For valentine’s day, I was gifted with Dead Space 2. It has been a fun trip so far, but I find myself getting tired of the story already. This is something which happens to me when playing video games a lot in the last few years. It’s not because the stories aren’t decently crafted or that the world created for the game doesn’t have depth or history. It’s because I can’t change it. I have no control over it. And given that these sorts of games are of the interactive sort, there is an expectation to have control over it.
That is a large part of why I continue to play traditional games, especially role playing games, in addition to video games. There is a level of input I can’t anywhere else. I may not have complete control over it, there are the GM and my fellow players, but together we are crafting it. Together. There isn’t any of that in video games these days despite the technological horsepower to do so.
Dead Space 2 has a wonderful atmosphere, a huge environment to explore and plenty to make you jump and shiver. Set in a orbiting space station cum megalopolis the designers went out of their way to make sure many details of humanity’s occupation are present in the game. The detritus and triumphs of life are everywhere. This was a vital place, something that was alive at one point. And that’s half of the horror. That world is now dying. The dead are littered everywhere and what is alive is attempting to kill you.
Which brings up my frustration with the game. Despite this expansive environment to explore, there is only one path through it. The avatar you’re given on this journey is wearing a space suit. It has rockets located in the legs. He is supposed to be an engineer. Yet your options for travel are severely constrained. See those boxes in your path? Forget about climbing over them! Go through this apartment that you can’t see anything in. Oh, your target is at the top floor of this open space? Forget about scaling the walls or using those rockets to get you up there. Follow this convoluted maze of elevators, rooms, and crawlspaces through the walls instead. Think there might be some way in from the outside? Think again! Blasting out the windows and letting the decompression take you away just ends the game.
Don’t think is argued from ignorance. I know that some of those elevators are stand-ins for load screens. That there is only so much RAM for textures and whatnot to be stuffed in. I know these things. This does not forgive the designers for having planned so singular a story experience that giving the player the ability to find their own way to the objective didn’t seem to have been considered. Part of the exploration of the game must also be the exploration of the possibilities of the game. Having only one path means you have only one possibility. And that is boring.
Speaking of which, I ended playing last night not because I was satisfied with my progress but because I got bored with it. Having traversed my way from a hospital to space-train to hypermall and finally into the belly of a corrupt church I found myself forced into set piece after set piece — achieving nothing and progressing neither the story nor the path. My avatar finally killed by yet another new monstrosity I had no taste to continue. I didn’t care to because there was nothing left to care for and no other path to explore.
I think video game designers need to go back and get some remedial GM training or pick up some of Robin Laws‘ work. If pick-a-path books can give me different ways of reaching the ending, why can’t video games?