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!

Speculative Politics

So, the presidential debates were Wednesday night, and after that I’m not sure I want to venture into further weighty matters such as world crafting this week.  So, let’s diverge a little into some nostalgia of what the last four years has brought us mixed with a healthy dose of fanboy anticipation that this next year will bring more of the same.

Of course, I’m talking politics.  Politics as rendered in the beautiful vintage science-fiction worlds of Bioshock, that is!  I mean, why watch two presidential candidates spar as avatars for competing ideologies when you can actually fight the extremes of each ideology yourself, with genetically engineered mutant powers!

Really.  Which sounds more fun?

Let’s take a trip down youtube lane.  Yes, this is a somewhat lazy post this week.  Sheesh.

Bioshock 1 came in 2007, at the end of Bush’s presidency.  I had not yet read Atlas Shrugged or been at all exposed to Ayn Rand.  I enjoyed the heck out of its Art Deco underwater city of Rapture, but in hindsight the nods to Rand are obvious.  Instead of the typical trailer or smattering of action sequences, here is the first four minutes of the game… the Atlas Shrugged imagery is obvious.

“Is man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?  No, says the man in Washington–it belongs to the poor.  No, says the Vatican–it belongs to God.  No, says the man in Moscow–it belongs to everyone…”–Andrew Ryan

Good stuff:

It’s an example of a city that was originally built on Randian principles gone horribly wrong.  There’s a difference between Rand’s rational self-interest which is reciprocal (an Objectivist would not take advantage of someone else–nothing is for free) and real-world selfishness.  In Bioshock, the people became addicted to genetic enhancement (by use of the substance called Adam, packaged in cocktails called plasmids) and improvement until they couldn’t stop.  They went insane, modifying themselves until they mutated into monsters, known as “splicers” (re. genetic splicing).  (SPOILER) In the end, Andrew Ryan is not really the antagonist.  His expectations for human virtue was too high.  And your benefactor, Atlas, wasn’t really your friend.

The game started with a high-suspense terror feel to it, and there were creepy moments throughout.  As it turns out, little girls, called “little sisters”, are the harvesters of what Adam remains in the city, protected by the Big Daddies.  When you kill a Big Daddy, you have the moral choice of freeing the girl and getting less Adam, or harvesting her because you need the Adam to survive.  Yep, this game lets you kill little kids.  I picked the moral route, but in the end it didn’t really make all that difference to how the story ends.  Having saved the little sisters, the interlude teaser to the second game follows:

So, if you want to go survive and fight against a horror world based on rampant capitalism, Bioshock is the game for you.

If, however, you would rather survive and face off with the horrors of rampant collectivism, the second one of the series should scratch the itch.

Bioshock 2 came under Obama’s presidency.  Ironically enough, we find that after Andrew Ryan is gone, one of the other higher-ups in the city was a closet communist, a collectivist of the worst sort.  She (Dr. Lam) has forced a communist society on the remaining mutants in the city, and the player comes back as a different character this time:  A Big Daddy.

I’m still working on this game.  It was a casualty of deployment time when it came out.  I got back into it recently in light of the current political election time, but then Borderland’s 2 came out.  I watched my wife play it, and it reveals more of Rapture’s back story, including the social life they had before things went horribly wrong (prior to Bioshock 1).  Dr. Lam’s collectivist propaganda reminds me a bit of the Rand book Anthem.

Most exciting, next year we’ll see the 3rd of the series, Bioshock Infinite.  Apparently we’re moving to a city in the clouds, leaving the underwater city of Rapture behind.

And to close, an interview discussing the vertical, roller-coaster based combat to come.  Looks neat!

And with that, folks, see y’all next week!