Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.
Taking It Easy
In his review of The Amazing Spider-Man, Scott Jones bemoaned the game’s overuse of cinematic moments that reduce the action to a series of button prompts. This sparked a conversation about the delicate balancing act of keeping players moving while still offering a satisfying challenge. Mike Ferraro gave his view on the economics of difficulty in modern games:
Designers err on the side of being too easy, usually because the producers hammer on them for it. Nobody wants to ship a game with a difficulty dead-end in it for a significant portion of players. Outside of Japan, anyway. A lot of games that are too hard when they ship were considered too easy by the designers, who didn’t realize that their two years playing the game as experts is not an accurate gauge of how the target audience is going to find it. Which is why you want to constantly playtest the game with fresh players. It’s very sobering.
It’s no small feat to make a game that can challenge the designers but is also beatable by their wife or young kid. The only way to not piss the player off is if he knows that it’s his own choice that something is too difficult, and could scale it back or just give up on trying to get the 100-percent perfect ranking and come back later after he’s gotten better at the game (or his character is better developed).
Difficulty settings are the primitive solution, user-chosen goals and challenges are a much more organic approach. Project Gotham 2 had you wager on each race the max difficulty you thought you could win at. Mario Kart has the different speed/difficulty classes, but also special rewards above the gold medal for coming in first every race, etc. Angry Birds has the star rankings that don’t affect advancement. That’s where games excel, when the player understands his performance level and has a reason to challenge himself on a replay.
Elsewhere, Effigy_Power brought up the tension that comes from the constant threat of permanent death, something that is missing in most modern games:
It’s an interesting evolution in gaming. In the comment section of a game a few days ago, we talked about how perma-death is a thing of the past, due to the desire of developers to keep people playing and minimize frustration. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; there were, after all, plenty of games that were teeth-gnashingly difficult and made you replay huge chunks only to artificially keep the game time up.
Mind you, the loss of perma-death also made games a lot less scary and engaging. Knowing that you can quick-save at any time or that a level is studded with checkpoints can certainly take the challenge out of it. Fable went so far as to punish you with nothing more than the loss of some experience points and a few (later removable) scars.
Now, holding the players hand to such an extend that even mistakes are white-washed with cool maneuvers is a bit like the policy to not fail students anymore for bombing on tests. It may feel great to effortlessly zip through something, always in style and always successful, but it is a hollow experience, because without challenge nothing is achieved.
And ToddG respectfully disagreed:
I respectfully disagree. A game can be both punishingly difficult and keep you playing, and many modern games accomplish both with ease. It’s just a matter of localizing the challenge and ensuring that, once the player bests a particular challenge, they don’t have to do it again. This is what checkpoints and regenerating health are designed to do; they ensure that a “just good enough” performance in one section of a game doesn’t punish you in the next, and most games will compensate for this by making the individual sections more difficult. I understand that some game enthusiasts prefer the Homeworld method of never knowing if your performance on a level is good enough to be able to complete the next, but I’ve never understood it. Anyway, all this to say that, in my experience, if a game is easy, it’s usually just because it’s easy, not because of the mechanisms it uses.
I’ve actually been waiting for this game since the first news of it appeared back in 2010 (it went into hibernation for a while), so I am more than a little biased in its favor. My thoughts are a little scattershot right now because I just got finished playing it a few hours ago, but I do have a few thoughts.
Since I basically came into the game having ignored most of the marketing, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d been initially attracted by the references to Heart Of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, but I full well know expecting a game with the power of either of those works would be way too optimistic. I suppose what I was expecting was a shooter that would take on the absurdity, the violence, and the terror of those works to create a horror that draws you in rather than repels, and in this, Spec Ops succeeded.
I was looking forward to the absurdity, since the absurd moments in Apocalypse Now were some of my favorite parts of the film—I remember watching the USO Playboy bunny show on the lake for the first time and wondering why none of the soldiers in the movie realized how insane the whole thing is—and the setting of Dubai just brings that out. To describe Dubai briefly, imagine your hometown/city, save with every building built before 1980 removed and with 8,000x the amount of money. There’s large parts of the game where you’re wandering through these amazing opulent skyscraper lobbies and penthouses owned by people who spend more on an afternoon of shopping than any of us make in a month. It also drives how just how much stuff society generates these days, and how it accumulates. (Honestly, one of the strangest parts of the game came for me at the 3/4 mark, when I was in a firefight in a shopping mall and I literally ran through an abandoned Games Workshop outlet. I’m still trying to digest that one.)
I’m still mulling over the game’s use of violence, but I would suggest that it would be a mistake to view the relationship between the beauty and the horror of violence as a dichotomy. From my perspective, they are merely two elements of the same entity. Violence and destruction can be, in their ways, deeply beautiful acts. It’s not a problem of video games; it’s a problem of life. To sum up this giant mass of words, it’s a modestly ambitious game, and one I felt that succeeded in its ambitions.
This week, we took a look at the works of Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström, an indie developer known for churning out exceedingly short and strange games. Down in the comments, The_Misanthrope pitched an idea for indie imprints that the mega-publishers out there might want to look into:
Thanks for covering Cactus! I just wish I could get more of his games to run on my PC! Even more to the point, thank you for making an indie auteur the focus of a Dossier article.
When I see a big studio head going into his “End Times For The Games Industry” schtick (with used games being the current bête noire) or a bored consumer complaining about the lack of inventive games on store shelves, I enter into a state of apoplexy and point to people like Gregory Weir, Auntie Pixelante/Miss Anthropy, Jonas Kratzes, etc. and I say “Look! It seems there’s a thriving, creative game scene just over there!” They may not all be refined or polished affairs, but they are, for the most part, free (or at least super cheap). Yes, Sturgeon’s Law still applies and there will be a fairly sizable percentage of shitty or just boring games among the teeming masses, but when you find that diamond in the rough, it makes the search well worth it.
I am also going to reiterate my idea that the doom-foretelling big game publishers should think about opening up “indie” imprints, much like Hollywood does for its prestige imprints. Granted, you could argue that publishers already do that when they snatch up [indie games] to dump onto digital distribution platforms, but I think they can do more to foster this talent. Compared to the bloated budgets of AAA titles (for useful comparison, see also blockbuster season), these smaller imprints would be able to operate at a relatively lower cost, so a game can suffer failure (or even just modest success) without shareholders calling for heads on a pike.
This week also saw the start of a new Special Topics In Gameology series, talking with a few icons of video game comedy. The first subject was Al Lowe, creator of the late-’80s/early-’90s adventure-game series Leisure Suit Larry. Prompted by Lowe’s thoughts on brawny heroes making for poor comedy, the comments turned into a exploration of what made Larry work so well. feisto had this to say:
I think part of Larry’s appeal, if I remember correctly (based just on playing the first game), is that the humor is pretty genial, and this really comes through in the interview. I was maybe a few years younger than the intended audience for the game, but I don’t remember being put off or confused by anything; it seemed like the kind of sex farce written by a self-effacing guy who’s more interested in trying his darnedest to get a chuckle out of the audience than showing a lot of T&A. And more often than not, it worked.
It felt a lot more honest than the kind of humor I see in a lot of adventure games today, where the writer clearly thinks they’re hilarious and go out of their way to employ humor even when it’s inappropriate (which is what turned me off The Broken Sword, for example).
Also, I totally learned what a prophylactic was.
As always, thanks for reading, commenting, and being an intelligent and respectful band of Internet denizens. We’ll see y’all next week.