Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. It’s extremely similar to The A.V. Club’s AVQ&A feature. You might even say it’s exactly the same. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
The question for this installment comes courtesy of reader EmperorNortonI.
For every game that comes up with an interesting puzzle or quest, there are at least 10 that recycle the same, tired old activities that have been with us since the ’80s. Pressure plate puzzles, fetch quests, escort missions, and locked-door puzzles all come to mind. What is your least favorite puzzle/obstacle/quest type, and what do you think is the worst example of this?
Anthony John Agnello
Rhythm game challenges. Now, don’t get me wrong. Tapping rhythm games are a ton of fun. Like any reasonable soul, I love me some Bust-A-Groove and Gitarooman. But I find that the people who are not so capable at making little rhythm games are the most likely to throw them into a game. It’s infuriating to get into the middle of Kingdom Hearts or Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time and have to sit there tapping blithely along to some crap song. It’s the worst sort of sadism. Tap along to this song “Fishy Fun” before we let you go back to playing your game. Go ahead. Enjoy. Slightly related to this are “Simon Says” type mini-games, where a series of button inputs flash on the screen, and then you have to memorize and tap them back.
The ones that annoy me most are puzzles that are barely even puzzles or obstacles—the ones that have clearly just been put in because otherwise you’d be in an empty pointless room. I’m thinking of any door that has to be opened by finding a large red button, or any combination lock where some philanthropic predecessor has scribbled the answer on the wall. Dead Space 3 has some pretty egregious examples toward the end, as you unlock various alien doorways that are operated by sounds that equate to runes. It’s a pretty good idea for a puzzle, with shades of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, but people must have struggled with this task in playtesting. Each one has the answer crudely written right next to it, with maybe one of the runes slightly smudged in a half-hearted attempt to pretend it’s still a puzzle. It feels like the game is putting an obstacle in your path then immediately helping you over it for the sake of something to do. I’ll tolerate a lot of design cheats, but patronizing busywork isn’t one of them. That, to me, just shows a basic lack of respect for your player’s time and intelligence.
Having also just played Dead Space 3, I’d like to wholeheartedly second Dan’s sentiments. The alien door puzzle was so pointless that at first I thought it was an artless Unitologist ploy. In the interest of abusing something different, though, I’ll vote for pointless vehicle missions. The Mass Effect series is one of the more notable offenders in this instance (the Mako in Mass Effect, the Hammerhead in Mass Effect 2, some other monstrosity in Mass Effect 3). I get the same feeling playing these levels that I do when watching a particularly Michael Bay-ish car chase. It’s something that’s supposed to be exciting and cool but just ends up being boring as shit and way too long. If I wanted to drive a tank or a car or a car-tank, I’d just go buy that game instead. The true scope of the horror really becomes clear on subsequent playthroughs, when I daydream of crashing my Makogrizzlyhammerhead coupe into the nearest alien tree and getting a new hobby.
I just complained about this in the Tomb Raider review, but I’ll say it again: I can’t stand games that make you mash buttons to perform a simple action. You know the kind: You have to turn a valve or pry away the cover to an air vent, and the game puts a prompt on screen with a throbbing button icon, inviting you to hit the X button a thousand times. I suppose it can be mildly effective at times, when time is of the essence, but in most cases, it’s the lowest form of busywork. For all their good points, the Arkham Batman games do abuse this gimmick, as does Asura’s Wrath (to the point where it’s almost hard to mind anymore). But my “worst example” is Dark Void, for personal reasons. I was playing through a prerelease demo of Dark Void with one of its producers, Morgan Gray, and we were having a fun conversation about pet peeves. I complained about this particular design trope, and I didn’t hold back. You know how the story ends: Not 30 seconds later, one of those throbbing X prompts popped up on the screen, and I just let out a quiet groan. Gray was an awfully good sport about it, though.
I cannot stand it when I’m playing a game and a traditional puzzle just comes out of nowhere. I’m not talking about games like Brain Training, which are just collections of that sort of thing. I’m talking about the times where you are playing a game that is not a puzzle game, but then a supervillain tries to stump you with a word jumble, or a village elder proclaims you the chosen one because you completed a sliding tile puzzle. I think we can all agree that, unless your game is about the wasted youth of a 70-year-old man, there is no room in it for an ancient, hateful sliding tile puzzle. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation just did this a few months ago—that game is mostly climbing and stabbing, but then, inexplicably, an ancient race tests your mettle with a game of Labyrinth. I guess they figured they wanted their mysterious devices of immense power to only be handled by ages eight and up.
