When I pick locks in real life, it’s not a fun little endeavour; the cops are usually after me, and I definitely need to be anywhere else in a hurry. In video games, however, it would seem that when I need to pick a lock the developers have decided that time will freeze, enemies won’t care, and playing a mini-game is the best means of immersing me in their world. By adding throwaway, gimmicky segues to these tasks the developers are effectively saying that their game isn’t fully featured enough to warrant a release without wasting the players’ time with an extra half hour to an hour of trivial, monotonous padding.
Play It Again, Sam
Bethesda is the king of boring lock-picking and hacking doldrums. Taking a look at Fallout 3, a series that was previously known for just following a straight stat-check system for getting at those locked-up baubles, Bethesda instead opted to go with a mini-game. Jam a screwdriver into a deadbolt lock, and rotate a bobby pin in a 180 degree arc to find the sweet spot that will release the prize unto you. More difficult locks (ranging from 1-100), will make the aforementioned sweet spot smaller, and across all of the levels one’s ability to undo the lock is limited by the number of bobby pins one has in their inventory, which can break on failed attempts of the mini-game.
While the mini-game was interesting, or at least innovative, the first time through, it quickly became a bore. Coming across a locked safe or door didn’t feel exciting, but instead time-consuming. I was taken out of my post-apocalyptic hellscape to instead focus my attention on a deadbolt and rotate my joystick slightly to the left or right until I heard the ‘click’ of success. Bethesda, however, must have heard that click time and time again, because that same mini-game would be their go-to game for both Skyrim and Fallout 4.
The hacking of Fallout consists of a word-finding puzzle in the same vein of the old board game Mastermind, wherein you try to match a sequence of letters, instead of Mastermind’s colour sequences, to spell out the hidden password. Again, interesting and innovative the first time through, but when you add in Fallout 4 and Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout New Vegas, which used both the same lock-picking and hacking systems of Fallout 3, you’re left with far too many instances of already repetitive mechanics.
I’ve talked about Bethesda and their creation of mini-games, but I primarily focused on the fact that they reused what may have started as good ideas to the point of tedium. Some companies, however, aren’t able to pique interest with their simple mini-game for even the first time it is experienced. Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise has used four different mini-games to represent hacking and lock-picking across to their first two games, and each one was as boring as the last.
The Future Looks The Same
In the first Mass Effect, two different mini-games were used to represent the same method of hacking, but depending on whether you played on a PC or a console, you either played mini-game A or mini-game B. Game A consisted of a small labyrinth with you guiding an arrow through moving concentric circles towards the center, while game B was a game of Simon Says using the controller’s face buttons to hit the matching on-screen prompt. They were equally entertaining, that is to say, not in the slightest.
Mass Effect 2 decided to change things up by keeping them the same. Instead of two different games depending on the version that was being played, Bioware opted to use two games to effectively serve the same purpose. Whether you are hacking or “bypassing” (future lock-picking, I suppose), you are going to be playing one of two games: match two, or match two. When hacking, you need to match a given image of a fake computer terminal prompt with one of the numerous other fake computer terminal prompts that are scrolling by, and when bypassing, you need to play the card game Concentration with five pairs of symbols.
We are in 2017, and we have been picking locks, hacking computer terminals, and bypassing all number of gated entryways through mindlessly boring mini-games for far too long. If I need to be kept away from hidden baubles, trinkets or upgrades, then gate them off and require a lock-picking/hacking/other-word-for-the-same-thing skill to get to them, but don’t make me play Hungry Hungry Hippos, Chutes and Ladders or Gin Rummy to get to it. A simple skill check with a dice roll or just an automated unlocking sequence that doesn’t freeze time so that I can still be attacked by roaming guards have shown time and again to be effective means of handling these situations. With games like Double Fine’s Hack n’ Slash, Drizzly Bear’s h a c k m u d and Blendo Games’ Quadrilateral Cowboy that have made hacking in and of itself a fully fledged video game, we don’t need to have simplistic facsimiles to waste our time. If I am going to be forced to play a mini-game to get into locked away places, then please, at least make it genuinely fun and not a simple gimmick.