Video Games: How Hard is Too Hard?

How hard should video games be?

The 1980s: the birth era of the computer game industry for consumer: a time when games were few, and those games were hard!

I grew up in an age where actually winning a video game (those that could be won) was a rarity. Learning an individual game required honing reflexes, skill, and learning *that* game. Like Pac Man. Or Tempest. Or even Mario. (No, I never was able to beat Mario, but I did, after months of perseverance, finish Metroid 1). My first computer rpg, Bard’s Tale, was another game that I never saw the end of. In Bard’s Tale II, I think I got 4 of the 7 pieces of the destiny wand assembled before it too escaped my focus. (As I write this, I start to think maybe I’m just bad at games.)

In recent gaming, I know what I like: games like Diablo, Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Borderlands, Left for Dead, Rock Band, the Bioshock series, and Skyrim.

Games I’m angry at: Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, and Assassins Creed (I’ve not played the latest of either GTA or Assassins Creed).

Games I tend to pass on: twitch games. (I love One-Finger Death Punch, but quickly reached my peak on that… unless I practice more.)

…Practice.  Yeah, that’s pretty much they key. I got to a point where when I’m gaming, if it feels like practice to improve a skill for that game, then I start to wonder if it’s a productive use of my time. How much effort is involved to unlock the fun?

Sure, some of you might be saying, “You’re afflicted by the gnat’s-attention span of the ‘me generation’. You want instant gratification”.

Well… maybe. But then again, maybe not. The thing is, if a game becomes a grind to progress and unlock the story (the candy), I have better things to do with my time. I’m all for practice, and work to develop and hone skills. If I’m going to spend time working on reflexes and muscle memory, I’m going to go spend some hours on the guitar. Or the piano. Or the Irish tin whistle. Or if I’m honing a skill, I’m going to spend more time writing, or drawing. (If I were into sports, I’m sure I could come up with some things there too).

The skill one learns in a video game has the shelf-life of the video game. I could master all ins and outs of Red Dead Redemption, but what happens when I’m finished with the game and move on to something else?

I’m not saying that every fun activity has to have productive value. But if I’m doing a fun activity, there’s going to be a work/reward analysis at some point, especially as I grow older. Time just becomes more valuable, balancing between career, home life, and an ever increasing pile of hobbies and interests. Video gaming becomes relegated to the same bin as movies and reading. I love a long, interactive story… I don’t like games that make you repeat the same events over and over.

Specifically, it came to a head with Red Dead Redemption. We’d talked about GTA5, and considered both of our failed attempts at GTA4: getting so far before the save mechanic frustrated us. I don’t want to do a 10 minute car chase only to die in the gun fight, and then have to repeat the entire narrative sequence, the 10 minute car chase again, and then try the gun fight again. I want to get right back into the gun fight… I shouldn’t have to repeat things I’ve already successfully completed. (I’m okay with this to a certain degree, but there’s a point where fun drains away). We’d had Red Dead Redemption for some time and hadn’t gotten far into it, so I decided to pick it up again and give it another whirl. I knew the mechanics were clumsy, but I was going to slog through it for the story.  And the story is great! I love the western ambiance, and the acting/writing, etc.  But there I was, on a mission to save some folks from a shootout, and I crept up the side of the canyon… only to be 1-shot killed by a random mountain lion.  Next thing… reload at last checkpoint. Far away from the mission location. Red Dead Redemption, I’m done with you.

I put in Assassins Creed. Another beautiful game, and maybe not quite so egregious as Rock Star Games (RDR and GTA). I was going through Rome (yes, I know it’s an older Assassin’s Creed), looking forward to unlocking and climbing all the areas in the city.  Same thing. Fail at a point in the mission, restart the entire mission.

So at some point, I start to think maybe the flaw is me, and not the game. But then I came to the realization: I don’t care. I have plenty of games where “the grind” itself is fun, whether that’s World of Warcraft, Diablo, or any other others I’ve mentioned above. (Another pet peeve: Japanese RPG grinds. Not fun. Curse you Persona 4 Golden!)

I’ve started to bin video games into two categories: the interactive story with minimal work, that guides you through (with golden breadcrumbs al la Fable). Or those that have a learning curve and take some practice to get down.

Sure, there are games in both categories that I’ve enjoyed. Rock Band comes to mind. The difference, however, is that in Rock Band, the practice itself is the fun of it.  (Plus, not only was Rock Band the reason I started to learn electric guitar, there was a real-world skill gained from the game that was portable: not the button mashing on the fretboard, but the synchronizing of pressing the fret board while picking at the same time. When I picked up the real guitar, the muscle memory and timing between the two hands was already there, so learning the blues scale was a breeze).

So, game developers: I want a game that is challenging enough to remind me I’m not just watching a movie. There should be some sense of accomplishment (even if it’s a simulated sense of accomplishment). There should be a sense of freedom and escape in the gaming experience. But, don’t fall into the 1980s trap that seeing your end-game sequence is a privilege that needs to be earned. Very few video game stories are worth of being earned when compared to reading good books or watching good movies.

Exceptions: games worth the gaming learning curve, either for story or fun factor (based on nothing more than my subjective experience compared against other games I have played). Some of these might be easier than others, but these are the ones I’d press through a grind, because the story competes well with stories in other mediums.

That seems to be the shift in the gaming experience between the 80s and now. There used to be a more pervasive “you must earn my endgame content through lots of effort”. Beating a game was an achievement. Now, that’s what “hard mode” is for, and “easy mode” should be just that.

  1. Bioshock Infinite
  2. Mass Effect trilogy
  3. Catherine (except I couldn’t finish it! Got to the last night of puzzles and just… stopped. Yeargh, so frustrating. Yet the story really did make the puzzling payoff worth it).
  4. Dragon Age 2 (Yes. The second one.)
  5. Dragon Age 1
  6. Fable 2
  7. Rock Band series
  8. Saints Row 4
  9. Mirror’s Edge
  10. I’m sure there are others.

Games that are really fun and worth playing, but if they were more difficult I’m not sure they’d be worth it:

  1. World of Warcraft
  2. Diablo 3
  3. Skyrim
  4. Borderlands 1 and 2
  5. Left for Dead 1 and 2
  6. Halo 2-4 (we beat all of them on the hardest mode, so I guess that meant the grind was fun enough that it never felt like “toiling”).
  7. Saints Row 4 (yeah… not sure if this one is on the above list, or should be down here)
  8. Kingdoms of Amalur: the Reckoning
  9. I’m sure there are others.

Games I really wanted to like, enjoyed the story, but just were too… ugh. Or I just couldn’t get captured enough to work through the repetitive actions.

  1. Red Dead Redemption
  2. Grand Theft Auto 4
  3. Assassins Creed 1, 2, 2.1, 2.2
  4. Starcraft 2 (I’m surprised as hell at this… this is the most likely candidate to go up to my first list: go back and work through it for the story, because Blizzard games usually have great stories).
  5. I’m sure there are others.

I realize I’m one person, and there are others out there that like the challenge. Great. More power to you.

I’ve just gotten to a point now where I want my game content to be more fun than work, and spend my grinding time on hobbies that don’t have a shelf life subject to next year’s new video game content.

Hopefully I’m now back on the weekly blogging train, now that the Tides of Artalon has been published. So, until next week!

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