December 16, 2008

Elevator Music

If you'll allow a second trip back to the year 2007, I'd like to briefly revisit Mass Effect, a game which under the curious and shifting laws of game reviews is still eligible for the top ten lists and awards of 2008. Players will remember Mass Effect's scandalously long and unskippable elevator rides, which were used to disguise loading screens. Interestingly, during these odysseys, Mass Effect felt obligated to pipe in music, idle conversation and news bulletins. Mass Effect, a work of entertainment, provides supplementary amusements to relieve the player from the monotony it volunteered for. The game becomes an airline dutifully screening P.S. I Love You on a ten-hour flight, except there's no reason to go through the motions of the plane ride in the first place. It prompts the question what exactly was ever so bad about loading screens.

It's an odd decision to proactively implement the inconveniences of reality when it means producing the verisimilitude of boredom. This kind of realism was never meant for gameplay or dramatic effect but to craft the most immersive, cinematic 3D experience ever devised. In doing so, developers seemingly become so averse to anything that resembles a video game. Loading screens don't cut it, then, and so Mass Effect instead prescribes a deathly dull "real life" solution and an accompanying mea culpa to excuse its dreariness.

Sony's HOME went live this week (though "live" may be a poor choice of words.) This virtual reality networking extravaganza champions the virtues of queuing and patience but without even Mass Effect's perfunctory distractions. It exists for those who'd rather walk an avatar across town to catch a glimpse of the Young Vampires in Love trailer than clicking on a button. Games are simulating inconvenience for the illusion of reality and instead of reconsidering the whole concept, pile on extra entertainments so the player can endure it. What price artifice?


Mark said...

If there's going to be a delay due to unavoidable technical issues, I'd prefer some sort of in-game gimmick (like the elevator ride, where at least we got amusing conversations between party members) to a bland loading screen. Similarly, while I can now instantly recognize the standard "gratuitous corridor which twists around a corner so I can't see the next area until it's fully streamed in" it's still preferable to the game just stopping.

Now, putting in stuff like that if there wasn't some technical reason -- I agree with you that's usually (though not always) a bad idea.

qrter said...

I guess I must've missed the particular conversations in that elevator that were amusing..

You've mentioned similar mechanics before, Duncan - I just don't care for the this-isn't-artificial thing we've seen become fashionable the last few years, it's silly, it's unnecessary, it's fooling no one. We're all grown-ups here, I bet we can handle "not being immersed" for little whiles.

If I remember correctly, other parts of the game still had loading screens anyway.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised by the new xbox front end, as I'd not seen much about it in advance and expected to have to trudge places with my avatar.

Stor Troopers or pretty much anything that avatars on the web should have informed game developers a long way back.

Erik said...

I wasn't a big fan of the long elevators toward the end, but I didn't mind them at all originally. The conversations gave me a chance to better know the NPCs and see how they related to one another. I think the radio reports actually triggered a quest once, as well, though that may have been the DLC quest.