Bombastic explosions. Multiple endings driven by player choice. Massive open worlds that take an hour to walk across. Games are so often sold on their biggest and loudest features, the back-of-the-box quotes that sound impressive but don’t really tell you much of any worth. What good is a huge game world if there’s nothing to do in it? What’s the point in having dialogue choices if the responses are all the same, or trumpeting a ‘branching’ story that merely changes the order of the same events? Even explosions, as exciting as they can be, aren’t any indication of quality - just take a look at Michael Bay’s recent work. With so many games taking the bigger-is-better approach, though, how is any one supposed to stand out from the rest?
The answer lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. Small, seemingly extraneous features that never warrant mention in the marketing material have the power to transcend their trivial appearance and become the defining elements of the whole experience. Idiosyncrasies give a game its character, and that’s of vital importance when the bulk of a game conforms to a painfully familiar routine. Done well, the little flourishes can turn a mediocre experience into a memorable one.
I did this for every set of steps in the game. Every. one.
I recently encountered this phenomenon by way of Metal Gear Solid V. Series creator Hideo Kojima is well known for putting a lot of time and effort into completely missable minutiae, and even though MGS V is far and away the most mainstream title in the franchise, it still retains the series’ unadulterated quirkiness and penchant for miscellany. By far my favourite of its unadvertised features is the dive button. The move itself is hardly revelatory; it is essentially a combination of the evasive roll seen in many action games and the low-visibility crawl common to the stealth genre. There’s something about the way the animation plays out, though: the gusto with which Snake leaps, the thud as he hits the ground, the dust that kicks up as he skids to a halt. It’s so entrancing that I often found myself diving from place to place instead of walking, smiling gleefully the whole time.
The dive isn’t just fun to pull off, either; it proves invaluable in escaping enemy attention as you sneak your way from cover to cover. In most stealth games, if an enemy has line of sight on you, your cover’s probably blown. Crouching or crawling won’t get you away fast enough, and running will only hasten your fate. MGS V’s dive, however, offers a third option, one that helps avoid losing half an hour of meticulously stealthy progress to an unlucky turn of an enemy’s head. Having now relied on it so much, I’m not sure that I can - or want - to go back to a stealth game where I can’t dive at will.
Totally pointless, but endlessly cool.
The dive now defines MGS V for me, in the same way that the mechanically pointless but nevertheless compelling jump command in Ni No Kuni sums up my enjoyment of that game, or how the purely-cosmetic lightsaber twirls you can perform out of combat in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic exemplify the game’s fulfilment of the Star Wars fantasy. It is these little eccentricities, rather than the typical marketing hyperbole, that enshrine these games in my memory.
How about you? Are there any obscure or underappreciated features that really made a game for you? Shout out in the comments below!