Reset Button: Do it Again, Stupid

By Shamus
on Feb 1, 2015
Filed under:
Movies

Yes! Two Reset Button videos in the space of a month. I was going to make this a regular thing, but I’ve just taken on another project. We’ll see what happens.

Also, I think I’m sticking with this graph paper motif for now. Reset Button hasn’t had a unifying style before now, but I think the graph paper is something I can live with.


Link (YouTube)

Transcript below:


Reset Button GTA

Last month one of my columns at the Escapist was about how Grand Theft Auto 5 is a technological marvel but it fails at the most basic levels of game design when it comes to gameplay. In particular I talked about the one mission where you have to chase a boat on the highway and you need to read tutorial text, read mission updates, listen to your friend, drive at high speed, and aim your gun, all at the same time.

This is a long-standing problem with the series. And GTA 5 might be the first iteration where the problem stopped getting worse. In fact, this sort of strange, half-assed approach to introducing and using mechanics in missions has been a staple of the series since GTA 3.

Let’s look at a very similar – but far worse – mission in GTA 4.

Part 1: No Love Lost

In this mission, the crazy boss-of-the-week sends you to kill his daughter’s boyfriend. You drive to his house. He gives you the job. You drive to where the bikers hang out. There’s a little cutscene where you stand there doing nothing while the biker jumps on his bike and rides away. When the cutscene ends, your car – and all the surrounding traffic – has vanished and the only vehicle available is a motorcycle.

Assuming you’ve been sticking to the main story missions, this is very likely your first time on a bike in this game. You might expect that a game would give you a few seconds to get used to a new system before you use it under pressure – GTA 4 has certainly been kind of hand-holdy up until now – but in this case you need to learn how to drive a bike during a high speed chase through twisting streets.

And if you mess up, then you’ll likely get knocked off the bike. And by the time you recover, the guy you’re chasing will be gone and you’ll fail the mission. So you need to learn to drive in a situation where you can’t make mistakes.

People praised GTA 4 for introducing the reset mission option. But unlike the checkpoint saves in Saints Row or other games, this isn’t a proper reset to your pre-mission state. If you fired bullets they’re still gone. If you lost health or armor, those aren’t restored. All it does is teleport you to the mission start. If you just attempted the mission with full health, armor, and lots of bullets, and failed anyway, then trying again when you’re low on resources is setting yourself up for another failure. So if you want to re-supply then you have to…

…reset the mission…
…skip the cutscene…
…get a vehicle…
…drive to the gun store…
…reload your ammo…
…replenish your armor…
…drive somewhere to refill your health…
…drive to the mission area…
…skip the cutscene…
…and do it again.

Every time. That is NOT a reset mission option, and it’s borderline barbaric that a major AAA game in 2008 was still doing things this way. Now, you might notice it’s quicker to just reload the game. That’s true, and it proves how broken and useless the “retry mission” feature is. But it’s actually worse than that, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.

So you’re flying along at high speed, trying to learn how to ride a motorcycle while at the same time trying desperately to catch this biker who seems to have a supernaturally tight turning arc. Then this scripted car jumps out in front of you.

[Do it again.]

The goal of the mission is ostensibly to kill this guy, but the game is actually breaking its own rules right now. The biker is immune to physics. If you hit him in a way that ought to knock him off the bike, it’s more than likely you’ll just bounce right off of him. And maybe crash.

[Do it again.]

But the fun doesn’t stop there. While you’re learning how to ride this bike with the turning radius of a city bus, the game starts throwing tutorial messages at you explaining how to drive and shoot at the same time. Driving and shooting is already a challenging activity. It’s even harder at high speed. Harder still when you’re doing a lot of weaving around and chasing an unpredictable target. And harder STILL on a bike. So now you’re trying to drive, watch out for gotcha cars pulling in front of you, watching where your target is going, read tutorial text, and aim your gun, all at the same time. And you have to do all of this under time pressure where almost any mistake can result in complete mission failure?

Part 2: But wait! It’s worse!

This sudden difficulty spike doesn’t even feel deliberate. Just a couple of missions earlier the game wasted several minutes on a tutorial to walk across the street, pick up a brick, and throw it. (A mechanic that doesn’t seem to get used again.) And now all of a sudden it’s throwing you into the gameplay equivalent of solving a Rubik’s cube while playing Guitar Hero. And of course the player is going to struggle when given that many things to do.

[Do it again.]

And maybe we could forgive this sudden difficulty if it was for a good reason, but this biker guy isn’t some boss fight. This isn’t a moment of narrative climax. He’s never been mentioned before and isn’t a big deal. In the story presented, this is just another simple errand for your boss. (This paragraph was accidentally omitted from the final recording. Shame. It’s an important point. But I didn’t want to re-edit everything to put it back in.)

And maybe we could even forgive the game for trying to teach you two entirely different gameplay mechanics at the same time during a high-speed chase with scripted “gotcha” cars to trip you up, except THE BIKER IS IMMUNE TO BULLETS. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

This is so shockingly unfair it boggles the mind. The game is telling you how to drive and shoot. Naturally the player is going to assume that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. The mission update at the bottom of the screen even explicitly tells you to “take the biker out”. The objective is impossible and the tutorial text is self-defeating.

This is like a Batman game giving you a tutorial on how to counter when you’re fighting someone with attacks that can’t be countered. When the player fails, they will likely assume they just need more practice and double down on the bad advice the game is giving them.

And that surprise car at the start of the chase? That’s not the only one in this sequence. This car is scripted to jump out in front of you. [Do it again.] And this car. [Do it again.] And this car. [Do it again.]

Remember earlier when I said it was faster to just reload the game than to use the retry mission feature? Here is where that comes back to bite the unwary player. According to the wiki, every time you fail the mission it removes some of the scripted gotcha moments. Which means failing over and over again makes the mission easier. But that won’t happen if you’re manually loading the game. In that case, you’ll be facing the maximum number of scripted hazards. So by trying to save time you might be setting yourself up for more failure.

But sooner or later you’re bound to give up on the shooting and just try to keep up with the guy, which is actually what you’re supposed to be doing. And then it’s time for the next round of screwing the player.

