While memory may suggest its release was criticised more than reality allows, it is safe to say that the reception for 2009’s Final Fantasy XIII was not as warm as Square Enix would have liked. Despite earning more than its fair share of positive (if not exactly glowing) reviews, the critical response to the game’s release was more mixed than the norm for such a well-regarded series.
One of the key complaints levelled at the game was one of pacing. As is typical for the JRPG genre, Final Fantasy XIII is a long game with the potential to chew up well over fifty hours before the story’s conclusion. Where the game really faltered, according to some, was that the game does not open up and become interesting until the 10 – 20 hour mark; the preceding content being frustratingly linear and unengaging.
With the release of Assassin’s Creed 3, Mark Serrels (Kotaku Australia) bemoaned the lack of respect the game had for his time:
“Yeah, the first five to seven hours are a bit slow,” says a friend. “But then it really kicks in.”
At first I nod. ‘I’ll persevere,’ I say to myself. But then I stop. A realisation. Seven hours? Seven hours.
I have to wait seven hours? Life is too short to wait seven hours for a game to become engaging.
Like Final Fantasy XIII before it, many argued the third Assassin’s Creed title took far too long to become good. Too long before the fun could start.
It’s easy to sympathise with the opinions around both games and my intent here is not to attack the legitimacy of these complaints. Indeed, forcing a player to fight their way through tired, unengaging content before they are given reign to enjoy themselves is rarely going to be met with enthusiasm from the gaming audience. It’s certainly the key reason I don’t find myself particularly fond of either game mentioned. However we must be cautious that we don’t indiscriminately condemn every instance of a game ‘delaying the fun’ as a flaw.
One of my biggest regrets, when it comes to recommending games to my friends, is my inability to convince one particular individual (himself a game critic), as to the merits of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. It’s not that he did not try the game, he did. Rather, the issue for him was the game took too long to get going; that he felt he was being driven through uninteresting filler content before he could get to experience the thrilling battles against reptilian behemoths that were the subjects of the many tales I had regaled him with.
As much as I jokingly rebuke him for lacking the requisite cajones to meet the game on its own terms, it’s not a wholly illegitimate complaint. Monster Hunter does take its time to get going and not everyone is going to be inclined to wait that long, but unlike Final Fantasy XIII and Assassins Creed 3, this ‘fun delay’ is for a good cause.
In 1984’s family hit The Karate Kid, when Daniel Larusso first approaches Kesuke Miyagi to learn karate, the elder man seemingly takes advantage of the younger one’s desire by setting him to work on a variety of menial chores around his home. Sanding floors, painting walls and waxing Miyagi’s vintage truck became a part of Daniel-san’s daily grind. When Daniel confronts his ‘teacher’ about his displeasure at what he sees as slave labour, it is quickly revealed that the trying and seemingly unrelated activities were actually teaching Daniel the foundations of Miyagi’s own brand of Karate. So too it is with Monster Hunter.
When you start Monster Hunter your initial tasks are relatively banal when compared to some of the epic battles you eventually engage in. Your first hours are spent foraging for food, fishing and getting the basics of combat down against raptor like beasts that barely represent a threat. While these fulfil the role of tutorial missions, unlike most games they don’t end after a short time. In fact, before you even go on your first hunt, the game throws up no less than nine separate quests that should be completed first (admittedly, if you understand the key quest mechanic of the game early on, you only have to complete three).
It is easy to pass this off as filler content made to artificially lengthen the game, but just as Mr Miyagi made use of arguably dull activities to train Daniel, so too does Monster Hunter do the same in order to train the player.
Back in 2010, Brainy Gamer’s Michael Abbott light-heartedly argued that the Monster Hunter franchise might be more aptly titled Preparation Hunt given how much time was devoted to preparation over actual hunting. He estimated his own play-style saw roughly 65% of his Monster Hunting time engaged in activities that were not exactly hunting monsters.
The game’s design is such that it ramps up the anticipation of each hunt by making the core activity one that must be prepared for. Monster Hunter is a game of complex systems all interacting up until the point at which swords are drawn at a monster’s roar and combat begins.
Taking down one of the game’s ‘monsters’ is no small feat and is one that requires going into each battle with a full understanding of just what you need to achieve and how. The necessity of this preparation, and its attendant complexity, is a key part of what causes the elation of each successful hunt.
But the game does not want you going in to these battles blind. So it takes time to prepare you. It teaches you about gathering items from the woods beyond the village in which you start. It wants you to understand resource collection and how the crafting system works. It demands that you appreciate how important food and other consumables are. By funnelling the player through these seemingly trivial tasks, it is providing the player a much stronger foundation for the game experience than any manual or ten minute tutorial could.
Successful Monster Hunter play is a skill you develop over time, and with training; the game simply gives you the tools up front. Its opening is conceptually no different to the training techniques used by football clubs – teaching and refining the individual skills required for a successful match.
This is not to mean you have to like a game like Monster Hunter. Many people don’t have the time nor inclination to wrestle with such opening content. However, the fact the game takes time before it gets good is not, ipso-facto, a sign of poor design. So long as that early content seeks to enrich and expand the target experience then it is not inherently a bad thing.
Games have the ability to be complex overwhelming beasts at times. For some of us, that is a key part of the fun. Games like Dwarf Fortress or Europa Universalis maintain long term appeal thanks to their complexity; but no one goes into these games with the requisite knowledge to enjoy them. It took me numerous hours of watching video tutorials before I could understand and participate in the joyous soap-opera that is Crusader Kings II, and despite having spent so much time floundering it came to be one of my favourite releases of that year.
Games like these have no introductory content acting as a gatekeeper to the enjoyment deeper within, and it is largely to their detriment. Instead players have to look further afield to learn what makes these titles tick and why they can keep people playing for hundreds of hours on end.
Monster Hunter, on the other hand, is upfront about the commitment it requires and ensures you have the tools you need before being sent into the wilderness. Its opening quests full of seemingly mindless resource collection may not be to everyone’s taste, yet rather than being damned they should be admired.
It’s not being suggested that all fun must be earned; that all games require you prove yourself worthy to play them. However some games, to achieve their goals, are complex and do require significant learning to enjoy. Chess may not be a compelling game to many people and that’s because many people don’t know how to play chess, just how to move the pieces. Yet very few people write chess off as an inherently bad game; most understand it is a deeply strategic pass time with numerous layers for those who take the time to master its systems.
When you hear the cry “the game gets good after X hours” before writing the experience off it is important to ask exactly what the game is doing in that lead-up time. Is it, as Mark Serrels suggests with Assassin’s Creed 3, disrespecting your time? The answer may not always be in the affirmative.
Coming back to the subject of Monster Hunter, it is a game that truly respects your time. If it didn’t, it you would dump you into its ferocious battles with no understanding of what is going on and no chance of success. While it is my battles against gigantic beasts that have seen me clock over 200 hours on the game, I know that none of that would have been possible if I’d not paid my dues picking herbs and mining ore.
– Nathan Cocks