Inventory Full: Avoiding Mechanical Filler – Part I

This is the first in a two-part series on the use of filler in video game mechanics. Check back here next week to read part two.

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Grand Theft Auto IV has an incredible story and memorable characters, but too often everything comes to a grinding halt so the player can go bowling with their cousin.

When we think about filler in video games, we often think of side quests that don’t enhance the experience (such as the dreaded fetch quest or escort mission), or a story that spins its wheels for an entire act, trying to pad out the game length to hit an arbitrary play time that publishers think a game needs to hit to be a success. Some amazing games are filled with an astonishingly high amount of filler – the first Borderlands featured numerous quests that sent players searching high and low for audio tapes, for no discernible reason (at least they were sometimes entertaining to listen to). Grand Theft Auto IV featured compelling characters and a gripping story, but the side quests were so shallow and meaningless that they eventually turned into a meme, known as “let’s go bowling.” It may be heresy to call into question anything developer Rockstar Games did with Red Dead Redemption, but the second act, which takes place in Mexico, felt like the writers needed to tread water while they figured out how to end their western epic (it was worth it if only to experience one of the greatest endings of all time).

This is what comes to mind when we discuss filler in video games, but there is another type of filler that often goes overlooked – mechanical filler. When a player spends more time managing their inventory then they do engaging in actual gameplay, that’s mechanical filler. When level design is purposefully confusing, obtuse and difficult to navigate, that’s mechanical filler. When the player focuses more on gathering resources or repeatedly defeating weaker enemies to prepare them for a tougher one, that is mechanical filler.

Just as story and gameplay can be affected by filler, so can a game’s mechanics. Just like repetitive side quests, some great games feature baffling uses of mechanical filler. Fortunately, in these instances it’s just one or two mechanics that are artificially lengthened or made unnecessarily complex, and they have little negative impact on the title overall. But mechanical filler becomes a bigger issue when a game that has an entertaining, solid foundation relies on it too heavily, turning what should be an incredible experience into a chore.

Giving Good Games Bad Ideas

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When great games continue to use poor mechanics and go unchecked, it can lead to disastrous results.

In April 2014, we published an essay titled “Rewarding Failure: How Great Games Perpetuate Bad Design,” examining how even great games can perpetuate outdated, poor mechanics:

“Publishers, developers and gamers all have a tendency to look forward all of the time. Everyone is always excited for the next big game, but after the launch-window has come and gone, the next big game ends up, more often than not, becoming ancient history. And if that game sold well, then it’s successes and failures will all find themselves in the next big thing.”

At that time, no example of a quality game filled with bad ideas came to mind. If a title relied too heavily on these bad ideas, then it would in turn be a bad game (games like Duke Nukem Forever and the ill-fated APB: All Points Bulletin). A game filled with poor mechanics pulled from other titles, yet still be considered by some to be a good or great game, was exceptionally rare.

Then came along No Man’s Sky.

Our official review of No Man’s Sky praised the title for its ability to make gamers rethink their place in the universe, to grapple with the notion that their actions have no impact on the galaxy, seemingly infinite in its size, and will continue to exist long after the player has departed to another solar system or galaxy. Although our review was overwhelmingly positive, we did discuss much of the controversy surrounding the title in a follow-up piece, specifically on what was promised and what wasn’t delivered. But what neither article focused on was the overwhelming use of mechanical filler developer Hello Games used to artificially lengthen even the most basic tasks.

No Man’s Sky is that rare example of a game that, at its core, is a wonderful experience, but is filled with enough mechanical filler that it’s a wonder anyone made it more than two hours into the experience without throwing the controller out of the window in frustration. Before breaking down the use of mechanical filler in No Man’s Sky, and in the spirit of our essay on rewarding failure, we should first look at where developer Hello Games potentially got their ideas, hopefully shining a light on practices that developers use, and should promptly cease.

Inventory Management – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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In a world where players can kill a dragon with a dagger, it seems impossible to carry a lot of potions and armor.

Why is it that, in a world filled with fire-breathing dragons, the undead roaming the land and characters who can conjure flames from their bare hands, players must also keep an eye on the amount of potions they are carrying? This was the question that developer FromSoftware asked when creating Dark Souls, and they came to the logical conclusion – inventory management makes no sense in most games, so the artificial constraint was removed. But it’s unfortunately a question developer Bethesda Softworks either doesn’t care to ask, or they came to the wrong conclusion. For as freeing and liberating as the world of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is, it’s equally constraining and tedious, in large part to the focus on inventory management. As with many titles, players have a limited amount of space or carry weight in their inventory, meaning they can’t just pick up every single item they see – they have to pick and choose carefully. That said, inventory management only really works when a game employs elements found in survival games, where the choice between bringing healing items or extra ammo may end up deciding the success of a player’s mission. Where inventory management doesn’t fit are games such as Skryim, which aim to provide players a sense of freedom and the ability to role play as any type of character they choose.

