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Thoughts on filler

posted on September 23rd, 2008 by horatio

While playing Professor Layton last Spring, I remember Jay asking me (before he had purchased the game himself) if it were true that the game was bad because 80% of the puzzles were simple, the kind of thing that you could solve in 30 seconds and with little thought. The answer was a yes and a no. Yes, a large percentage of the puzzles were essentially filler puzzles put in to extend the length of the game. No, I didn’t think this made it a bad game.

This lead me to think about the nature of filler in games and how we approach and accept it in different genres. For some reason, the idea of filler puzzles seemed to bother a lot of people in the online community. In some ways, I can understand this. Puzzles are fun because they’re challenging, and if you don’t have to think, they’re not nearly as enjoyable. On the other hand though, is this in any way unique to Professor Layton or the puzzle genre in general?

Let’s take a look at RPG’s. An issue that inevitably comes up in my reviews for this site on Final Fantasy games are random battles and how they’re handled. I’d posit that random battles that pose no real threat of a game over constitute at least 80% of the battles you face in your average RPG. This is the RPG equivalent of filler and I don’t think it’s any more or less enjoyable than an easy puzzle in Professor Layton; they call random battles grinding for a reason.

Skies of Arcadia is about 97% filler.

In some ways Square has tried to alleviate this problem with gambits in FFXII and the autocombat system in FFIV. I remember thinking while playing FFIV that the next step would be to add an automap feature that would let me just point to a place and have it run my characters there. Of course, you can kind of see where this is going. It takes the active tedium out of the game, but pretty soon you’re going to be doing a lot more watching than playing. Maybe some day you’ll open an instruction booklet and look at the controls and just see that you can hold down the left analog stick to win the game.

The same is true for other genres. Most FPSs center around room after room of mindless killing that does not pose a serious threat (though here there is a bit more at play here because recovery items tend to be much less prevalent, even minor annoyances can kill over time and force you to replay a level), fighting games (which I haven’t played in ages) tend to never be a challenge for any mediocre player until the last couple of bosses, and even in most adventure games the vast majority of what you do consists of incredibly easy jumping and bouncing.

So, the question is, why do we find filler more acceptable in some genres than others, and is there any real alternative? Well, I think adventure games are a good place to start because most people don’t typically associate the genre with filler. I think this is largely related to the fact that adventure games are broken up into much more discrete environments; even if you’re performing the same incredibly easy mechanical maneuvers that require no skill, what the game is really about is exploring the environment.

RPG’s, even very pretty ones, simply require you to spend way too much time with filler battles in a given environment for it to keep its novelty: just take a look at an in-game bestiary and you’ll see that for every ‘normal’ monster by the end of the game you’ve probably killed 30-50 of them. For Professor Layton it’s even worse: there is a story and an environment, but the puzzles are completely disconnected from both. Each puzzle needs to feel like the exploration in and of itself, so when the puzzle is easy, there’s no accompanying environment to make it still feel enjoyable.

So, what can be done about this? I think to evaluate this we need to bring up the obvious fact that the reason we do love filler is that we like for games to be long and filler is an easy way to make games last longer. This has some other tangential benefits: the fact that we spend 30, instead of 10, hours with RPG characters, even with no plot development, actually makes them a lot more personal to us and increases the emotional tension in the story. So developers could just make games shorter and accept that we’re getting a higher quality, if lower quantity, experience. Even so, however, it might not be so desirable.

Challenge makes even redundant sections feel like more than filler.

We complain about easy fights and easy puzzles, but how would we feel if every battle actually posed the threat of a game over, or we spent hours trying to figure out every puzzle. Chances are, we’d become pretty quickly demoralized and get angry with the game. Honestly, I think one of the reasons games have become so much more popular is because we’ve abandoned the old school notion of 2d platformers where every jump could be the end and you had to memorize games to perfection to have a shot at winning.

This could be an argument just about ratios: maybe this 80% figure I’ve thrown out is just too much filler, and half challenge/half smooth sailing would be better. Or maybe we focus on the environmental aspect and figure out how to make that work better in each genre: I think Phoenix Wright is a game that probably has a good portion of filler, but all of this is glossed over by incredible style and amusing script. Can this idea be adopted by other genres?

Maybe yes, maybe no, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the filler vs. shorter games issue, how much filler is necessary to keep morale in the gamer high, and what exactly makes filler more acceptable in some genres, or even in some individual games, and how would we like to see that implemented more in the future?


  1. christian said on September 23, 2008:

    I just finished Phoenix Wright, and found that yes, there was indeed a good amount of filler. I think in that instance much of it could be removed, for instance in the investigations, where for every bit of character insight there is a load of silly dialogue and junk to examine.

    I think that the issue of filler points out one of the major cruxes of today’s games. We want the length because we’re paying so damn much per game, but we know from smaller titles like Braid, Bionic Commando and Mega Man 9 that short, sweet, cheap games are incredibly rewarding. We need to find ways to support smaller, lower cost games, instead of everything being blockbuster or bust.

    Also, the filler issue is a great litmus test in regards to just how good a game really is. Often times you can tell the filler is there because the game itself isn’t very good. They know it isn’t good enough for multiple play throughs, so they have to make that one shot count. Its a huge problem with modern games.

    Mega Man 9 can be beaten in two or three hours. The total amount of time I or many others will play it in a lifetime will make most 360 games jealous.

  2. jay said on September 24, 2008:

    I find that RPG filler is more boring than almost any other game’s filler. This is because an RPG is fun when battles are hard and you must use strategy. RPGs more or less remove the play element from games and so when your mind isn’t engaged either they become the A pressing game.

    In an adventure game, for example, even easier challenges are engaging because you’re much more in control of your avatar and not hugely removed like in an RPG.

  3. christian said on September 24, 2008:

    I’m continuing to realize just how hard it is to craft a good RPG. One that is short and sweet, where the battles are meaningful, but the stat tweaking and level up systems aren’t rendered pointless.

    So far I can only think of Shining Force and Panzer Dragoon Saga. Then I realize that companies of far less repute can crank these babies out, and it all makes sense.

  4. pat said on September 24, 2008:

    RPGs are an interesting case. i think there are probably too kinds of people who play them. those of us who like their games to have long/deep stories and good characterization are annoyed by the filler that makes up most of the time spent playing RPGs. i also think there are the completionist/obsessive types, who probably cant get enough filler battles since those battles help increase stats and get closer to level 99 (or 999 in a few games).

    i agree with christian that the cream of the RPG crop has very little filler (i would add final fantasy tactics to his list), and i consider this a very good thing.

    as for other genres, im not sure what people are considering filler in PW (or adventure games generally) since they are about pointing and clicking and lots of dialogue. action games are mostly filler but plowing through easy enemies is usually a much shorter endeavor in action games than it is in an RPG, and is consequently less offensive.

    really, as i now have more money than time (at least relative to past periods of my life) i have less patience for filler in games and would rather buy a new game that isnt going to waste a lot of my time than stick with a game that will.

    im currently in love with braid, and i think blow was correct in saying the game has no filler. there will be one room that introduces a new mechanic and then novel puzzles in the following rooms to explore the depth and complexities of that mechanic.

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