Your target leads you into an ambush. Now, if you’ve done this mission it’s obvious you’re supposed to stand back and pick these guys off from a distance. But that’s not obvious to the player the first time through the mission. Given the dynamics of the previous chase, it’s likely they will assume these bikers are just another distraction designed to slow them down so their target can get away. They don’t know ahead of time if this is a big showdown or if they’re just transitioning to a second stage of this chase. They don’t know until they run in and get cut down by gunfire.

[Do it again.]

Under normal circumstances, this fight would be pretty easy. Stand behind a tree and pop the guys until you win. But the player might have a hard time doing that if they WASTED ALL THEIR BULLETS SHOOTING AT AN INVINCIBLE BIKER.

[Do it again.]

Part 3: Do it Again, Stupid.

To be clear, I’m not complaining that the game is “too hard”. It’s not as difficult as I’m making it look in this video and it’s very unlikely you’ll run into all of the gotcha failures I’m showing here. The problem here isn’t how hard it is, but where the focus is.

Let’s look at how other games handle their mechanics. Let’s look at the Arkham series.

In Arkham, the game begins with a simple base of brawling mechanics and gradually layers depth and complexity as you master these elements. These elements combine to give you more options in a fight. New enemy types require different approaches, and the game even has different difficulty levels to accommodate players of different skill and frustration thresholds.

Dark Souls is a game that teaches through failure while Batman teaches through success, but both are games that demand or encourage mastery of their systems.

GTA doesn’t really work that way. It doesn’t have a web of deep interconnected mechanics to give you lots of options for solving problems. Because GTA isn’t really a game of skill. At least, not in the story missions. Sure, you can play it skillfully and some players can do amazing things. But attaining skill and mastering the mechanics isn’t really the focal point of the gameplay. It’s a game of trial and error, and a guessing game.

The challenge of the game comes from figuring out the one solution the game designer has in mind for the given problem. You don’t get good at driving, you get good at knowing to avoid this specific car when it pulls in front of you. You don’t get good at shooting. You get good at knowing where to stand in this one particular fight.

A while ago Campster pointed out in his Errant Signal video how the sandbox mechanics of GTA IV were in conflict with the super-serious story. And he was right. But this straightjacket approach to mission design is in conflict with both of them. The missions have one and only one proper way of beating them, which discourages experimental and creative play in favor of making you guess the one true approach the designer intended. And the story conflicts with the missions because jokes, dialog, and story beats lose their impact and become grating with repetition.

GTA isn’t trying to be a game of skill. It’s trying to be a movie where you’re a stuntman who isn’t allowed to read the script. You just have to fumble your way through the scene trying to guess what the director wants you to do. In some missions your goal is to run someone off the road, and in other missions the game makes their car immune to physics. In some missions your job is to shoot your target and in other missions your target is immortal until some scripted event. In some missions you can use any vehicle you like and in others the designers force you to use one particular vehicle.

There’s a mission where you have to use a police car to pull over some vans. This would be nice if that was ONE way of doing the mission, or if this trick worked in other parts of the game. But this is actually the ONLY way of doing this mission, and this is the only time you can use this trick. You can’t just steal the vans yourself. In a game called GRAND THEFT AUTO, stealing cars isn’t an option available to you, even though it would make sense in this context.

This game is not about skill but about guessing the designer’s expectations and then enacting the scripted events the designer intended. And if you guess wrong?

[Do it again.]

This isn’t some aberration in the series. There’s a very similar mission in San Andreas where you chase an invincible bike through twisting streets, and that one also ends in a gunfight ambush. Although I don’t think that one tricks you into wasting all your bullets first.

Part 4: It doesn’t have to be this way.

GTA doesn’t NEED to be built this way. In fact, it’s a lot more work to do it the way they’re doing it. A much more rewarding and straightforward approach is to simply present the player with problems and let them use strategy, creativity, and lateral thinking to solve the problem with the available mechanics.

It’s not like the game is short on mechanics. We’ve got sniper rifles, grenades, sticky-bombs, cars, firearms, fisticuffs, aircraft, knives, stun guns, baseball bats. And even bricks. For some reason. The game gives us all these tools and then goes to all this trouble to route around them, as if the sandbox mechanics were a shortcoming or a drawback.

I’ve never seen a player try something outlandish and then complain when the game allowed it. Players love when creative solutions pay off. They feel rewarded, not cheated. No, players feel cheated when told to shoot invincible targets or challenged to chase opponents that defy the laws of physics.

Back in 2009, Microsoft Game Studios user research expert Bruce Phillips published this chart that shows the breakdown of how many players completed various AAA titles on the Xbox 360. It shows GTA 4 ranking next to last on the list despite it being the highest rated game on that platform. Why does the supposedly “best game” have such an abysmally low completion rate? An article on Forbes suggests the discrepancy is due to the length of the game. But that doesn’t explain why something like Fable II, a game with a pretty good running time and an unusually LOW user score managed to rank so much higher than GTA 4 in terms of how many people finished the dang thing.

And I think at least part of this discrepancy is because the core of GTA just isn’t very rewarding to play. It’s no fun to lose against a system that keeps secretly changing the rules. And there’s not a lot of satisfaction to be had in winning under those conditions, either. When I fail I feel like the game cheated and when I win I feel like it LET me win, or that I happened to guess right. I never get that fist-pump moment of doing something I couldn’t do before. People seem to play these things for the fun of exploring the open world, not for the tedium of trying to outguess the mission scripting. Which is a shame, since these lavishly produced cutscenes are clearly where a lot of the development money is going, and barely 1 in 4 people see them through to the end.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that GTA V seems to be a small step in the right direction. The mission scripting is a little less tyrannical and the heist system even gives you a little bit of freedom in how to approach problems. Granted, this freedom is in the planning stage and not in the mission itself, but you know, baby steps.

Maybe they’ll get it right it next time.

[Do it again.]

