Game Design and the Rule of Cool

The Rule of Cool is, I believe, actually a TV trope, it applies to video games as well. The variant I’m thinking of is when all inconsistencies between game play and the story are waved away as game play being more important than consistency with the story.

Now, in fairness, games must be unrealistic in order to be games. If a game was perfectly realistic, it would be a simulator, not a game. And people would mostly only do them to train for doing the real version. Thus wounds must heal in seconds or minutes, not weeks or months. Thus is should take minutes to build a hut, not days. And so on; there are a lot of things which need to be cheated in order to have a game and not a simulator. This I grant.

Having granted that, it’s important to point out that it does not follow that no thought should go into how one cheats reality in order to make a game. This is not true, of course, of pure games, such as tic-tac-toe or tetris. But in games that have a story, it is extremely important to consider how the gameplay fits in with the story. Recently I’ve been playing ARK: Survival Evolved, so I’ll draw my examples from there. The one thing that you need to know about ARK is that it’s a survival-type game (i.e. you gather resources and craft tools, structures, etc) with dinosaurs. An the dinosaur models are gorgeous.

Of course, the first problem is that ARK isn’t really a survival game. It’s a team assault game where the weapons are gathered in a semi-survivalist sort of way. I say semi-survivalist because after a certain point all of the resources are gathered by heavy machines. It just so happens that the heavy machines are dinosaurs, but aside from having a setting where they can aimlessly wander around and having a breeding mechanic, they are designed just like heavy machines would be. There are heavy trucks (brontosauri), light trucks (diplodocuses), tanks (rexes), armored assault vehicles (allosauruses), and so on. There are even spy helicopters (pteranodons), attack helicopters (tapejaras) and cargo helicopters (quetzals). You might think that flying reptiles would be more like planes, but they’re all slow, very maneuverable, and extremely good at hovering. The more heavily laden they are, the slower they move. It makes sense as a game mechanic but makes absolutely no physical sense. If a slow moving animal flapped very slowly, it would fall like a rock.

And the problem is that this takes you right out of the story. When flying reptiles are actually swimming through the air in entirely impossible ways, the beauty of the models loses most of its effect. The same is true of the walk-cycles which don’t adapt to the ground, but I think for different reasons.

Granted, walk cycles which don’t use physics to adjust the skeleton in natural ways for locomotion will never look entirely right, but I think that we’d forgive scripted walk cycles far more if the dinosaur which was walking imperfectly was actually moving with a purpose. But in ARK they aren’t. Or rather, they almost never are. On occasion a predator does run at another dinosaur to attack it. But under normal circumstances the dinosaurs simply wander around completely aimlessly. The herbivores do not eat, nor do the walk towards plants. They are simply on a random walk. And I think that the fact that their movements are completely pointless make you far more likely to notice that they’re not walking correctly.

And this problem carries over to appreciating the models for another reason. It’s great that the triceratops looks almost exactly how you’d picture it, but it’s hard to notice that when they’re not behaving at all like how you’d expect. They’re a herd animal. You should see them in groups and they should move around with some relationship to the others in the herd. That they don’t just breaks the illusion even more.

And of course everything has terrible eyesight in ARK. Predators don’t notice prey until they’re within about 50 yards. Prey doesn’t notice predators until the predators have  actually bitten them. No creature in ARK has a nose.

Of course, none of these are likely to be overly noticeable if you’re playing in team-versus-team since you have to be on constant lookout for other teams who will try to kill you if you’re alone.

I should note that the dinosaur taming also suffers from the idea of gameplay-over-story. With exceptions, dinosaur taming is accomplished by using tranquilizers to knock a dinosaur unconscious, then feed it its favorite foods while it’s unconscious. Once it’s eaten enough it then instantly forms a lifelong bond to you where it is willing to go on suicide missions on your command. Granted you have to cheat taming an animal somehow for this to be a game and not as simulator, but this is extremely stupid. Worse, as you are shooting the dinosaur with tranquilizer-soaked crossbow bolts in order to knock it out, once it’s torpor falls below a certain point it realizes that you are trying to tranquilize it and runs away at its top speed. This is very stupid because tranquilizers make animals slower, not faster, but it also makes taming dinosaurs frustrating. There’s also no way to vary the amount of tranquilizer being delivered per shot, so larger, higher level dinosaurs require very large numbers of shots to tranquilize. That’s tedious, not fun. (This is another case where the game is made for multi-player, because using one of the many multi-person dinosaur mounts makes chasing after dinosaurs much easier since one person drives the dinosaur while the other person shoots. It’s also the case that, for example, four people can deliver 4x as many tranquilizing shots so chasing may not even be necessary for teams.)

A mechanic where you feed the awake dinosaur until it likes you would have been much better. This does actually exist with a few dinosaurs, but even here this has been screwed up so that it isn’t too easy, by which I really mean, too fun. There’s a dolphin-like marine reptile which likes to come up to survivors (what the players are called) and nuzzle them. You can give them meat and this tames them, except that once they realize you’re trying to tame them, they run away. This makes no sense, and is no fun. Apparently the most important game mechanic is that the player must struggle for everything.

Ultimately, ARK is an absolutely beautiful games which isn’t very much fun to play in single player mode because its central theme is being a tribal warfare simulator where it takes hundreds of hours to build up assets that get destroyed in a few minutes during a raid. The later stages of the games are even fought with automatic weapons and heavy artillery; the dinosaur seem almost out of place among auto-turrets and C4 bombs.

But the upshot is that the game really doesn’t work as a single player game. It really looks like it should work as a single player game. There should be an enormous amount to do all on one’s own. But it’s mostly ruined by inattention to the story. It’s not possible to suspend one’s disbelief long enough to enjoy it. Which is a great pity because the dinosaur models are gorgeous.

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