So why include inventory management at all? Because it adds an additional task for players to engage in – either trading or selling their loot, or returning to a home base to store said items for later use. Because of this, players must sift through their inventories and drop whatever items fit their needs the least, then stop whatever quest they engaged in and either return to their base to store these items, or find a shop to sell them. I lost track of the number of hours I’ve spent in games such as Skyrim, simply backtracking to town to unload gear for much needed coin, halting any progress I was working toward on my latest quest. In Bethesda’s defense, games such as Skyrim offer a fast travel option, in which players can pull up a map and select a destination they have previously visited and instantly warp to that place, but it still means halting quest progression to make space in an inventory. It’s not internally consistent with the often fanciful traits of these worlds, and only acts as a nuisance for players to contend with.

Resource Gathering – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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The awesome gear Witchers use is made out of some odd things.

On top of inventory management, many games also include a multitude of ways for players to earn the resources they need to either complete the story or upgrade their gear. While resource gathering is often a compelling part of gameplay (as it should be), it’s sometimes so confusing and unwieldy that players simply ignore it until they absolutely need to gather the necessary items to progress in the story.

Another amazing title that drops the ball on resource gathering is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Throughout the franchise, the practice of alchemy has been a staple – Witchers often use potions to enhance their already freakish powers, and crafting these potions takes ingredients. That’s all fine and well, but when the system is expanded to include crafting armor and weapons, it takes a rather odd and pointless direction. One would think , in order to craft a new sword, players would need steel for the blade, leather for the hilt, and perhaps a magical rune or other item to imbue the blade with a specific power. While all of that is true for crafting in The Witcher 3, players also need to collect something called Fifth Essence and… a monster brain?

Yes, in the world of The Witcher, swords are made with random organs of slain monsters. But it gets stranger – some weapons can be upgraded multiple times, and in the case of the Silver Griffin Sword, players will need the following items from monsters: eggs, tongues, feathers, hearts, blood and dust. Of course, not one monster drops all of these items, meaning that the player will have to either wander around the world seeking out those monsters and killing enough of them to get the parts they need, or spend what little money they earn through side quests to buy those items (at a ridiculous mark up) from one vendor. Then they must go to a blacksmith to have the item crafted. The situation is even worse if the player looks to upgrade a set of armor, as the randomness of the required items forces players to again stop engaging in the story in order to track down monster tongues so they can upgrade their armor.

Level Design – Borderlands 2

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Despite an appropriate apocalyptic atmosphere, levels such as Eridium Blight highlight an issue with fill in level design.

On the one year anniversary of Borderlands 2, multiple Theory of Gaming writers took time to reflect on what they liked and disliked about the title. I couldn’t have known at the time that my dislike, the lack of save points, would end up being a much larger issue I had with the title, one that has kept me from revisiting what is otherwise an excellent FPS-RPG hybrid.

Looking back, it’s not so much the lack of save points that I disliked, it was the overwhelming size of the levels in Borderlands 2. I’m all for large, open worlds, but they need to either serve a purpose, such as making the player feel small and insignificant, or be filled with compelling activities. Borderlands 2 has plenty of large areas that meet this criteria, and then there is the end-game stage the Eridium Blight. At the time, I wrote of this section:

The score that accompanies this region is fantastic, and the volcanoes and ash add an eerie apocalyptic feeling to the entire level. However, the vast wastes are just that, wastes, with little to see or do. And if you’re unfortunate enough to succumb to one of the millions of hazards of Pandora, you’ll find yourself a long ways away from your previous spot.

Much of my time spent in this area wasn’t engaging with enemies or completing side quests, it was filled up with what seemed like aimless wandering. Even in a vehicle, which makes travel exceptionally faster, it seemed to take forever just to get anywhere. Unfortunately, this design philosophy reached some of the game’s DLC, most notably Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty. The DLC takes place in a desert, and it features an amazing cast of characters and an entertaining story, both of which serve as an excellent homage to Hunter S. Thompson and his seminal work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But players would be forgiven if they missed that, because those characters and story quests are lightly scattered amongst a barren desert that takes far too long to traverse. Without that empty space, both the Eridium Blight and Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty would be completed in a much shorter play time, which I contend is a positive rather than a negative, but sadly a higher play time is often falsely equated with higher quality.

When Filler Collides

In defense of Skyrim, The Witcher 3 and Borderlands 2, these games feature their share of mechanical filler, but they are well-crafted titles in just about every other way. While still appropriate to call these examples out for their flaws, the opportunity that No Man’s Sky presents by combining the flaws of all three is too great to pass. No Man’s Sky, despite being an enjoyable experience, utilizes all three methods of mechanical filler to great effect, taking what should be a relaxing, contemplative title and turning it into a grind.

In Part II, we will examine in-depth how No Man’s Sky utilizes mechanical filler to artificially inflate the play time of the title, through the use of constrictive inventory management, unbalanced resource gathering and awkwardly constructed level design. Though No Man’s Sky is one of the biggest culprits of employing mechanical filler in recent memory, it’s important to note that Hello Games got these ideas from some of the best development teams in the industry, and that these practices should come to an end sooner rather than later.