References:

My GTA V column:
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/columns/experienced-points/12860-Grand-Theft-Auto-V-s-Amazing-Tech-Whiffs-on-the-Fundamentals

Kid beats Guitar Hero and Rubik’s cube at same time:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUdXhhDDnaY

Gamasutra story on game completion rate:
http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=25818

Forbes article mentioned:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2013/09/20/what-percentage-of-players-will-actually-finish-gta-5/

List of highest scoring games on Xbox 360:
http://www.metacritic.com/browse/games/score/metascore/all/xbox360?sort=desc

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From the Archives:

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    [smug jerk]Well clearly the problem is in you,because I didnt have any problems with that mission.[/smug jerk]

    That out of the way,another gta,another dias post.Not surprising.This gameplay,coupled with its refusal to use sensible checkpoints,is one of the reasons I stepped away from the series.Especially now,that plenty of sandbox games are doing it better.Currently,Im playing gat out of hell and far cry 4,both of which let you play around its world in many ways instead of WUN UND PRECISELY WUN way.

    And you know what game this type of gameplay reminds me of?Old adventure games.The ones were you were rubbing all the things against all the other things in order to guess the only single precise way in which the game was intended to be played.Those died out,so Im hoping these will as well.

  2. CJ Kerr says:

    I know you said after the last video that this one would have the same audio processing, so I understand…but I’m going to write a reminder anyway:

    Please don’t do the trippy faux stereo thing to your voice track. It sounds awful.

  3. Zukhramm says:

    I recently struggled with this specific mission myself and the guy is definitely killable on the bike. I kept restarting even specifically to kill him before that ambush. Then I quit the game because it was just a boring and pointless as previous games in the series.

    Assassin’s Creed has the same problem, they give you a big and interesting location and then ask you do to the least interesting thing in it, and any minor deviations counts as failing. Add a terrible checkpoint system and you’ve got a successful game franchise.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Asscreed is somewhat less though.Mostly because you are usually walking,thus you dont fail as quickly as in gta.Still dumb.

    • Eruanno says:

      Ugh, the checkpoint system in Assassin’s Creed Unity. Ugh. UUURGH. :(

      • Sharon G says:

        Better than the checkpoint system in Sleeping Dogs. I remember one mission fairly early in that game where you chase someone in a car, beat the crap out of them, (missing check point,) here come 5 more heavily armed guys. I replayed that one mission too many damn times.

        I’m playing AC Unity right now, and it seems more forgiving than previous versions. At least in some ways. Beserk-darting a couple of guards in a huge group and letting them all kill each other is endlessly amusing to me. OK, the party guests should have noticed that, but somehow they didn’t. Or it tells you to steal from someone, but lets you kill them first if you want. I’m sure that would have been a fail state in earlier AC games.

    • Eric says:

      If he’s killable then I have to imagine that was a glitch. I played on PC and pumped several clips into his back. He didn’t die until the game let him.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Maybe they patched it somewhere along the line.

      • Ringwraith says:

        Which is ridiculous, especially considering during an early mission after chasing a guy in a car, he crashes and escapes to the rooftops, which you can attempt to jump after him… or just shoot him and be done with it. Which is perfectly allowed and skips the part where he ends up dangling from a ledge and you can choose to spare him.
        You can shoot him earlier during the chase if you’re lucky.

        So not only is the game rigidly scripted in many cases, it lets you do things early on you’re then not allowed to do later.

    • Tsi says:

      I don’t remember if you can get C4 or molotov at that point but could it be possible to set up a trap before the chase starts ?

  4. James says:

    Always happy to see Reset Button – can we expect more in the future? Or will there be another 3-year gap?

    EDIT: I realise that this sounds a little passive-aggressive. Sorry about that. What I meant to say ask is whether this is a one-off thing, or will it be something (semi) regular?

  5. Ross Weseloh says:

    The worst part in my mind is I don’t think they’re ever going to stop doing it, because there’s a large core of people who either don’t care or don’t notice these flaws…

    Case in point, my roommate, who has had GTAV for PS3 since it came out, whom I’ve sat and watched redo missions over and over and over. And he seems to think that’s just how the game is – get better in order to win.

    It really, really makes me wish two things: one, that Rockstar wouldn’t have such a great open-world city simulation and exploration/driving game in their core mechanics, and two, that I had the self-control to NOT buy a copy of V for the PC once it’s out. But I will still get it, because I want to drive around and shoot things, and that will just make the problem worse.

    • Andy_Panthro says:

      I completed the GTA5 story missions only recently (on PS4), and have to say that generally speaking the missions aren’t too bad, and have reasonable checkpoints. They certainly manage things better than the previous game, by the looks of things (never played gta4).

      However, there are various points with massive difficulty spikes which are immensely frustrating. Those instances where a single mistake means replaying a section get very tedious very quickly. I did manage them in the end though.

      I think the issue with allowing complete freedom is that the mechanics might make things far too easy. The very final mission gives you a little choice, and one of those choices is “CERTAIN DEATH”. However, after an initial gun battle (one of the hardest in the game, but by that point you have access to all sorts of guns and rocket launchers), the remainder of the mission allows relative free choice of what to do, and it’s very quick and easy by comparison.

      • Jeff says:

        “We’re placing arbitrary restrictions on you because it’s too hard to make challenging content when you’re allowed to use all the tools we give you” is not really a good excuse for this sorta thing.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      To be honest …. that’s how the old jump’n’runs used to work, too. You had to memorize when to jump and when to duck, to shoot… and then you just executed. There was never a (half-realistic) chance to beat those games in the first try. For some reason that never drove me away. In fact, I played those games so often, I could probably still beat Katakis or Giana Sisters these days… my hands just know.

      These days it’s a bit different. It’s possible to make a game that doesn’t require repeating a section until you’ve memorized it, so that’s how it should be. And I’m glad the new Giana Sisters is much improved on that front!)

  6. NC_Schrijver says:

    I never had any trouble with this mission, as the guy is easily killable on his bike( especially with a uzi in like 3 seconds). And the mission doesn’t require somebody refreshing their ammo or health every time they fail ,due to the real danger only coming should one fail to kill all the bikers at the end. This is purely a test of skill for the players, although the scripted cars are pretty douchy if you aren’t used to driving a bike.

    • Shamus says:

      Hope you get him on the first run, because you can’t buy Uzi ammo in this part of the game. (I know, because while recording this video I went to the gun store, and the uzi was “check back later”. You get a LITTLE ammo for it in an earlier mission.

      So assuming:

      You still have the uzi ammo and haven’t shot it yet and you can kill this guy on the first try, then yes, you can kill him with the uzi.

