Apr 292010

The last three games I’ve played have something in common, in that they are noble efforts with imperfect outcomes. Infinite Space, Metro 2033, and Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon all have significant positives offset by serious negatives. In particular, I thought Infinite Space and Metro 2033 were pretty compelling despite their problems. The easiest of these to talk about is what’s wrong with Infinite Space, so I’ll start there.

In header of my GameCritics.com review of Infinite Space, I mention that completing the second chapter took me six hours, but this was not because I kept dying and having to reload. Rather, it was because the story can only be advanced through a set of incredibly obscure interactions. The main character, Yuri, enters the Lutsk sector, which is basically overrun by pirates thanks to an ineffective and corrupt government. Yuri can’t leave Lutsk for more interesting places until he allies with one of the few government good guys to run the pirates off. In order for that to happen, these events must transpire:

  1. Yuri fights a sub-boss pirate in a well-equipped ship. The pirate is scared off by the local military commander, Vladykin. Vladykin invites Yuri to meet with him at his base.
  2. Go the base. Yuri is informed that Vladykin is out on patrol. No matter how many pirates you kill or how many times you circumnavigate the system after this, Vladykin will not be at the base or out in space.
  3. Go to the tavern on a completely different planet. Talk to the bartender twice, and she will introduce Yuri to her waitress, Tatiana. You now have the option to talk to Tatiana when you visit the tavern.
  4. Talk to Tatiana three times (keep in mind that in most bars, dialogue repeats after the first or second conversation). The third time you talk to her, she mentions that she is worried about her brother, who is a member of the armed forces. She joins your crew temporarily.
  5. Vladykin is now present at the base. Surprise! He wants to give Yuri a mission involving Tatiana’s missing brother.

At no point prior to the moment that she mentions her brother is there any indication that Tatiana has anything to do with the main quest. If you don’t know in advance that she is necessary to further the story, or if you only talk to the bartender once and never even learn that Tatiana exists, you might well do what I did and travel around the Lutsk area for hours, hoping to hit some trigger that makes Vladykin show up at his base. Obviously, this whole rigmarole is meant to get Tatiana onto your crew, as she becomes important to the plot later on. But the way it’s done is really painful.

Infinite Space is hardly the first game to employ this kind of obscurantist design. Even very good games usually have one or two examples like this, but they are typically reserved for side-quests or getting special items, the gold standard being Final Fantasy XII’s Zodiac Spear. The Zodiac Spear is one of the best weapons in that game, but there is not a realistic chance of obtaining it unless the player does not open certain unmarked treasure chests. Of course, nothing in the game even suggests that it is possible to acquire a Zodiac Spear, much less mentions the not-opening-chests requirement.

Obscurantism has its advantages, particularly when it comes to side-quests. The Zodiac Spear situation is obviously excessive and unrewarding, but that doesn’t mean all examples have to be. Many of the optional crew members in Infinite Space, for instance, are also picked up using complicated chains of interactions like the one described above. In those cases, because the new crew member isn’t necessary to progress, reaching the end of the interaction chain feels like a little reward, something extra you got for really dedicating yourself to exploring the game. The positive feeling of discovering a secret part of the world is a powerful enticement to really engage yourself with a game’s fiction.

However, searching every corner is only fun as long as it isn’t required. In the main quest, obscurantist interaction chains tend to produce nothing but frustration and even anger. I came very close to tossing Infinite Space aside until I decided to buckle down and talk to every single person on every single planet until I saw their lines repeat. Before I got to that point I spent a lot of unrewarding time fighting uninteresting battles against enemies I’d already mastered. Moreover, there was nothing gratifying about finding Tatiana and moving the story forward. Instead, the seeming randomness of the situation made the game seem arbitrary and illogical.

Even worse, the habit of talking to everyone until their interactions repeat, at every juncture in the game, provides diminishing returns later on. The area you can actually explore gets much larger later on, but there’s not much more to do on the various planets. Constantly stopping to see the same dialogue over and over again in the taverns was a drag, but I was paranoid that I would find myself trapped in another six-hour sinkhole. In addition to being unentertaining on its own merits, my experience in Lutsk trained me to do things that made the rest of the game less fun.

Obviously the examples I’ve talked about here are extreme, but this error makes regular appearances in the RPG genre. Anyone who has run around a town area talking to every single person in an effort to open up a route to the next plot point knows the feeling of frustration that comes from this kind of design. Infinite Space manages to cast of several traditional RPG trappings I find particularly irksome, but it unfortunately embraces this kind of hide-and-seek approach to plot progression, much to its detriment.

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