Thursday, September 10, 2015

I Hate Rat Mazes

Hate 'em, no matter what kind of narrative they are in. What does this have to do with writing books? More than you might think. The one thing any story teller does not EVER want to do is become tedious. Forcing the player/audience/reader to wade through fluff simply in order to pad the product and make it look fatter is tedious in the extreme.

Computer RPG designers do it by making dungeons into rat mazes that have no narrative purpose for being there and/or have no logical justification for being laid out the way they are. In books the approach is a bit different, but the effect is the same. The purpose is to artificially lengthen and expand the narrative and try to fool the customer into believing that they are getting more for their money than they really are.

What provoked this particular rant was my recent spell of playing an RPG with a dungeon of surpassing annoyance. The rat maze syndrome is not uncommon in games by this particular company, but this one got under my hide for some reason. It was supposed to be a vast underground city, abandoned by its makers centuries ago, There were the obligatory primitive interlopers and relic mechanical defenses of course. But the main problem was the layout.

Several different zones exited into a vast central area at different elevations. Problem is, you were supposed to dutifully follow the trail of bread crumbs through the twisting passageways back and forth and around and up and down and back again, climbing ramps and stairs until you finally got dumped back at the central area again. Whereupon you would find yourself facing a broken bridge or a sunken walkway, which inevitably forced you to swim, jump, or otherwise strain yourself and risk life and limb in order to make it to the next doorway. Then you went into the next zone and picked up the trail of breadcrumbs again so you could continue onward in your intrepid quest for the cheese.

I hate that kind of layout. I hated it when the original Doom for DOS did it. I hated it when the original Hexen did it. And there is no reason on earth for any gaming company to still be doing it now. The hardware and software limitations of the early eighties simply do not apply anymore. This is intellectual laziness on the part of the game designer, pure and simple. It griped me to the point that I got maybe a third of the way through it before I gave up and used cheat codes to hurry up and find the cheese so I could get out of there.

Writers of books and short stories have their own version of the rat maze. One favored narrative tactic is so common that it has a technical term among writers. It's called the Idiot Plot. The name means that the plot only holds together because all of the characters are idiots. It's the romance story where, if the hero and heroine spent five minutes talking to each other and comparing notes, there wouldn't be a story. Or the mystery novel where none of the supposedly wise and experienced investigators have sense enough to consult a high school chemistry text book. Or the thriller where none of the campers have sense enough to consider that humans started living together in tribes because there is safety in numbers, and it is really dumbass to split up in the middle of the night when you KNOW that there is something out there with sharp teeth.

Back to my little RPG. There's nothing wrong with wanting to give the player/reader an expanded amount of content. That idea is laudable. But the way they went about it is simple laziness. Just like an idiot plot in a book is laziness. Instead of putting their minds to work, the designers cut and pasted a bunch of pre-designed graphics and slapped them onto what looks like a standard set of corridors. Then they tack a wad of them together in a semi-coherent mass, all wrapped around a central opening. Paint on some underground texures and there you go, instant underground city. Sprinkle in a few ugly NPCs for a modicum of challenge, and pour out the bread crumbs. Then proudly point and say, 'look, a challenging adventure'. Right.

Instead of wearing the player out from running back and forth through an endless series of identical hallways, the game designers could have added death traps, or an unstable ceiling that might cave in if the player hit the wrong spot, or leftover machines that might have unstable power supplies to blow up if they were messed with, or a hundred other things. But that would have required time and effort.

Just like it would take effort to throw in third party villain to deliberately misinform the bewildered lovers, or have a crooked lab tech give the clueless detectives false information, or maybe have the secret monster be smart enough to set the cabin on fire and force the silly teenagers out into the night. ANYTHING would be better than simply insulting the reader's intelligence and wearing out their patience with fluff.