      • NC_Schrijver says:

        There is a additional option to buy more ammo during that mission in my experience. Did you have a wanted level when attempting to buy it? Because that could be the reason it didn’t work.

        And a pistol is a little harder to kill him with, but not impossible.

      • This mission is where I quit GTA IV and haven’t gone back since.

        Edit: GTA IV was also a part of my jump back into current-day video gaming (at the time) after having played many hours of Doom, Quake, etc. years before. I really hadn’t played what were at the time, “modern console shooters/sandboxes,” so I was pretty disenchanted by things from the get-go. The game looked great, don’t get me wrong, but the car-driving sandbox games mystified me by apparently resetting their worlds when you enter and exit missions (“dude, where’s my car?”). Shooters had the whole replenishing health behind cover and endless dudes until you advance mechanics, where I was used to limited health and being able to clear out an area by ambush, luring dudes into a killing zone, or just wiping them out for good in whatever way I wanted. These changes (which I think were due to console limitations) really soured me on a lot of these sorts of games.

        But the motorcycle mission was also badly presented by the game. Carry on.

    • acronix says:

      I demand someone to verify this claim using cheat codes!

      • Kian says:

        Even if the guy is killable, which I won’t dispute due to lack of access to the mission (I’m not going to play it again just to get to it), the physics immunity and scripted cars are still there. And it’s not just THIS mission, there are many other missions where being better than the game expects you to be is punished. Chasing someone you’re not supposed to catch up to until a later scripted event? Their car becomes faster, indestructible and physics immune and rockets away when you seem to be closing the gap.

        It quickly reached the point where I wondered on many missions if I was supposed to follow someone for the next scripted event or allowed to kill them already.

        I didn’t finish the game because I got stuck in one of the last missions (I guess) where you have to tear through a couple of warehouses filled with mooks, then chase a boat with a bike, and jump from the bike onto a helicopter. I did all that fine, but then I had to mash some key, and apparently I mashed the key wrong. After a couple of tries, I got bored of trying to guess what the right way of mashing keys is, since this is the only place in the game where this happens and you have a small window of time to figure it out.

        • This mission is what killed the whole series for me. I played a while longer, but never finished. This was the tipping point though. A BS bike chase where you can’t run him off the road and there are all these scripted cars out of nowhere. The best part of these open world games is being able to show up in whatever random car you bring and accomplish the objective however you want. Where was my car? Why do I have to use a stupid bike? Where’s my tank or swat van or helicopter for that matter?

          This is why GTA is dead to me. Assassin’s Creed did the same thing after the first game too, and I stopped playing shortly after.

          Death to all this scripted nonsense, especially in an open world game. I think this is perhaps why I generally prefer indie games at this point. They just don’t have the MONEY to be able to script everything like this.

  7. *Finished watching video* *Feels compelled to watch Requiem for a Dream*

    The comments at the end of the video about skill and learning to master systems vs being lucky or unlucky when doing the missions made me think about why so few people want to even tackle a Dark Souls or other games of unflinching systems mastery (with no way to tune the difficulty to your personal skills, every block being a test you must pass and fans of the game saying allowing poeple with slower reactions an easier time would “break the game”) for long periods of time. When I say so few, I mean that even only 20% of 40 million copies of GTA V sold is more than can possibly have completed Dark Souls (even if 100% of purchasers of that game have completed it, which I seriously doubt).

    GTA missions give you something to do with lots of expensive rewards in cut-scene performances and jokes and are often more about knowing what is coming (or reacting well to what appears) than even significant competence with the game systems at play. They’re not testing how well you can master the systems but rather asking if you can adapt at a moment’s notice to the changing things it asks you to do and gotchas it throws at you. And not even the hints are actually teaching you systems mastery because, as you point out, they often lie about what you’re meant to be doing. The missions are all about playing conservatively and always being ready for what comes next. And sometimes you make a bad guess at the unexpected next event or the success condition of the missions, but rarely will you be judged harshly for not having significant systems mastery.

    There are always a couple of missions that are badly balanced (eg GTA: SA and San Fierro’s toy helicopter bombs mission springs to mind – or was it model aeroplanes?) but in general I do not have to retry missions in GTA games. I’m far from great at games (I simply don’t have the reactions for some system mastery challenges), I’m not saying I’m “better” at GTA, but I also don’t find them frustrating outside of a couple of missions each game that are clearly tuned badly. I generally roll with the gotchas and always react to things like immortal enemies by quickly giving up on that and looking for what the mission designer actually wants me to do. By GTA V, when the combat was actually decent, the only times I got caught out on a mission was jumping a train on a bike. A rare skill challenge I just happened to not be good at and so found out that GTA V implemented a system where you can skip part of a mission if you keep on failing it.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      “why so few people want to even tackle a Dark Souls or other games of unflinching systems mastery”

      Because unlike gta,dark souls offers you nothing else.You can try and master this fight,or this fight,or this fight.In gta,however,if you dont want to deal with the main story,theres loads of shit you can do around the world.And plenty of them arent combat oriented at all.You can drive around,explore,do stunts,play minigames,rob,fight the police,etc,etc.And the punishment for death in gta,aside from main missions,is minuscule.

    • Arven says:

      You brought up a really good point. If GTA’s challenge is viewed as a test of adaptability instead of mastery then it makes perfect sense.

      I haven’t played any GTA games, but a few weeks ago I played deadcore which has similar design principles. The game is a platformer, and it has many gotcha enemies, lots of almost 180 degree turns or platforms that were hidden behind a wall so you can’t see them before you made your first jump. At first I thought the game prioritized speedrunner over regular player who only plays once or twice before moving on to the next game, because the game seemingly requires foreknowledge to do well. But looking back, as I got further into the game I became more capable to deal with gotcha enemies and navigating the obtuse level design to the point of easily predicting which direction the gravity field will take effect in. So I guess I did get better at dealing with challenges the game threw at me.

      I still don’t like those kinds of challenges, but I think I’ll stop categorizing them as flawed ones and start putting them in stuff-I-don’t-get category.

    • There’s a TV Trope for this: Trial and Error Gameplay. It’s almost unavoidable for a lot of RPGs or other narrative-based games when you basically have to know the future or be able to read someone’s mind to not have your game suddenly go pear-shaped, but the GTA IV method is about as bad as expecting Commander Shepard to say what your selection of dialog actually means.

