Alright, let’s get one thing straight: I apologize for not posting, but I can’t really feel bad about it because I didn’t have much time to play or write this week. I have been able to explore roughly half of the second level of the Stygian Abyss, but I don’t think I have enough material to make a whole post. I don’t want to leave you high and dry, so I thought I would go back and touch on a subject I mentioned during the last entry (item degradation) and use it to attack a larger subject about empowerment in video games.
One of my favorite mechanics for evoking fear and desperation from a player is knowledge that each use of a weapon or item will bring it one step closer to destruction. The problem is that this game play element also requires some serious balancing and play testing to prevent frustration or outright invalidation of the game. If the items degrade too slowly there is no need to be careful with their use, but if they wear down even slightly faster than they should it can lead to frustration and possibly the inability to finish. I am still not sure where Ultima Underworld falls on this spectrum as my character is low level and I have only found one weapon that I would honestly say is in good shape. My ability to get more efficient use from weapons should improve as I level up in the game… hopefully. Regardless, it has made me reflect on this mechanic used in other games and how it may be one of the most effective building blocks of an experience that exists.
The Horror of Survival
“Survival Horror” is a genre that gets tossed around regularly as a misnomer for games featuring zombies and Lovecraftian abominations. These elements are scary and can be outright terrifying in some cases, but only pay service to the second half of the label. What about the capital-s survival? Many games that were developed early in this genre (Resident Evil, Silent Hill, System Shock) starve players for resources including ammunition, guns, consumable items, and all other matters of aid. While playing Silent Hill, I remember being afraid to enter the next door because I knew I only had one health drink left and my character was already bleeding from every hole in his body. What could be in there? Another health drink? Just more monsters to finish me off? That is the horror of survival that I associate with the genre.
Ultima Underworld can be classified as survival horror since it not only features darkened corridors, headless monsters, and maze-like architecture, but also stretches the player’s limits by (literally) starving him or her of resources. Old daggers lying around the dungeon snap like firewood in the middle of battle, torches burn out while traversing ledges over chasms of unknown depth, and meals must be sought out by raiding goblin camps while starving. The knowledge that each use of life giving equipment could be its last brings anxiety and outright discomfort to me in some cases. I like this feeling, but am afraid that the rapid degradation I have experienced may leave me in a lurch as I head further underground.
[The gun or the wrench? Your choice.]
System Shock 2 also walks this line, but to much better effect. Unlike Ultima Underworld, System Shock placed much more emphasis on ranged combat using pistols, grenade launchers, and even more exotic alien weapons. Unfortunately, these powerful weapons also suffer from loss of quality that you can see ticking down from ten to one until they finally jam in the middle of a deadly firefight. The genius trick up the sleeve of the developers is that melee weapons do not degrade, giving players another equally horrifying option: run into the face of these terrible creatures and begin bashing them in close combat. I enjoyed this approach much better when combined with severely limited ammunition as it made me less likely to be stuck in an unwinnable state. I had the knowledge that it is possible to defeat enemies throughout the game using melee weapons, even though it is much more dangerous. If all of my weapons turn to dust in Ultima Underworld, I may just be in serious trouble. Of course… I could rely on using more magic…
The Real Problem
A common saying these days is people ‘play games to feel like a badass’. Well, that may be true, but simply giving me tools I did not earn does not make ME feel like a badass. It makes me feel like I am playing a boring game. Let’s take two examples: God of War and Dark Souls. Now I know I keep heading back to the well of Souls, but I think it’s important to stick to similar genres when comparing games. On the surface, these two games can be described in very similar terms: you are a hero who must head into danger, fight enemies while increasing the effectiveness (i.e. ‘level) of your weapons, and become powerful enough to face the final boss in an action game focused on melee combat. Please just allow me to jettison the fact that GoW is not an RPG among other fundamental differences, but I do think they look similar to someone who has played neither and is a good starting point.
God of War chooses the more common focus of games produced recently in that it throws hundreds of weak enemies at the player making him or her feel amazing and following it up with a boss that has some puzzle or gimmick to it. This can be fun, but in my experience it ends up with me pressing X on the Playstation controller for an hour until I get bored of waiting until the next cut scene. (Please remember this is editorialized on purpose, so don’t go nuts GoW people). The ‘badass-ness’ of the game comes from killing hundreds of puny enemies, but I just feel annoyed and empty at the end. I don’t feel like I necessarily earned it.
[Even two of these 'easy' enemies together can ruin your day when you start Dark Souls.]
Contrast that with Dark Souls which makes literally every enemy in the game deadly. I’ve been killed by the lowest hollow in the game as many times as I have by the final boss. The difference is I return to the game a player who can now defeat almost every enemy with no problem and I feel like a DESERVING badass. I feel empowered because the designers gave me the opportunity to improve and grow my skill rather than copping out and tossing walking bullseyes at me that I can roll over to make me feel important.
What does all that have to do with degradation and survival horror? Well, let me hit it. The player cannot truly feel like a badass who has earned his status until he or she has truly had everything taken away. Left to scratch survival from meager resources and skill pools that grow with experience and knowledge of the rules of the game rather than being bestowed by the god of the game: the designer. Ultima Underworld and other true survival horror games do this effectively by making the player grow along with the game and trusting that he or she has enough patience to invest some time into developing skill and knowledge.
This isn’t just restricted to survival horror either. How great does it feel to return to original towns in Might & Magic to find you can slay monsters that used to eat you whole with the flick of a finger? Or what about replaying challenge stages in Peggle after trudging through the campaign to find your skill has increased to a Zen-like status when you clear an entire course that you used to struggle with. What about when you finally beat the Heat in NBA 2K when you used to struggle with whatever team is the worst? (I don’t really know basketball.)
The key is to produce a badass player and not simply make him or her ‘feel like a badass’. Provide the tools and means to become great, but do not simply grant it. This feels cheap and unearned, much like in real life.