Let me start the game already!!!!!

I’m catching up on some games I missed this year to prepare for my holiday game guide/best of list, and I’m getting seriously frustrated with a recurring lack of pacing and respect for gamers’ time.

In my Okami review, I mentioned that you have to sit through an unskippable, tedious and confusingly expository 15-minute-plus introduction before you start to play (not to mention unskippable dialogue in the game itself). I was all excited about the game and got the GF excited to see it, but then she got turned off by the annoying intro and didn’t bother to see the rest. I got turned off too, clearly.

I’ve been playing Bully and Kingdom Hearts II the last couple of days, and they’re even more annoying. Like another Rockstar Games title, The Warriors, Bully loses momentum seemingly every two minutes for a cut scene, a tutorial, or to load a new area or building. Part of that is the PlayStation 2’s limits, but this isn’t just technical chopiness. Also you spend half your time running from place to place. I’m sure I’d get the skateboard soon to let me go faster, but frankly I don’t want to go on. If they let me play from the beginning without pausing every other second, maybe I’d feel differently.

Kingdom Hearts II is just unbelievable, though. Leave aside that the story literally makes no sense at first. There’s all sorts of flashbacks and dreams and, uh, interdimensional flashes — whatever you call the equivalent of a flashback but instead of going back in time the vision goes into another person — and I have no idea what’s going on. That’s probably because I haven’t played the first Kingdom Hearts, but sequels should be able to stand on their own. Also leave aside that the teen (tween?) characters’ dialogue is by turns totally corny and totally random.

By the time I finally reached a save point, I was 28 minutes into the game. I had actually played a total of I’d say two to three minutes — a quick fighting tutorial. The rest was a weird CGI music-video intro and other cutscenes. The second save point came at 52 minutes, and the only further playing I had done was three annoying minigames that I had to repeatedly complete to move on.

One hour of confusion and doing essentially nothing! (Oh, and in that time I didn’t see any Disney characters, other than in those flashbacks. Which I thought is sort of supposed to be the point of the game.)

Who do gamemakers think are playing these games? Why do they assume we have the time to sit through tedious exposition, incomprehensible setup, and hours of boring tutorials? I love this caveat from IGN’s review of Bully: “Built as a tutorial, Bully’s initial moments don’t do the rest of the experience justice — which admittedly, will probably put off more action-oriented players because of its slow start (roughly three to six hours).” Oh, okay then! Forget about pacing, Rockstar Games — I sure do have six hours to spend on a crappy beginning sequence!

This is bad game design and bad storytelling as well as a huge annoyance, but that’s not the biggest problem. Dedicated gamers will sit through anything. (I don’t see how you can say a game has a six-hour slow start and give it an 8.9 rating, though.) The real issue is how this turns off people like my girlfriend and other casual gamers.

The next generation of game systems is almost fully upon us, and the companies are accepting the huge costs involved in next-gen development in large part because they’re expecting to grow the gaming audience. But you won’t get new people to play your games by telling them they have to sit through 15 minutes, an hour, or six hours of [expletive deleted]. That’s just ridiculous.

— November 11, 2006

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