The Worst Jedi

Being tragically bad at video games means getting stories with bad pacing

One thing to know about me is that I’m extremely bad at video games. Whoever was making my character neglected to put any points into dexterity, so I’m pretty hopeless at anything that requires quick reflexes or precise hand-eye coordination.

(You might think it’s weird to spend most of your career working in video games if you’re bad at them, but I’d counter that most of the games I’ve worked on have been more modest, story- and puzzle-driven adventure games. You might then go on to assume that I must be better at adventure games, then, but I have to say that I’m bad at those, too).

I’ve been reminded of how bad I am at games, brutally and repeatedly, because I’ve gotten the chance to put some more time into Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order over the past few days.

Jedi: Fallen Order is just an extremely well-made game. It is fantastic at Star Wars storytelling and world-building. Everywhere you go is immediately recognizable as “feeling like Star Wars,” but it doesn’t feel like it’s just a retread of what you’ve seen before in movies and TV series.

But somebody involved in the game’s development decided that surfing needed to be a key part of the experience. I’ve been surprised by how much of the game is spent sliding down slippery slopes, leaping over gaps, jumping onto ropes, running on walls, and wondering who out there considers any of this really fun.

This means that I’m on my third playthrough of a game (for various reasons that are too uninteresting even for this blog, if you can imagine) from 2019, and I’ve only just inched farther than I’ve ever been before. I finally finished the main objective on the third planet you visit in the main storyline, and it felt like a victory four years in the making.

But instead of opening a single shortcut that would take me back to the start of the level, it invited me to retrace the steps I’d taken, but backwards. Enemies were reconfigured and repositioned, alternate paths that seemed baffling on the way in suddenly made sense on the way out, and obstacles seemed place to give me some time to practice the new ability I’d just learned. But in terms of story and pacing, it felt “off.” There’s a reason action movies rarely show the lead fighting his way to the center of a dungeon, defeating the villain, and then quietly walking back to the entrance.

I don’t want to spoil anything in the game, even if everyone else interested in it has already finished it multiple times over by this point, but I will say that it fairly quickly became clear why the level was structured the way it was, and it all made perfect sense. Even if, again, my being bad at games took what should’ve been a satisfying coda to the mission and stretched it into a clumsy and punishing affair of my stumbling around and getting killed repeatedly.

I’ll also say that the sequence that starts with your first going to the Wookiee planet Kashyyk is one of the coolest Star Wars things I’ve ever seen, video game or otherwise. I was grinning like an idiot the whole time, not quite believing they went so hard.

Anyway, there’s one idea that kept being driven home every time I died and had to start over: I’m getting a very different experience from everyone else. I already realized that interactive storytelling means giving control over to the audience — even when you’re not giving up control over the plot with branching narratives and the like, you’re still giving the audience control over the camera and pacing. But seeing it in this game really makes you appreciate just how un-cinematic that is.

My experience with this game is so different from that of a competent person that I’m not even sure whether the moments I think of as “climaxes” are even intended to feel like significant events (“Hooray we shot down a bunch of TIE Fighters and escaped the Death Star!”) or if they’re still just setting the stage (“Hooray I just found a mysterious recording in this R2 unit!”)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because it’s a hard enough problem in traditional media. I have a ton of respect for when I read a book or watch a movie or TV show and the story feels “in sync” with me: when I get an appropriate feeling of “a-ha!” from the revelations, and I don’t feel like I could see them coming from a mile away. It’s such a difficult balance, having to take into account the audience’s aptitude for picking up clues, remembering details, or even familiarity with the genre. Then add the fact that a scene that was intended to last about one minute could actually be playing out over an hour or even a week.

Another thing I’ve noticed while stumbling through Fallen Order is how much I’m meta-gaming it. I feel very aware of the structure of the game vs the structure of the story: what’s building up to a boss fight, what’s intended to teach or reinforce a game mechanic, where the game is moving forward on rails, where the game is paused and waiting for me to move into a new area. That kind of counteracts the pacing issues caused by my bad playing — even if the time dilation has ruined the surprise, I can at least tell how I’m supposed to react to a new big set piece or battle.

I doubt that I’m ever going to Get Good, but I would like to see some games that take this extremely unpredictable pacing into account. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time famously took advantage of it by incorporating your accidents and mishaps into the storytelling. Are there different ways to lean into it? Do more than just comment on it, but actually incorporate it into the storytelling?

Or am I overthinking it, and it’s one of those conventions that is simply ignored, like gutters between comic book panels, or montage sequences in movies? Is it just the case that player time isn’t the same as game time? An hour’s worth of fatal falls, swearing, and throwing the controller across the room, is just a few seconds in the main character’s life?

4 thoughts on “The Worst Jedi”

  1. It took me years to finally finish FO. I stopped at some point just before a boss fight, and lost all the muscle memory required to beat it. It took hours upon hours just to beat that one boss and be able to make any forward progress, and then…

    I thought it was a great game. Wonderful Star Wars-y-ness. To the degree that I bought the Cal Kentis lightsaber @ Galaxy’s Edge the last time I was there, and I have a Lego BB-8. I love Respawn’s output, and Titanfall 2 is one of my favorite FPS games ever.

    I say all that, because the last battle in Fallen Order is break-your-controller in half when you shatter your TV by throwing your controller and then your console through the wall frustrating.

    I don’t know whether it’s that I am also “not good”, but to me the problem is that Fallen Order is trying to be a precision, high-readability, “deterministic” action game like how people describe Dark Souls, but its core foundation can’t support that level of precision.

