It was an offhand comment on the superb Later Levels GameBlast Stream two weeks ago (Well done again!) about my dislike of QTE’s that got my thinking about game features that rub me up the wrong way. Surprisingly it isn’t the aforementioned QTE that bothers me the most. I can’t say that I’ve ever been sold a game on the promise of QTE; let’s face it, “NOW FEATURING QUICK TIME EVENTS!” isn’t the kind of thing that makes it in to the clipart rosettes featured in game box-art. Having said that, there are times when it is at least ‘functional‘ as a method of player interaction if not fireworks-in-the-sky-amazing. What does almost universally annoy me is weapon degradation; at best I tolerate it, at worst it will make me stop playing. With this convoluted train of thought in mind I decided to pick apart what I dislike about this increasingly common feature, but more importantly try to understand why designers feel the need to include it.
Most recently I’ve seen weapon degradation shoehorned in to the Resident Evil 2 Remake (RE2Make), a game that really doesn’t need it. Designers combined the traditional combat knife with the single use dagger from the Resident Evil Remake (REMake, originally for gamecube) resulting in a combat knife can be used to both counter and wield in combat but which ultimately degrades and shatters following an astoundingly tiny amount of use perpetuating the rumour that it’s actually made out of Jacob’s Crackers and not steel. It also neatly highlights my biggest problem with weapon degradation: lack of realism. There’s just no way the knife would shatter after slashing at zombies a few times; at most it would blunt, but probably still function for slamming in to a partially decomposed RPD officer in an adrenaline fueled wrestling match. As a player I find myself getting caught up in ripples of bizarre game logic that this spawns further adding to the problem; like carrying several knives for the moment the one I’m using shatters like glass and being totally OK that identical combat knives are littered around the police station for just such eventualities. In short; from a design point of view weapon degradation often has a clear function, but from a player point of view it can be immersion breaking. For me the former is rarely worth the price of the latter.
Setting aside the breaking of player immersion, I’ve also been met with what I’d call the ‘urgh’. Take this typical scenario: You’re playing Silent Hill 4: The Room (a game with merits that are almost completely outweighed by its negatives), hacking away with one of Greg Norman’s cast off golf clubs at those annoying ghost enemies that go down but are never out for the count. Suddenly it breaks… “urgh”… “Urgh” is never a feeling I want to have playing a game. A game can be fiendishly difficult, convoluted, or terrifying to an incapacitating level, but not “urgh”. The same “urgh” can be found in ‘Breath of the Wild‘ – a game which in broad terms I loved, but was marred by the knowledge that finding a good sword would only lead to disappointment a few moments later when it shattered mid-way through vanquishing a Lynel. Sure, the design logic is sound; BotW is a game about exploration, completing quests, and … that glowing armour set… as a player we need motivation and at least 50% of the motivation is achieved through the desire to find cool stuff. So what do designers do when a game like BotW is too big to sufficiently populate with unique cool swords? They take the ones that we’ve found away from us as they’re used; they make melee weapons a consumable. The trade-off here is a sense of progression with the player running just to stay still in a constant search to maintain a decent weapon set.
The Fallout games make a valiant attempt to work around these problems with gradually degrading weapons that can be repaired either at a specific locations or combining with a matching weapon to rejuvenate it. This system allows for many of the same type of weapon and keeps a certain amount of immersion as the guns are all duct-taped-lashed-together pieces of post-apocalyptic pipe and whatnot so yeah, they’re going to need continuous TLC. Whilst this sits at the lower end of my degradation dislike spectrum, it does end up feeling like menu busy-work by the time you finally conquer the wasteland (or whatever it is that you’re up to) and I place it only marginally ahead of the continuous grind to maintain a functional toolkit in crafting games. Somehow worse than this was the approach taken by Dying Light which implemented weapon degradation so halfheartedly that I had to wonder why it was even there. Weapons ‘can’ be repaired but more often than not the player has long since abandoned that weapon in favour of a better one by the time it would be necessary. I barely repaired anything during an entire playthrough.
In short degradation is there to turn what would normally be a fixed asset for the player in to a resource to be managed. It’s a device to motivate the player’s actions or inflate the challenge, but the costs in immersion, a sense of progression, and the added admin are rarely worth it in my opinion. It’s not like games are short of resources to manage they often include health, ammo, energy, mana, erm… Pokemon?… rolls-of-film, rings, style, so why do we need additional ones to worry about? I guess if I have to have weapon degradation then I want to see it implemented at least somewhat realistically with weapon performance dropping off as you might expect but never just shattering in your hands. Needing to take a sword back to a smith to have the edge honed back to brilliance or having to oil the mechanism of a gun once in a while to reduce jams… you know… rather than leaving a battle with a pile of peanut brittle that was once a mighty halberd because squishy orcs are magic.
Anyone out there big fans of degradation? Any games that do it really well? Feel free to jump in to the comments!