  8. ChristopherT says:

    Each time I see/hear Shamus mention “Do It Again, Stupid”, I think of my own personal despise for another mechanic that could be described as “Do The Thing, Stupid”.

    An easy example of this mechanic would be Navi in Ocarina of Time. I watched a video sometime last year about top X annoying video game characters, Navi was on the list, and upon the narrator’s description of why Navi was an annoying character it made me come to a personal realization that I do not believe it was Navi that was the problem but the mechanic that was being used through Navi, “Do The Thing, Stupid”.

    Each time you took too long to get to your next objective “Hey, Listen!”, each time you wanted to hunt for a few heart containers instead of going to the next dungeon “Hey, Listen!”. When you ran around collecting rupees “Hey, Listen!”. When you were stuck on a part of the game and trying to figure out the solution “Hey, Listen!”. Or in other words “Do The Thing, Stupid”.

    This is something that I’ve seen in games since as well, and each time it gets on my nerves. It was in at least one of the Arkham games, I just can’t remember if it was only Origins or one of the others as well. But, as Batman, I get to my new room, want to look around, search for Riddler things, explore, and a moment later “I need to get to the access lift”. Yeah, yeah, I know, but I think I see something over there, “I need to get to the access lift”.

    Or, I’m outside, investigating a crime, nearby someone’s being mugged, well, guess I’ll go save them. Go beat up bad guys, and “I need to look at the evidence of the crash and determine what happened.” ooh, one of those transmitter things I need to break, I’ll do that for a bit “I need to look at the evidence of the crash and determine what happened.” Alright fine, I’ll go do the thing, grappling hook, grappling hook, “I need to look at the evidence of the crash and determine what happened” or “Do The Thing, Stupid”, “Do The Thing, Stupid”.

    The game already has objective markers, games have mission lists, lists that can have checkpoints listed under the mission, what need is there for any indication that I’m not doing the things that the game wants me to do? I want to take a few minutes of my time playing the game to run around the world, complete minor objectives, screw around, admire the details of the world, look at the walls, and when I do I’m told to “Do The Thing, Stupid”.

  9. Ravens Cry says:

    I am more a tabletop gamer than a video or computer gamer, but this kind of thing would just drive me bonkers as a player. It’s that railroading DM who has a particular scene in mind, and the scene must be that way. It’s like the designers gave all these goodies to the players and are now afraid of the player USING them to screw with their precious little story. Compare Saint’s Row, which gloried in its goofiness and emergent awesomeness. I think it got a little *too* goofy at points, but it still was not afraid to let the player approach problems on their own terms.

  10. Volfram says:

    You sound angry in this video… I found it affecting the conversation with the friend I was chatting with on the side. Just an observation.

    It’s interesting to watch that after coming off a video on just how good Metroid was nearly 25 years earlier.

    Nintendo was better at this stuff 25 years ago than Rockstar is now.

    • Nixitur says:

      I was really surprised when reading this comment because Metroid is extremely unforgiving and gives the player no instructions on where to go which wouldn’t be so bad if you had a map or if the rooms were actually distinguishable.
      But the video isn’t about Metroid, it’s about Super Metroid which is far more accessible and way better with guiding the player.

  11. Sorites says:

    “I’ve never seen a player try something outlandish and then complain when the game allowed it.”

    I have.

    When a game gives the player enormously powerful tools – tools powerful enough to solve any problem – and fails to limit them, players will exploit those tools mercifully and then complain that the game is “too easy” and “no fun”.

    An example is Crusader Kings 2. There used to be an option that let you directly assassinate any character in the gameworld just by spending money. Money is ridiculously easy to come by, so the player could essentially auto-kill anyone at will.

    This was too powerful, so the developers patched it out.

    But GTA doesn’t allow that solution. You can’t patch out, say, the sticky bomb, even though the sticky bomb would allow automatic victory of any combat mission. So you have to special case it.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Theres a difference between one mechanic to rule them all,and a bunch of ways to approach this none of which is automatically superior.

      • Sorites says:

        But most of GTA’s player actions are extremely overpowered. And they have to be overpowered to support the free-roam mode. They need to not work in missions.

        • Ivan says:

          I don’t see how this makes sense. Maybe it’s because I’ve never played GTA but why can’t you design the missions in order to call on the skills you would be using in order to play in free roam?

          • Matt Downie says:

            The problem is, in GTA many of the missions are like the one in the video – ‘have a cinematic chase scene, then catch up to the guy and kill him in a staged fight scene’.

            If the situation isn’t rigged, and you have access to all the sandbox items, you could probably just blow him up with a rocket launcher quicker than you can get on a bike to chase him. That would be the easiest solution every time. So cinematic chase scenes would only happen if you deliberately made things hard for yourself.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          Thats not true.Saints row and far cry 4 prove that you can have your overpowered mechanic work inside missions as well,and still have them be fun.

          • Ravens Cry says:

            And even if it were true, maybe don’t have so overpowered mechanics?
            I mean, how often are rocket launchers something that come up in urban gang fights, let alone tanks? Honestly, I’d rather have a game that wasn’t afraid to let the player make their own fun than one that was telepathic Simon says.
            Screw cinematography, that moment of ‘Holy shit, that actually worked!’ is a far, far better thing to have, and cheaper too for the developers.
            That’s what we call ‘Win win’ if Rockstar wasn’t so freaking obsessed with being Hollywood.

    • You’re ignoring the main cost of the assassination mechanic, which was never monetary: Sometimes it fails and the target hates you; sometimes it succeeds but you’re revealed as the killer and now the target’s heir hates you. It wasn’t patched out for being uber-powerful, it was patched for being completely parallel to the much cooler plot system.

      • guy says:

        I dunno if money was never the main cost. The monetary cost was huge and the opinion cost was barely relevant for me a lot of the time. It may have to do with my tendency towards playing larger nations than a lot of players, but usually anyone whose death was particularly important to me and who I couldn’t get with a much more reliable plot attempt was related to someone high-ranking and I’d be looking at a cost of 300(prince/king who one of my relatives would inherit from) or 450(Caliph whose death would likely trigger a civil war) for a 20-40% success chance. I could save up enough money to make it likely I’d off them, or I could build castles(usually 500-900)

        The one thing that bugs me about removing it entirely in favor of the plot system is that I feel like it should be somewhat possible to kill rulers of hostile religions, which is mostly what I used it for anyway.

