Can a game really have too much content? Yes, and it’s a serious problem. Filler content is harmful.
I finally got around to playing Mad Max, and was immediately flooded with side-quests to the point of exasperation. Ubisoft are particularly bad at finding the balance between drought and drown when it comes to ‘filler content’, but Warner Bros gave them a run for their money in Mad Max. The game quite literally drowns the player in a saturated cacophony of tedious ‘grunt work’. It is quite striking to look at your in-game map and see, stippled over every inch of the surface, hundreds of meaningless, fatuous icons denoting paper thin activities one can busy themselves with. The Mad Max map is huge. I mean, it is gargantuan in size and scale.
I mention Ubisoft because they are the kings of meaningless filler, look at FarCry for example. The first two iterations of the series weren’t too bad in this regard, but FarCry 3 and FarCry 4 were awful for committing the heinous crime of ‘over-saturation.’ Be it outposts, bell towers, masks, lettters or you dead dad’s boring journal; FarCry 4 is filled to bursting with ‘junk’. It is ‘junk’, boring junk that no one cares about. I’m sure Mohan Ghale was a great guy, but frankly his writing sucks. All this guff would more forgiveable if it actually felt like you were accomplishing at least something. Something at all. You don’t climb atop a radio tower and stand proud at your victory. You climb it, shut it down, fly off it and move on. These fruitless distractions add nothing to the game experience, and just makes it feel as if Ubisoft is padding the pillow so we don’t moan about how short the game is.
Game Developers are scared and for good reason. Look at the ribbing The Order: 1886 received for its considerably short campaign. It’s understandable that game companies want to avoid this kind of thing by making their games longer, but this is not the way to go about it. It’s obvious to Ubisoft, and it’s obvious to us that all this filler is superficial. We can tell they put very little effort into designing the bell towers in FarCry 4, as all of them are just slight variations on the radio towers from FarCry 3.
However, Ubisoft is not the only one to blame. Bioware really stepped into a steaming pile of ‘filler’ whilst developing Dragon Age: Inquisition, and it stinks. I would sit down for a good session of Dragon Age: Inquisition and proceed to spend the next 4 hours taking item A to place B, or vice versa. It is never a good sign when one can spend an entire working day playing a single video game, and feel as if you haven’t even got off the starting line. The Hinterlands is an infamous location in which the player can soon find themselves buried in pointless excursions. Bioware themselves warned of the trap that is staying in The Hinterlands for too long.
Well, safe to say I didn’t head this warning. I hung about in the starting area for what seemed like an age, enjoying myself. At first. After spending up to 10 hours in the starting zone I suddenly got terrible flashbacks to my World Of Warcraft days. I had spent so long doing fetch quests and hunting monsters, that I forgot that game actually had a major narrative. Bioware are excellent at creating interesting, well-acted casts of characters. But to this point, I had seen none of them. Oh, but not to worry, at least I went out of my way to save Mrs. Miggins’ cat from a tree. Who needs a solid narrative when you have fetch quests?
In some ways Dragon Age: Inquisition is worse that FarCry 4 when it comes to filler content. Dragon Age: Inquisition takes stupid, mundane quests and actually manages to find something more drool to compliment them. You find yourself putting flowers on a women’s grave. A women, whom you have never met. Why is her life so precious? It is your job to slaughter hundreds a day, and suddenly now you are a compassionate person? Its ridiculous. However, as mentioned, Dragon Age then finds something even worse. Kill X number of mobs, or collect X number of items. Each area of the game is the same, all filled with pointless tasks. The whole map looks like a jumble sale.
We can see this kind of stuff done well however. Halo did a great job of adding something to collect that is rewarding, challenging, and actually adds something to the experience after the fact. I’m, of course, talking about the skulls. For those not familiar, the player could collect a series of skulls throughout the campaign of all the Halo titles. These skulls are often tucked away behind rocks and trees, or balancing on the edge of a ledge somewhere tricky to reach. That is not to interesting in itself, but what happens after you collect the skulls is where this system shines. After collecting the skulls, you can choose to activate them in the main menu. Activating the skulls puts in place various game-altering effects, be it removing your ammo, or making headshots the only way to dispatch your foes, or even turning your bullets into paintballs. Either way, collecting them was rewarding and added genuine replayability to the game. Collecting the pelt of the rare Eurasian beaver in Read Dead Redemption does not add replayability, it’s just annoying.
I understand the compulsion to fill a vast map with ‘stuff’, but there are games in which huge maps are filled with very little and this can have a profound effect. Shadow Of The Colossus has a gigantic map with nothing in it, except the colossi, the temple and the occasional tree. This doesn’t take anything away from the experience, on the contrary, it makes you feel small; this is how you should feel when you are a lone boy against an army of giant stone creatures. Journey is another example of ‘less is more’. Everyone who played Journey can tell of at least one memorable moment created by themselves, or interactions with other players. You wander a desert wasteland in search of anything, this means everything you run into is special. Imagine if you met face to face with another player for the first time, you both waved, and held eachother’s gaze for a long moment. Think of the emotion in this scene, think of the possibilities. Then the town mayor breaks the silence by shouting “If you collect 5 rocks ill give you a free house.”
If filler content can ruin Journey then it can sure as hell ruin every other game it’s in. Don’t mistake this for me suggesting there should be no side missions or extra content, that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying however, is that content with zero developed story and no effect on the main game, dressed in the menial façade of a fetch quest is unessential, annoying and not necessary. Please developers, stop. Just. Stop.