    Animation windups are too long. Or enemy windups are too short. Both. I felt like the last boss was like the last boss in a Street Fighter game, where the AI difficulty ramps up slowly through the course of the regular characters, and then the last boss has AI coded by a sadist. Between what felt like cheap boss AI, really fast-deploying moves by the boss, and slow-deploying animation-trapping moves by you, there were a lot of times where that last battle just felt totally arbitrary and unfair. And wildly harder than all but one other battle in the game. Which you’ll probably know when you get stuck there.

    Friends told me to lower the difficulty for those battles, and I wouldn’t do it. But let me recommend to you – if you want to end this game with the fondness for it you’ll have through the majority of your playthrough, just turn the difficulty down for any battles where you’re genuinely stuck. Because plowing through via brute force/repetition, I got so pissed off at the game that my memory of it is… damaged.

    If I’d felt like the difficulty was fair, I’d have already bought Jedi Survivor. I have not. And that bugs me, because based on Titanfall 2, I was pretty sure I’d buy everything Respawn ever released on day 1 for the rest of time. I’ll get it eventually, though.

    1. I’m pretty sure that I already lowered the difficulty for this play-through after having to bail out in frustration twice before, but you’ve reminded me I should double-check.

      One good thing, I guess, is that more developers are aware of the problem I’m describing, and they’ve stopped calling it the absurdly insulting and backwards “girlfriend mode” (or even “little brother mode”) and started more often calling it “story mode.”

      But as far as I can tell, Fallen Order’s difficulty settings just affect combat. Not that I’m really good at combat, but I’ve had a LOT more difficulty with just the navigational/platforming stuff. It’s frustrating that the game keeps putting up prompts showing me I can ask BD-1 for a hint when I’m in “puzzle mode,” when I’m like, “No, I understand exactly what I need to do, I just can’t #@*%&! do it!”

      And I agree about the seeming lack of precision in the game. The boss fight I was talking about had me trying to take out a Scout Walker using my new Force Push power. The whole time I would swear that I was hitting the block or push buttons at the right time, just as I had been in all the combat leading up to that point, but they had no effect. It felt as if that fight in particular just suddenly changed all the animation timings and responsiveness!

  2. I’ve blogged about this topic from several angles over the years. It’s something I think about a lot. I was replaying a 10 year old game (Borderlands 2) the other day and staring at the trio of achievements I got in relatively short succession in Steam’s page for the game and couldn’t help but notice that these three things that happen one after another in the story pacing, but maybe not in the player’s experience, had a noticeable drop off rate. 49% of players (less than half and to my understanding only about a third into the story!) make it that far in the story in the first place. Of those 2% fell off from the next story achievement and another 2% fell off by the third.

    On the one hand, no other medium has had these sorts of analytics so upfront and noticeable by even the “readership” or “viewership”. There’s never been a time in history where you find out that only 49% of readers in history finished that chapter of Moby Dick or viewers in history finished that episode of Star Trek.

    On the other hand, I kind of wonder why there isn’t more industry-wide sense of shame (or at least a demoralizing feeling) at some of these numbers. There are beloved games with high metacritic scores whose Steam achievements show that single digit percentages of players ever concluded their story. Maybe War and Peace is still a successful and critically acclaimed novel if only 8% of people that open the book ever finish the whole thing and there’s a visible attrition rate in every chapter along the way. But how unsatisfying is that as a creator? How do you tell any sort of interesting Hero’s Journey if you know most people won’t even make it much past the “Call to Action” of your planned arc?

    I’ve played Borderlands 2 on three platforms, this is about as far as I’ve ever gotten into the main story, and what I know of the story of it is mostly a bizarre jumble and I’m almost sure most of what I think I know of the story is actually just from the collection of Pre-Sequel and Tales from the Borderlands and Borderlands 3 recaps. That’s weird. I suppose it’s like the old days of TV reruns where you might only ever really know a show from the standpoint of a syndicated shuffle and have no idea what order episodes take place in, but while that sort of makes sense for 1-hour standalone things, I am sure it makes all that much sense for 60+ hour games that supposedly are telling a serialized story together.

    Not that Borderlands 2 is trying to be War and Peace, and it’s mixed up storyline is part of the fun, but Borderlands is just the most recent example. There are so many examples. I’ve never completed an individual Assassin’s Creed game’s story (but tried to follow the overall plotline for years before giving up).

    I’ve long missed cheat codes and “god modes” now. I’ve often wished for “I just want to get back to the story” buttons. I’ve come to loathe the way videogames interpret “the rule of three”. If I’ve done the thing once fifty times and twice a dozen more, 62 is still way more than three repetitions, I get it, I’ve learned all I care to know about the thing, just give me a button to press to move on.

    Yeah, I’ll sign an affidavit at that point signifying that I’m bad at games. I’m well aware by now about that. But maybe the stories would be better in general if these books didn’t require you to be good at jumping jacks and obstacle courses to move to the next chapter or these movies didn’t require you to cook a perfect michelin star meal to get to third act while the chef shouts how useless you are?

    1. It probably will be no surprise that those types of conversations came up quite often at Telltale. Most obviously as the post-episode stats from The Walking Dead era games, but also just the whole idea of doing shorter, episodic games that people were more likely to actually finish.

      While I was writing this post I realized that part of what makes Fallen Order’s sequence on Kashyyk so great is that it is constantly moving forward. That’s one of the ingenious things about The Walking Dead design as well; the timed dialogues and silence-as-an-option mean that you can’t be stuck in dialogues that aren’t going anywhere. (More important for dialogue-heavy games, obviously. You can still wander around aimlessly when you’re exploring or trying to solve a puzzle).

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