Note: minor spoilers for Tomb Raider ending
This game, we agree, was longer than we thought it would be.
This game also, when you strip it down, really didn’t have a lot of different challenges. Climb, occasionally hit square whilst climbing, occasionally shoot a rope arrow. Fighting? Dudes with axes, dudes with guns, dudes with bows, dudes with dynamite, dudes with shields. Dudes dressed as samurai with same.
And yet, despite the relative few obstacles/baddies spread through a long game, it never once, at least for me, felt like a grind. I never rolled my eyes saying “this AGAIN.” There’s precious few games I can say that about. Even games I love have grindy bits (DAO: Deep Roads. The Deep Roads). I even thought, briefly, during my last climb there, “I’ve done ALL of this many times, yet I’m still tense.”
Which is good game design. But how’d they pull it off?
My first idea was sound. The climbing bits especially were always accompanied by loud (I play with headphones) music that fit the scene and the scenery. And it was pretty much always different. At least it felt that way. There wasn’t “The Climbing Theme from Tomb Raider.” So each climb, aurally, was different, even if, in gameplay, it was pretty much the same. So many games use the same music over and over to denote “Fight,” or “climb” or “camp.” And while TR did use sound effects that had specific intent, the use of music was really ingenious.
But there’s got to be other reasons. Your take?
This is a good question. For me, sound is probably not the answer to why it didn’t feel too long, because I don’t notice sound the way you do (I played on the PS3, so no headphone jack on the controller, and I keep the sound low-ish so as not to wake the kid, so ambient music tends to be somewhat lost on me).
It may have helped in a subconscious way, though. Certainly having different music for similar scenes does seem like an excellent way to make a familiar-ish scenario feel new.
In this same sort of ‘background’ area, I think they also did a good job with visuals, which, like sound, may seem like a nice but inessential detail, but which can actually make a big difference to a game experience. You may climb a lot of walls here, but they’re beautifully detailed enough that no one wall looks exactly like another, so, again, it can feel a bit different even as you perform essentially the same actions.
Also, simple to say but perhaps hardest of all to act on, I felt that the timing was good. The game mixed up the climbing, sneaking, shooting, exploring etc. aspects very well, so that you weren’t left feeling like “damn it, this is the 10th wall I’ve had to climb in the last 20 minutes, I suppose 5 hours of shooting is next.” They managed the switches from one type of activity to another well, I felt, in the main story, and even in the big environments where you could spend a lot of time exploring, there were often different things to do to get around (rope arrows, jumping, etc.).
Finally, even though it was a bit longer than we expected, it was still not incredibly long. There was some “but wait, there’s more!” but only to a point, after which it closed off with a brisk “that’s really all this time, thank you and good night!”
In retrospect, it feels like a good length–not too long (risking a sense that it was padded with extraneous stuff or drawn out with extra plot complications), and not too short (likely to be perceived as overly simplified in terms of narrative or character development, or offering too little in the way of action and things for the player to do).
Perhaps the answer comes down to that elusive quality of “everything came together just right” that game designers must work extremely hard for. Sound, graphics, story, character, action: when it’s balanced well, it just works.
Re: background details: I think a lot of music is subconscious. I tend to notice it more cuz of the phones and cuz of [musician I know]. Also: the weather. This is in sun! This is in snow! Subtle, but effective in breaking it up. Subconsciously.
They did do a good job managing switches. It was nicely broken up. Even the “boss fights” weren’t overdone. As I mentioned yesterday, there wasn’t a “big fight with ogre followed by big fight with Matthias.” It was a big fight, ok, done.
I think some games mistake a whole lot of something at a time for either challenge or epic storytelling when it’s neither. It’s grind.
Ending before it went on too long: That it did. I’m eager for a sequel, but I’m not eager for, say, 25 more hours of this game.
Timing of games must be hard, right Buttons? I mean, too short, you get yelled at, too long, it’s grind. This is one of the many things TR got right. It really did get a lot right, didn’t it?
“When it’s balanced well, it just works”: Which I think undermines so much of what devs do. I mean, we’re pretty attuned to the subtle, but I think most players aren’t. They know good, they know bad, but they don’t know why it’s good or bad. Devs must rack their brains coming up with all this subtlety, all this that separates a great game from a dud, knowing no one will really appreciate what they did. Hell, if it isn’t noticed, they’re doing their job. Must be weird.