        • Matt Downie says:

          Mercenaries always seemed to be better value than assassinations or castles. Why spend hundreds of gold on killing an individual or making one building, when with mercenaries you can seize an entire duchy (including multiple castles) from a powerful enemy in a holy war?

          • Grudgeal says:

            Mercenaries gets you 3000 men now. A castle grants you money and levies for eternity. Especially on the early starts, being able to grab a good coherent chunk of capital demesne with lots of building slots (like the Frisian coastline, most of Denmark, or the south/south-east of England) and pumping them full of cities will see your income soar to over 40 gold a month even when you’re just a grand duke or minor king, and your personal levies can outperform entire enemy kingdoms.

            • Matt Downie says:

              You can hire multiple mercenaries if you save up enough money (plus holy orders).
              I tend to go from duke to emperor pretty quickly so I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have to rely on personal levies in the long term. I usually abandon my original demense and seize somewhere better like Constantinople as my capital, so spending money on buildings in provinces I’m going to give away isn’t going to pay off in the long term.

              • guy says:

                I don’t like using mercenaries much because the maintenance payments will eat you alive. I’ll employ one or two companies when in a major war, and possibly more if I’m a merchant republic, but I generally prefer keeping strong personal and county levies or retinues and investing in upgrading those. Plus, even if you do give provinces away, they still provide you with vassal levies.

                Holy Orders are fantastic. They are so fantastic that half the time someone has already hired them when you want them.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The worst dias moment in any gta for me is the bank robbery in…san andreas?I think.In order to recruit the getaway driver,someone who should be the best driver supposedly,is to beat him in a race(proving that he is not the best).The race is infuriatingly rubber bandy,and when you finally beat him,and he agrees to be your getaway driver….he gets shot,and you end up having to be the driver away from the mission.Le sigh.

  13. Bropocalypse says:

    I remember in GTA:SA when you’re facing down that one crooked cop who was a crony to the other crooked cop. That was a tough fight, but not because it felt unfair, per se. The guy’s car was obviously obeying the same physics I was, but they either altered his AI or changed the handling on his car to make him seem like a skilled driver. And while he and CJ exchange banter along the way, you aren’t forced to listen to all of it before reaching a set point. At least, I don’t think so, I was always either killed by him or finally took him out before an obviously “this is where you have to fight” point was reached.
    Beating him was still monstrously hard, not because a choreographer said it should be, but because the game mechanics that had already been established had been stacked in his favor.
    Ultimately, the way I worked out how to beat him was to shoot his tires out before he got in his car, then follow him until he rolled it. His gun was vicious and he seemed to be made of concrete, but it was still possible to take him out. I did it by parking on him and shooting repeatedly.

    If I had to give a name to the bullshit that Shamus talks about in this video, I would probably call it “forced cutscene participation.” It’s barely a step above quicktime events.

    • Lisa says:

      It’s interesting that I remember that mission so differently. I played it on the XBox if that helps.
      GTA:SA was a game I played over several years (as in, I’d keep finishing it, then go back and start again) and so became intimately familiar with its good parts, and bad parts.
      I could not, for the life of me, damage his car before the ‘shootout’ portion was arranged. I tried shooting his tyres, using a rocket launcher on him and/or his car before he got to the car and all kinds of things. I simply could not do a thing until the game seemed to decide it was time. Every single time I ended up with him crashing in roughly the same place.

      • Bropocalypse says:

        I played the PC version, though it’s hard for me to conceive that making a difference. I definitely was able to shoot out his tires, though. Maybe the distinction is that I did it immediately after the mission starts when he’s running to the car, but not in it? Who can say?

        • Ringwraith says:

          Now I’m reminded of the early mission in Mafia where you can simply shoot out the fancy-looking cars’ tires out before storming the petrol station/diner/something or other you are there for.
          There’s no hint a guy will escape and jump in the car and try and drive off, which means if you know beforehand or just do it anyway, he barely gets anywhere.
          Cuts off an entire chase section in the countryside where he can die in numerous ways too (as he just drives around away from you).

  14. General Karthos says:

    I keep getting an “Error establishing a database connection” message when I try to come to this site. (And this site only.) Since I had this window open, I’m hoping this is the right place to put the message. I’m running Chrome on a MacBook Pro OSX 10.10.2 (Yosemite).

  15. Mailbox says:

    Great video, I really enjoyed it. ^_^

    I don’t recall how difficult that mission was for me when I completed it, but I don’t imagine that it took me more than 2 attempts. I didn’t have to repeat many of GTA IV’s missions.
    What I noticed was the lack of variety in the missions of GTA IV. That mission along with one other mission is the only time the game dictates that you use a bike. There is also a lack of missions that involve flying. I believe there is one mission with Brucie where you fly a helicopter for a tour or something. That mission may also have been optional, I don’t remember. What I do remember is how infuriating the final mission was. When I say final I am referring to the choice you make that has you ending up on Liberty Island. It does a nice job of incorporating many gameplay functions such as driving, shooting, motorcycling, and an attack helicopter with mounted guns. However, the main game was so sparse on missions that involve driving motorcycles (a dirt bike in this case) and flying helicopters (on top of flying you have to be able to angle the chopper downward so that your guns shoot the boat you are chasing while also avoiding incoming rockets and dodging obstacles) that it’s too much to ask the player to accomplish all at once. Did I mention the mission is long. So if you make it to the helicopter part (which is the last part) and fail you have to do everything all over again. It’s a big step backwards from what RockStar establish with their previous game, GTA San Andreas. There were many missions early on that get you familiarized with motorcycles (street and cross country). You are introduced to flying first with remote control planes and helicopters eventually ending your introduction at a Flight School that you have to complete before flying missions get more complicated. Overall it did a better job of giving the player something to ease into rather than dropping them right down in the cockpit demanding you to land the plane and there is no control tower to help guide you down safely.

