Games Like 'BattleTech' Are Slow For a Reason

Your time is too valuable to save.

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May 11 2018, 5:34pm

screenshots and art courtesy of Harebrained Schemes

There’s a surprisingly common complaint about BattleTech that I've found myself unable to put aside, even though I don't agree with it at all. In a lot of the discussions and critical reactions around the game, there's an undercurrent that the game is badly paced. The game is “too slow”, or it “wastes your time.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Alec Meer articulated this sentiment in his review:

Every animation is too long (even after all the ‘glamcam’ over-the-shoulder action sequence options are turned off), each action is followed by numerous ticker tape-slow stat and status updates, automated camera pans have all the speed and grace of a shopping trolley with four rusted wheels, and the entire game lapses into unexpected motionlessness for a few seconds as frequently as the exhausted pusher of said trolley. My heart sinks when new enemies lurch into view – not because of the (significant) threat they represent, but because more units means more waiting.

I’m fascinated by this accusation: the game wastes your time. Art and play are pyres where we burn time—to prove that we can afford to, to not feel like every minute of every day is a matter of survival, to exist outside the demands of life for a minute. Yet there seems to be a hierarchy of time here, one where some of the time spent with a game is valid, useful, important, while some other time is “wasted.” Where is that distinction? Wasted as opposed to what?

It is uncontroversial to mod a game to strip out moments when “nothing happens.” This wouldn’t be true of, say, an all-thriller-no-filler edit of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia.

And to be fair, interactivity—especially the sort of interactive we're most familiar with—invites this reaction. We get used to having that sprint button, to being able to hit X to skip a cutscene, and when that isn’t there for us we take it as an annoyance rather than as something communicative. One of the most popular and elaborate Skyrim mods started out as a way of removing the game’s unskippable, interminable, and unloved opening cutscene. The mod that speeds up animations and pauses between actions in XCOM2 spells out the sentiment in its name: “Stop Wasting My Time.”

But time is a component of games just as it’s a component of film or literature: Duration means something. But video game audiences haven’t incorporated it into their reading of video games, in the same way that we all have a cultural understanding of what time means in a film, even though pacing can carry every bit as much meaning.

From the 'Stop Wasting My Time' mod Steam Workshop page

In another article, Meer points out that BattleTech can be substantially sped up by editing some of the game’s files. Though the headline calls the changes “fixes,” the pauses are clearly intentional, as Alec indicates, given that they’re explicitly laid out in the files. But players have thought nothing of taking them away from the game, often with glee; the comment section on that article is mostly full-throated endorsements of shrinking BattleTech’s languid battles into rapid-fire skirmishes.

In its default state, BattleTech's pacing may not be perfect, and the game’s camera sometimes disarms that pacing by lagging behind the action or pointing in the wrong direction. But the game is better for its slowness, and in speeding it up something valuable is lost.

This is a game about eighty-ton robots smashing into each other, about huge missile salvos being fired, about battlefield drama on a very personal level. It should be slow. It straddles the line between a functional representation and a realistic depiction of its subject, and what it’s depicting isn’t snappy or inconsequential.

Nor is the game’s constant attrition, the gradual running-out of luck that leads to your ‘mechs being cored out or your mechwarriors dying, improved by making it go faster. Meer’s video of playing BattleTech with the pauses modded out just makes it look like a dull, dry tactical simulation; they’re plastic minis now, no longer hulking machines ambling over the landscape. Actions are drained of their spectacle and heft.

BattleTech is a game all about unseen combat resolution tables, about the chaotic results of bullets or explosives meeting a complex steel machine at high speeds. It luxuriates in those moments to show the player what is happening mechanically in a way that is part of the game world; it takes its time with them because those moments are complex. Weapons fire one by one not just for drama and spectacle, but so the details of what is happening on each shot can be read: which parts of the mech are being hit, by which weapons, and how badly damaged they are.

And for me, the slowness has led to a tactics game that walks the tightrope of feeling fair while keeping consequences real. I’ve reloaded maybe three or four times in my campaign, but I’m definitely not trying to perfect every mission in the way XCOM2 invites me to. Nor do I like I have to play an ironman campaign to get a real experience. When Dekker dies to the third lucky headshot in a row, or when Dekker misses a DFA attack and gets kneecapped and killed on the enemy’s turn, or when Dekker is blown to bits standing in front of a mission-critical macguffin, those moments feel earned and weighty. And I’m much more inclined to carry on fighting and let those deaths be part of my game’s story.

There’s an alternative, faster BattleTech where you click on the enemy ‘mech, its health bars go down, and you can mouse over it to see the damage more specifically. That’s a game I would have quit after an hour. BattleTech is trying to say: “We’re showing you this slowly in great detail because it’s important. See how different things can happen when you fire at a ‘mech?”

Which makes it interesting that another frequent complaint about BattleTech is that its combat mechanics are underexplained. There's some truth to that, but it also feels like the game’s attempt at showing players what is going on is being ignored because of how it happens.

But that attitude isn’t universal; BattleTech has certainly found an audience. And we need “slow” games like BattleTech, exactly to push video game language forward by making players more aware of time and more comfortable with those uses of it. Slowness has been used in games to significant effect; time and rhythm are design tools.

'Breath of the Wild' screenshot from a Nintendo promotional video

Look at the way that cooking in Breath of the Wild triggers a little sequence; at first, the animation itself is delightful and charming, but over time, it seems to say: “Do you really want to make Mighty Simmered Fruit 30 times? Wouldn’t you rather make just a couple and go exploring?”

Breath of the Wild is trying to create a pattern of play where finding a cooking pot is a helpful discovery, where periods of exploring are punctuated by periodic returns to base to resupply. If it was easy to load up on enough food items to last for several play sessions, that wouldn’t happen. But instead of clumsily limiting how much food you can carry or how often you can cook, it uses the slowness of the animation itself to make the grindy behavior feel grindy and thus discourage it.

There is, of course, a tension there: Breath of the Wild makes cooking slow so you won’t do too much of it at one time, while all you do in BattleTech is shoot at enemies and that game makes that slow. But part of advancing our language of time is navigating that tension; it’s slowly building up an appreciation, in the audience, that the significance of a pause or a slow animation can be nuanced. After all, that tension also exists within Breath of the Wild: The cooking animation discourages overly long and grindy cooking sessions, but like all the many delightful animations in Zelda games, it’s also a reward for cooking.

In BattleTech, what some perceive as a grating slowness is to others (myself included) revelatory: Here’s a game that puts value on observing, on taking something in, on inhabiting a world with your senses. I love BattleTech for its ponderousness. And if I’m not alone in this, that moves us towards a different balance of values in games; towards a broader way of responding and appreciating them.

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