QOTW: Do you like your games untidy or neat?

Over the last week I’ve been playing a fair bit of Lost Planet 2, a game which I’d previously steered clear of (I had a poor impression of the series after the demo for the first title) but was inspired to try after reading AJ’s inspiring review. I’ve not yet completed the game or tried it in online co-op, but one thing that has struck me about it is how messy the game is.

Now, this is both a strength and a weakness. What’s really impressive about the game so far – after a lacklustre first set of missions – is how varied it is. The game moves you between a variety of environments but more significantly it continually throws new enemies, bosses and scenarios at you. I just got done with a level where you use a train armed with an enormous cannon to fend off the sandworm from Dune.

LostPlanet2 screenshot 3

His name is Herbert and he likes things which are phallic.

This level is a real case in point. Because, see, it is awesome. It has an enormous gun, an enormous enemy and is very exciting indeed, and now that I’m done with it I keep thinking about this  tense and cinematic scene. It is also incredibly frustrating, because the game places you on the train and adds some stuff to your HUD that is obviously to do with firing the enormous gun but neglects to tell you how to do anything. After ages spent fruitlessly wandering around the lower parts of the train and firing at Herbert with various small weapons I popped online and learned that you load and fire the gun from the top of the train. Of course! That makes so much sense. You can only get up there by grappling and so obviously the train would be designed with its firing mechanism split over two levels inaccessible to people without wrist-mounted grappling hooks. It makes sense in gameplay terms because you have said grapple, but outside of that it’s as ludicrous as Dead Space 2’s ideas about opening doors with guns and storing money inside your head.

I like the game, but this is not the first time it has irritated me by failing to explain things – or just not bothering at all. But this strikes me as being a difference in philosophy. Having read AJ’s review it’s clear that Lost Planet 2‘s campaign is intended as a co-operative experience to be repeatedly revisited; this is a fairly common aspect of Japanese game design philosophy. By contrast, Bulletstorm – which I loved and AJ hated – does everything in its power to make your experience, objectives and controls clear and obvious every step of the way. Frustration with the game, for me at least, was derived solely from occasional difficult spikes (usually just involving my having to learn the ropes with a new weapon or enemy). And I think that this obsessive emphasis on the player’s experience being gentle and smooth, of the game taking great efforts to ease the gamer in, often goes hand-in-hand with an experience so polished that rough edges like different approaches, vast swathes of semi-redundant content, unique player experiences and significant gameplay variation are worn away. After all, if you’re going to put your game through so much QA that just about every unpredictable moment is removed, then ultimately the gaming experience it offers is going to be predictable.

Pathologic screenshot

Ice Pick Lodge's Pathologic is a game notorious both for being almost unplayably broken and utterly, brilliantly unique.

I’m aware that I’ve just been wittering on about different design philosophies rather than trying to ask a question, so let me boil this down: do you, personally, lean more towards the ‘Eastern’ philosophy of expecting players to figure things out for themselves but showering them with variation and content, or the ‘Western’ philosophy of assuming a single playthrough should be as polished and total as possible?

Obviously the question isn’t as simple as that, and I’ve reduced the issue greatly in an attempt to sum it up quickly. I also think there are a lot of strengths to the Valve- and Bungee-pioneered approach of extensive QA focusing on points where players give up and stop playing – I know I’ve abandoned a lot of games at points where difficulty and confusion conspired to destroy my fun. Plus triple-A Western games are obviously making efforts to vary up their content – even the Call of Duty series has introduced lots of levels that are basically variant minigames to spice things up. But as the starting point for a bit of discussion around these ideas I think it will do. So go on then: what’re your thoughts?