  16. Neko says:

    This other project wouldn’t happen to be an FMV engine, would it? =D

  17. Disc says:

    Part of the problem is it’s how the series just has always been while still being massively successful. Its become their shtick and par for the course for anyone who’s been playing the series for the better part of the soon 18 years that it has existed. Why change the formula when it keeps bringing in the money.

    Also, I was a little disappointed you didn’t include what I still recall as the most annoying mission in the series:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SR-97BY8zVM

    The mission in a nutshell:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1KTYqiQWoU

    • Deadfast says:

      Oh the memories. This and the Vice City mission mentioned above where you have to beat a guy in a race car with a sedan to somehow convince him to be your driver (trust me, it makes even less sense in context) were responsible for weeks of nightmares.

      Especially that “All we had to do was follow the damn train, CJ!” quip drove me crazy. No, all I needed to do was follow the damn train. What you need to do is learn how to damn shoot!

  18. Eric says:

    Shamus, is there a good reason you aren’t a game designer yet? ;)

    I really hope GTA VI does something new and totally improves the formula… but I doubt that will be the case. Rockstar has hit upon what works and keep doing that but with more polish, a more detailed world, a more cinematic story, etc. As long as they continue selling tens of millions of copies of their game each release, there’s really no incentive to change. And it’s hard to blame them.

    I’m not sure to what extent Rockstar is driven by designers, but I really get the sense that more than anything, they want to make really cool, pretty-looking multimedia experiences. I’m sure they have their own internal tenets for the game, pillars to keep them all anchored: a cinematic story, an immersive open world, tons of cars to drive, gorgeous graphics, etc. But I’m not sure “a free and open sandbox of mechanics to use on the player’s whim” is in there.

    Also: given they have thousands of people working on each game, it’s not all that surprising any one designer wouldn’t have all that much control over the final product, compared with the project’s director. Communication and production become huge problems the bigger a game project gets, and we see on plenty of titles that inconsistency take root (just see Ubisoft lately). Grand Theft Auto seems to suffer from these really weirdly inconsistent missions – some are fantastic, some are just horrible, some have rules that contradict previous missions for no clear mechanical reason. It’s easy to think that entirely different small teams designed each of them.

    (I don’t want to discredit Rockstar – I’m sure there’s tons of really great people making games there, and by and large I enjoy the GTA games. But it’s interesting to speculate when you aren’t behind the curtain.)

  19. “This game is not about skill, but guessing the designer’s expectations and then enacting the scripted events as the designer intended.”

    Joke the first: So GTA is a point-and-click adventure with a lot more button-mashing?

    Joke the second: Dragon’s Lair: Grand Theft Auto.

  20. Grudgeal says:

    “Anything to declare?”

    “Yeah. Don’t go to Vice City.”

  21. Amarsir says:

    So here’s my question: why did you keep playing at that point? I guess you kind of get to this when you tak about completion rates. But what you’re describing sounds like they haven’t earned my loyalty enough yet to be wasting my time with nonsense. I wouldn’t restart or reload; I’d uninstall.

    Every time I think I’ll try campaign games again, I barely get into one before I feel like they’re jerking me around and bail forever. I’m wondering if the story is an excuse to not make the game actually fun. Because I can load up an MMO like Warframe and play the same mission 5x in a row no problem. But I play Borderlands and go “this shantytown with a dozen enemies looks a lot like that last shantytown with a dozen enemies. Guess I’m done.”

    (And that’s assuming everything works as presented. Invulnerable enemies or techniques that don’t work as advertised and I’d be even more gone.)

    So I wonder for GTA and the ilk: is it more about the subject matter and saying you enjoyed the game than actually enjoying it?

  22. Zak McKracken says:

    My little brother after I showed him the video:

    “What’s that guy’s problem? He’s just too bad at the game. I loved it, and GTA is the best game series ever, and I played all of them through!”

    See, Shamus, you’re wrong.

    (TBCH: I think all of your points are incredibly valid and would anger me at least as much as you but there are a few scenes in the video where you just sort of stand around and let people shoot at you. Or where you drive into some cars crossing your path when it looks like you could have avoided them … that’s making it much easier discard the criticism)

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      I think Shamooses biggest mistake is that he buried the disclosure sentence somewhere in the video,instead of putting it in the beginning.Paraphrasing “note that this mission isnt as bad as I present it here,Im making a point.”

    • Shamus says:

      I’m getting a bit of the same reaction on YouTube. The old, “You aren’t as skilled as I am at this game, therefore your points are invalid and the game is flawless.” It’s pretty dang hard to fail a mission in one PARTICULAR way, like running out of bullets exactly when you reach the ambush, and gathering footage is time-consuming.

      I think this video makes a pretty good divide between people who might be interested in my content and people who don’t care to think about this sort of thing. I mean, here we have the most lavish budget in the business, and yet the gameplay has:

      * Multiple simultaneous tutorials.
      * Nonsense difficulty spikes that don’t follow the narrative.
      * Reading tutorial text under duress.
      * Being told to do things that are actually counter-productive.
      * The game breaking its own mechanical rules for the sake of forcing a particular sequence of events.
      * Long periods of busywork between retry attempts.

      Anyone that can look at those flaws and then mentally dismiss the entire video because it looks like I could have been playing better is someone who is NEVER going to enjoy gameplay analysis.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        Oh, I wasn’t trying to disagree, (should I have put an irony tag in there?) and I understand that once you’ve done the mission a few times it’s hard to be honestly surprised by those gotcha cars … and it’s surely difficult to make a point for the nth time about a new game, but still explain it like it’s the first time…

        You’re not telling me much new about my brother — who grew up on almost the same games as I did, mostly of the sort where memorizing a sequence and executing it was exactly the objective of the game.

        I have come to find that sort of thing annoying, and while it may have been a technical necessity in earlier times, it shouldn’t still be one today, not after all of the promises of emergent gameplay, open worlds and sandboxes.

        I still wonder whether there’s a better way to get the point across — the hardest part being that a game can be good but still have flaws. Regular readers will be used to the thought but “outsiders” won’t.
        Not that I was able to tell you how to do that …

        • Dan Efran says:

          I don’t think memorizing a specific scripted solution to an action sequence has been a “technical necessity” since Dragon’s Lair. I’ve never understood why players put up with so much QTE in AAA’s – I sure don’t play those games. I don’t play games so I can memorize patterns of button presses; that’s what piano lessons are for. I play games to develop general (simulated) skills and apply them in clever combinations, reactively. (Even before Dragon’s Lair, I never understood why people used to memorize patterns for Pac-Man! Sure, you can “play” longer and get a far higher score than by reacting genuinely to the marauding monsters, but where’s the thrill?)

