29 - On Games

While playing games for the Backlog Killer blog, I try not to burn out on one game and bounce around between a few games I can just pick up and play for a little bit. I try to keep a good mix of new and old games so I can stay up to date. Bouncing between decades is a constant reminder of how far games have come graphically, technically, and financially. It also serves as a reminder of how games have developed in terms of design philosophy and how they treat the player. I often wonder: "Are gamers really better off than they used to be?"

I played a lot of Nintendo games as a kid. We did not get a computer until later so I was used to limited control inputs, fairly simple scope, and limited mechanics. These games could be easily figured out by just playing them and experimenting to find out what made the character jump, shoot, move, etc. The manual could provide some exposition for the game if memory did not allow for an opening sequence, but this was generally optional. It was a good, simple system.

Later, my family finally decided to get a computer. I do not remember what year it was, but it must have been around 1991 or 1992 since CD-ROMs were not standard and we actually had to wait several weeks for ours to arrive. After getting the new machine, my uncle let me have several shareware and non-shareware games to get started. I remember some of these: Duke Nukem, Codename: Iceman, Dark Ages, and Crystal Caves. We also picked up a few other games such as Ultima 6, Wizardry 7, and Might and Magic: World of Xeen, opening up an entirely new world to me.

The new world was not necessarily fun from the start. My parents generally left me up to my own devices because they did not have any idea how to use the new computer either. They would sit with me to install games, maybe play a few with me to make sure they were nothing inappropriate, but if there were any problems, they were just as lost as I was. Without the Internet, I was forced to seek out technical documents, mess around on my own, and just figure out the game itself IF I managed to get it running. After using DOS for a few months, I became quite comfortable editing boot sequences, configurations, memory usage, and creating boot disks for specific games manually at the age of eight or nine. This was only half the battle. Many games of that era had some form of introduction, but many would just toss you in the deep end with no floatation device. Ultima 6 was such a game. Turn it on, create a character disk, create a character, watch the cool intro, and BAM. You are in the game with no idea what to do (since I hadn't played any other Ultimas) and no clear indication of what the controls are. The only sensible thing to do was to go read the manual.

I would bring these manuals to school with me, read them on the toilet, and basically take in every detail so that I would be ready to face the game itself. Even after doing this, many games were quite hard and took hours and hours of figuring out puzzles, mastering mechanics, and putting in hard work to finish. After finishing many of these games I felt a sense of satisfaction that is only matched by completing a tough book, seeing a really good movie, or finishing a long project.

[Better than a cardboard sheet with some commands on it like you get today.]

Fast forward to the past couple of years.

New operating systems and more powerful gaming consoles have made video games available to almost everyone. It is now easier than ever to install and begin playing any game that comes out. These new programs have amazing graphics, full voice acting, and take up entire Blu-Ray discs. I am constantly being forced to question if what I am seeing is pre-rendered, rendered in-game, or a movie or picture from real life. I play through these games, but, for the most part, am unable to feel a great sense of satisfaction anymore. Why is this?

I am about to enter well trodden and supremely jerk territory here, but are modern games as good or demanding as games from the past? Of course they are technically better in terms of graphics, sound, and processing power, but is what’s going on under the hood any better? Whenever I ask myself this question, I usually come to the conclusion that ‘It’s probably the same.’ There were TONS of junk games when I was growing up just as there are now. These are evident within the first twenty minutes of play: boring game play, bad stories when the game is story-centric, and bad controls. Despite this seemingly (admittedly only upon self-reflection) grounded opinion, I still feel something lacking when I play through most modern games that I really like.

Let’s take one recent example: L.A. Noire. I was excited about the game as a fan of James Ellroy’s fiction (The Black Dahlia, LA Confidential, The Big Nowhere, etc.) and gritty cop dramas taking place in post-war America. It originally looked like a sandbox game with a serious story, but turned out to be more of an adventure game which was a pleasant surprise to me. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be quite easy. Crime scenes alert the player when a clue is to be found with piano chimes, otherwise immersive interrogations are ruined with immediate feedback about if your choices are correct or incorrect, and a lack of any ‘puzzles’ fail to make the game any more than looking at items scattered around. I was particularly disappointed with the interrogations as the responses to any option you choose sound authentic and still give some interesting information. Unfortunately, the immediate knowledge of failure makes the urge to restart the process almost unbearable, thus removing any immersion. I enjoyed the game and I think it tried to do something really cool, but I did not feel like I had completed anything truly fulfilling when I was done.

This is just a quick and dirty breakdown of my opinion on that game that has hundreds of holes that I would love to plug, but that isn’t what I want to get to as the crux of this post. I truly believe that games are just becoming a little bit too easy. Now, I don’t think that games need to be brutally hard, but games are meant to challenge the player by design. Living through brutal times where copious notes, repeated attempts, and serious brain racking were required to complete games has brought a deeply ingrained history to contrast against the ‘lead by the nose’ attitude that seems to purvey modern video games. I do enjoy saving anywhere and having extended help in the game, but the fact that many try to lead me hand in hand while telling me “Everything will be OK. Don’t be sad you messed up,” feels a little strange. I do not have that much time to spend playing games and want to have fun, but I also want to be challenged. If I did not want to solve something or work toward a goal, I would just watch television or a movie. I realize this is reductive in that all games require input from the player and require some degree of skill and some even fill my criteria, but many have just turned into self-affirmation sessions where the game tells you how great you are rather than making YOU realize how great you are by winning.

Maybe this is personal so I will use the pronoun ‘I’, but I never feel fully satisfied if I do not complete a game on my terms. If I knowthe game did something to boost me or help me, I feel like I’ve cheated. This isn’t to say I want to complete games perfectly; if I choose to move on knowing I haven’t done everything, that’s OK, but if I know that the game pushed me through a hard sequence or puzzle without me having to figure it out I feel a little uneasy about continuing. I want to finish the game as it is designed and make my own decision about if I should continue past the challenge or skip it. Making me feel like a fool who is in need of constant reassurance is not something I am into.

Maybe it is because I have some weird compulsion about getting everything done by myself, but part of the joy I experienced from old games was actually figuring out the mechanics of the game and just how to get the thing working rather than winning. Having the light switch turn on about what I need to do in Ultima 4 is way more amazing than going through a checklist provided by the program. FINALLY figuring out that I need to use the dance steps as the treasure map in Monkey Island was exhilarating. Just getting sound to operate in Doom using only 4mb of RAM was a puzzle in itself. These aspects are what I miss about old games.

Graphics and sound and the new heights stories can reach are amazing advances in video games that excite me, but how these will be utilized to get the best effects? Will any demand be placed on the player besides “push these buttons” or will we just continue to railroad them around? Independent developers are already exploring this ground that has lain fallow for so long and I hope that more large companies will follow suit by challenging gamers a little bit more than they have been. With that said, I’m going to go back to playing Dark Souls and Ultima 4 in my Ivory Gaming Tower while lamenting lost halcyon days.

--Backlog Killer