Friday, September 24, 2010

Playing Games Wasn’t Always So Easy

Has this happened to you? 

It’s late.  You’ve been playing the same game for hours.  It’s sucked you in with its inspired fictional world and fast, exciting gameplay.  All of a sudden, you hit a wall.  Literally and/or figuratively, you’re stuck.  The boss/puzzle/obstacle in your path simply will not budge.  Too angry to discern why this is so, you hurl the controller in frustration, hopefully not destroying the over-priced piece of plastic.

You’re not alone.  Nerd rage, specifically videogame induced rage, dates back to before Jumpman first took a barrel to the face courtesy of one Donkey Kong.  When witnessed, it can be funny, uncomfortable, and even downright scary.  When experienced, it can make you question why the hell anyone would bother to play games when punching yourself in the face is just a moment away.

The industry’s going through a bit of an identity crisis on the matter of difficulty.  On one hand, you’ve got the neophyte-friendly “Hey, Let Me Play That For You” mode in New Super Mario Bros. Wii; on the other: sadistic stuff like Demon’s Souls.  Designers can’t seem to decide if players want escapist coddling or no-nonsense, character-building difficulty.

Should the act of play really make your blood boil?  To figure that out, it’s worth exploring out why games are difficult in the first place. 

Tough Roots

Beneath generations of hand-cramping, mind-numbingly difficult games lies one thing: the almighty quarter.  Games as we know them today owe a lot to the bars and burgeoning arcades of the 1980s, with their coin-hungry cabinets poised perfectly to separate a kid from his lunch money.

Technological limitations kept games from being the sprawling adventures they are today.  Programmers could only fit so much information onto their boards.  Games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man contained killscreens – limits of the numerical code that brought gameplay to a screeching halt – because the developers assumed players would run out of either money or time before they reached the end.

And pumping money from the player was the name of the game.  The whole notion of expendable “Lives” is the developer saying, “Okay, for $X, I’ll give you Y number of tries to get this right.”  Should you run out, many arcade games happily sell you another chance by asking if you’d like to “Continue.”  Both of these conventions carried into the home console era, despite the quarter having long been rendered irrelevant.  Battery packs and memory cards slowly erased the need for continues, but some games still cling to the currency of lives as a barrier to/measure of player progression.  By constraining the player to a finite number of attempts (or at least forcing him to fork over cash for more attempts), the developer sharpens the game’s focus on the player’s skill.  Of course you can play Donkey Kong on one quarter, but you better be damn good at it

Like game length, enemy AI was also limited by the technology of the day.  Enemies, even bosses, could only do a few things, over and over (this is the only logical explanation for King Koopa’s penchant for jumping up and down on easily-collapsed bridges inside his own castles).  Developers often ratchet up the difficulty simply by making the patterns occur faster.  Much of beating a game then boils down to a successful marriage of pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. 

Looking at it that way, I’m not sure much has changed.

Extra Life

Big-budget titles these days typically include single-player campaigns that take at least six to eight hours to complete.  Role-playing games may take longer, and some that err on the side of brevity are often penalized for it on Metacritic.  Smaller games often use difficulty to extend playtime.  Instead of offering the player hours of fresh art assets and semi-coherent narrative, old-school games dare the player to reach the end.  Even games like Mega Man and its sequels, despite adding a progress-recording password system, play drill sergeant to the player’s fresh-faced recruit.  Punishment is swift until the player can execute with pixel-perfect accuracy. 

However, some holdovers from the arcade era suffer when their difficulty is exposed as cheap and greedy.  The brawler genre in particular has languished outside of the arcades.  In most beat-em-ups, difficulty can be measured in bad controls and unfair enemy types.  Remember brawlers like The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or X-Men?  Having played them through the magic of emulation, unfettered by financial concerns, I can attest to the absurd shortness of each game.  Remove the coin in coin-op and you’re left with about an hour of “fun.” 

Don’t let that last comment be misread as an attack on short games.  It’s an attack, surely, but one on brief, artificially hard games without much replay value.  Short, hard games that require immense skill can be extremely rewarding.  They make you claw for each new shred of content.  I recently completed Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV, which is an incredibly hard non-linear platformer.  When all was said and done, my playtime clocked in at just under three hours.  I died 1241 times.  On average, that’s seven times per minute, more than once every ten seconds. 

And I like VVVVVV.

Skill vs. Story

I can hear you now: “Craig, you were dying multiple times a minute, often seconds after your last spawn.  Are you a crazy person?  How is that a good game?”  VVVVVV – like many very good, very difficult games – teaches through failure.  In a Kotaku piece written on this very subject, Leigh Alexander quotes Spelunky creator Derek Yu:

“Dying in a video game is like losing a tennis match, or getting rejected when you ask a girl out, or looking at a painting and not understanding its meaning. You'll always learn something and the next time will be better.”

How is incessant death in VVVVVV not torturous?  Because it’s coaching my fingers and brain toward the goal.  “Move to the right just a hair longer.”  “Press the button a moment sooner.”  While playing, I marveled as my muscle memory developed over the course of a hundred deaths.

Here’s where modern, skill-based games deviate from their ancestors.  The finite pool of lives is gone.  ‘Splosion Man, Braid, Limbo, VVVVVV, even Halo: these games don’t require a hard restart after a certain number of failures.  They reset you just in front of what felled you and gently nudge you forward, like a mother telling her skinned-kneed child, “It’s okay, get back on the bike.”  Generous checkpointing allows the player to leverage his skills on one obstacle at a time, without having to carry the entire game in his head at once.finish the fight Of course, just as I mention Halo I am in danger of contradiction.  Halo’s difficulty is not necessarily an asset, and the Halo series illustrates a fine line between story- and skill-based play.  Modern mainstream games, moving away from abstractions like mushroom kingdoms or labyrinths filled with ghosts and pellets, seek to provide ever-richer narratives.  Never mind how shoehorned in or flimsy the stories ultimately are, their allure (and the marketing potential of a rich, fleshed out fiction) drives development. 

Unfortunately, this means gamers come to the table expecting to be served a full meal.  They don’t want playing the game to get in the way of finding out what happens to Master Chief, not after spending eight hours guiding him safely from skirmish to skirmish.  Sure, the combat in Mass Effect 2 was fun, but do you really want a particularly tough sequence standing in between you and the potentially awesome ending you’ve otherwise earned?  The fun in these games isn’t always derived from the overcoming of the obstacle; it comes in the form of story nuggets doled out like treats for a dolphin or show dog.  The question in a story-based game is “What will happen next?”  In a skill-based game it’s “What can I do next?”

As games continue to deliver on their promise of escapism, meaningful difficulty will be appreciated by the dwindling hardcore.  There is replay value in the harder difficulties of Halo or the Realism modes in Left 4 Dead.  When asked, these games will not pull their punches.  But the fact that we have to ask them to says something.  Developers, desperate to reach the broadest audience possible, champion accessibility.  I won’t begrudge them sales, but give the gamers some credit.  Most of us have been at this awhile. 

We can handle the pain.  I know I can.