      • I think you’re also getting a dose of the GTA fanbase. It was the same rabid fans that went berserk if someone gave GTA V anything but a 10 out of 10.

      • Kian says:

        Well, it could help to show that it wasn’t that specific mission that was the problem, but that several other missions follow the same design.

        You spend most of the video focused on that one mission, describing in detail why every decision they make is wrong (which I think is great), but perhaps you could have complemented it with a trip to gamefaqs for a list of every mission that doesn’t let you kill the target until a specific point.

      • Veloxyll says:

        The whole “You need to get better at this game then it’s awesome” or “It’s fine, just get better at the game” thing annoys me on multiple levels.
        What if I don’t want to have to put hours into grinding my skill up IRL to enjoy this game (again)? or, even worse, what if I’ve reached the peak of my ability at the game, huh. WHAT THEN?

        Thing is, the mission here would’ve worked fine if it were a case of “Follow him to his hideout, then kill everyone in his gang there.”

        You can still introduce motorbikes this mission, dismounting or killing him before he reaches the ambush fail the STATED mission, and getting sprung by the ambush has you naturally thinking “I have to fight here.”

        Shooting while driving can be introduced on a mission where you have to ride Shotgun for someone. Start by showing off how you can shoot as the passenger, then have the driver join in the shooty fun.

        Bam – you get your cinematic experience, and you get to introduce game mechanics in a way that lets them learn one step at a time.

  23. Darren says:

    Players definitely will complain about outlandish solutions to serious problems. I’ve seen people complain about The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and the final boss fight because you can use the fishing rod to distract Ganondorf.

    For the record, the only GTA-style game I’ve ever really gotten into was The Godfather. Besides being much better than it had any right to be, it was actually fairly open-ended. You had access to a skill tree that would let you improve specific areas of gameplay, and the game favored open-ended objectives that let you put those skills to good use.

    Which is a long way of saying that I think that RPG elements in games are a good thing as it encourages developers to craft scenarios for a wide variety of abilities rather than a single set. If a developer knows for sure what a player can do during a mission, it’s easier to over-script. If players may or may not have certain abilities, they can’t (or shouldn’t) be accounted for and, paradoxically, become better for the player because they might dramatically change the way the mission unfolds.

  24. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Hey Shamus,when are we going to see a reset button on this topic?Are you going to let some star trek nerd beat you to the prize?

  25. Isy says:

    I’ve always felt that Niko was, to paraphrase Yahtzee, a character too good for his own game. But watching his trials and tribulations in this video is probably the most sympathetic I’ve ever felt for him.

  26. Tizzy says:

    Excellent script. Sums up my feelings with the series. I stopped with Vice City. Really loved the sandbox, the characterization of the world (radio and so on), was more or less indifferent to the story, but I couldn’t stand to be stuck in the plot progression because I couldn’t guess whatever it was that the designers wanted me to do.

    Usualy, they leave you stranded in the middle of a LONG mission, too!

  27. Deadpool says:

    Rainbow 6 Vegas kinda hurts both Forbes’ and Shamus’ theories on why his game doesn’t get completed.

    Actually makes ME wonder why: It isn’t super difficult, it isn’t long, it doesn’t have a terrible reset system…

  28. Steve C says:

    What about Edge of Tomorrow? What is your feeling on a movie subverting this game trope?

  29. Ateius says:

    I’ve actually managed to get the sandbox elements to interact with the missions on rare occasions in GTA IV. Both those occasions involved using the LCPD.

    Niko has a cellphone. That cellphone can call 911, which can summon police to your location. And the police aren’t mono-focused on the player; they will react to crimes committed by NPCs as well. I used this to my advantage, twice.

    Once, I was asked to storm an apartment building full of several dozen heavily armed goons. I was not a fan of that. However, some of them were firing on me while I was in the street. I decided to be a responsible citizen and call the police.

    A few SWAT teams and twenty squad cars later, the cops had cleared the building and I strolled casually to the mission goal.

    Later, in one of the many situations where you get chased while transporting something specific – I think this time it was the mafia, using cars much faster and more maneuverable than mine, of course – I was getting overwhelmed, so I hid the car behind some concrete construction barriers, took cover, and called 911 (five or six times). The police arrived, killed all the pursuers, and I enjoyed a leisurely drive to my destination.

    Of course, I remember these moments because they were the exception, not the rule. They’re highlighted in my memory because they were the rare occasions when I managed to use the game’s systems in a non-intended manner to help me complete a mission. Most of the time, I had to claw my way through the tyrannically scripted missions exactly how the designers intended.

    I never finished GTA IV.

  30. Jarenth says:

    Oh, nice! A more up-to-date page to reference for the inevitable next time I use the DIAS concept to describe a game I’m writing about. That should make it much less work to give you the proper credit for naming it.

  31. Loonyyy says:

    I’m not so sure about that level. I never got to the meet with other bikers. I think his tire blew out and it ended in a firefight in a petrol station. I was playing on PC though, not sure if there’s a difference.

    I’m pretty sure he’s immortal on his bike, but I don’t think his tires are, and that the biker gang is a punishment for not shooting exxxxaaaaaactly the right way, which is the same angle that you were coming from.

  32. Alex says:

    I have to say that this is one of my favorite episodes, being based off of one of my favorite posts of yours.

    I’ve passed this around a fair bit, since the episode brought the topic back to the front of my brain, and I’ve noticed more of it, since.

    The last part of Dying Light (YOU KNOW WHICH PART) is DIAS to the extreme. Locks out critical game mechanics (grapple) and indirectly requires you to exploit systems (flares) to make it through. If you miss a jump (you will) go ALL the way back and Do It Again. Had to do it 10 times. Very frustrating. Soured every aspect of the ending. Well, that and the story.

    Extra Credits recently put up a video on Challenging Games, and I believe I will paste a link here as a reply.

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