Fetch quests. When Mitt Romney and his conservative cohorts bellyached during the last Presidential campaign about all of the “takers” in society, surely they were referring to the handout-happy residents of most popular role-playing games. Not only do the feckless villagers of places like Hyrule, Albion, and Azeroth stand around and wait for some stranger to conquer some ultimate evil for them, but they constantly demand that the hero complete all of their menial tasks for them. Sure, I could collect 15 wolf skins for you in exchange for your mother’s enchanted necklace, but I’m tired of rewarding laziness. Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to zap the lake with a lightning spell, and you feed him for a lifetime.
It irks me when sequels have mandatory tutorials built-in to their story. In the second Ace Attorney game, Phoenix Wright gets bonked on the head, develops amnesia, and can’t remember how to be a lawyer for the game’s first case—just so everybody can explain the menus to you. Every 3D Zelda game since the Nintendo 64 has forced the player to stop what they’re doing so some villager up in a tree or something can explain how targeting works. Every Katamari title drops you in a safe room while the King condescendingly waits for you to prove you know every which way to push a ball before letting you get down to Earth. (Okay, the Katamari one actually reinforces the characterizations, but it still feels like a waste of time.) I get that these are important. Every video game is somebody’s first, and these are the base concepts that the rest of the game will rely on. I just wish there were an option for “yes, I’ve played this series before. I know what I’m doing, so just let me do it.” I don’t need the barista at Starbucks to explain how to order a coffee every time I walk in the door, and I don’t need an old lady in a treehouse to tell me how useful “Z-targeting” is. I got this.
I am getting really tired of seeing your character stripped of all their hard-earned equipment and abilities. It can happen at the beginning of a game (Darksiders, Metroid, God Of War), or it can happen in the middle of a game (Metal Gear Solid 2, Max Payne, Skyrim). It’s supposed to make you feel helpless, but really, you either just get a taste of how powered up you will be at some point in the game, or, if it’s in the middle, you just use mêlée attacks until you find the chest where all your stuff is.
Truth is, I don’t generally have a problem with any type of puzzle. It’s all about the execution in my book. If a puzzle is able to transcend its rote mechanics and become integral to the story or feeling of a game, then I’m all ears. I’ll fetch/tag/do whatever they want. But here’s a structure that I’m very sick of: being told to go find three of something. You know what I mean. “Oh, this magical sword won’t be fully powered up until you find the three orbs of infusion!” Aside from the obvious padding-out of the game, this trope immediately drains any sense of satisfaction or immediacy to accomplishing goals number one and two. It speaks to an inherent distrust that I’ll actually carry out the first two goals unless the game YELLS AT ME TO DO IT. I guess that goes with any puzzle, really. There’s no problem until intrinsic motivation gets thrown out the window.
It’s hard to believe that we’ve gotten this far into the discussion of worst quests and puzzles without exploring the dreaded escort mission that the question mentioned. I always thought it was the most universally loathed mission style in all of gaming, despite—or perhaps because of—at least one being shoehorned into every game. Sure, it seems like a good idea—the brave hero protecting an innocent against an onslaught of bad guys is a staple of action movies, after all. Unfortunately, they don’t translate at all. The brain-dead artificial intelligence that drives the character you’re escorting usually causes them to walk into the line of fire and die, forcing you to start over and do it all again—often with identical results. I’ve thrown more controllers over escort missions than any other single trope I can think of. One egregious example I recall is the “Escort Service” mission in Grand Theft Auto III, where you try to save an armored car from a band of Colombian thugs. The only problem is, the driver of the car you’re escorting seems to be completely unaware that you’re supposed to be watching out for him, so he’s constantly driving away from you just as he comes under attack. Even better, he also seems dead drunk, weaving all over the road, which makes it a chore to stay out of his way.
There’s nothing quite as annoying as a pointless delivery quest. I mean, there you are, a badass Level 37 orcish viking wizard barbarian thief. You’ve slaughtered demon lords, battled undead dragons, and raided countless giant-spider-infested dungeons. The next thing you know, some lovable old farmer is asking you to deliver six jugs of goat’s milk to the next village. I mean, it’s not like you’ve got something better to do like, oh, I don’t know, save the entire world from complete and utter annihilation. Sadly, role-playing games and open-world shooters are riddled with these. They’re really nothing more than filler that draws things out in between dungeon crawls, but I can’t help but think that the world might get saved a little quicker if some people just used FedEx instead.