve played required enormous amounts of patience to see past their unsightly glitches.
Prey (Human Head, 2006), a first-person shooter eleven years in the making, was the latest game to stimulate this reaction. Part of it was high expectations from such a long development cycle; the game was announced by producer 3D Realms shortly after the release of Duke Nukem 3D (3D Realms, 1995). I was also partially influenced by the abnormal number of positive reviews: John Romero’s infamous Daikatana (Ion Storm, 2000) had a similarly tumultuous history, and became the industry’s whipping boy when faced with grandstanding game designers and the often cited excuse “when it’s done” as a release date.
Prey stars Tommy Hawk, a Cherokee Indian stuck on a reservation as the general handyman, and desperately in love with the owner/operator of the local bar. In the game’s opening cutscene, a predictable action movie set-up and an embarrassing interpretation of Native American culture is paraded in front of the player. An alien invasion, a kidnapped girlfriend, and a whole host of biomechanical weapons await young Tommy as he embarks on his quest to save the girl – and the planet.
Often the genre is used as an excuse for bad games. “It’s hard to expect high art from a first person shooter,” some might say. But then I would direct them to System Shock 2 (Irrational Games, 2000) or Half Life 2 (Valve, 2004) or Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003). The synthesis of gameplay and entertainment can be achieved in first person shooters.
Prey isn’t completely insufferable, however. In fact, it presented enough new ideas to make it seem like it was contributing to the genre. Instead of using the quicksave method of staying alive, the player cannot die in Prey. Using ancient Cherokee magic, young Tommy is transported into the Spirit world upon his corporeal demise, and is tasked with shooting flying spirits to gain back health, until he is brought back to life. The gravity-defying walkways and nausea-inducing puzzles that required an instant change in the player’s perception of direction were incredible to experience the first few times. It’s enough to keep the player interested for a while at least, hinting at more devious obstacles that lie ahead. Though they never materialize, and Prey slowly devolves into the typical run-and-gun, switch hunting expedition. I finished the game despite my better judgment, though the fact that the total play time clocked in at less than ten hours probably helped.
So why keep playing? Dragging out the inevitable comparison to other forms of media – books and film, for example – the trivial slight against falling for lackluster versions of either of them is perhaps the price of a paperback or a ticket. The price of the average PC game is still around $60: a significant margin of difference. The feeling of being burned is made that much more unbearable; the player is almost forced to finish the game to justify the cost. With today’s copy protection measures, trade-ins and exchanges for PC games are a luxury of the past.
Most importantly, there’s the investment of time involved. A first-person shooter may not require a considerable mental investment, and in most circumstances the majority of what the game has to offer can be found within the first few missions. Unless you consider the storylines that accompany the action, in which case you continue playing to see how much worse it can get. Role playing games inherently have more hours of gameplay embedded within them – by the time a roleplayer has finished his latest adventure the FPS gamer has perhaps finished two. As a result player involvement goes much deeper – so deep that the resentment towards its lack of quality is enough to keep trudging through its poorly constructed game world or slipshod storytelling.
In the end, it’s not like you can bring the experience up in everyday conversation. A film is an experience that can be shared in most social circles; opinions can be crafted fairly quickly after only spending two hours in front of a television. But because most games are often lengthy, solitary experiences, there is no way to relate the events except among other game players, and even then that’s not usually the case. Because of the investment of time and money, it’s impossible to keep up with everything that’s out there. Besides, it’s pretty hard to get sympathy for spending fifteen hours on a terrible game just to prove that it was terrible. While I can’t stand the arbitrary assignment of numbers to a game’s quality in a review, it becomes obvious why some people have come to rely on it.