20 October, 2008

Press Start to Play: Game Over

Press Start to Play is a series of articles cross-posted between En Tequila and Modern Magic. A series about video games as an industry, an art form, and an experience.

Video games have gone soft.

I mean this generally; avid victims fans of the Ninja Gaiden games, for instance, would argue against any leniency in modern video games, and may very well be correct. However, I am looking at games over all. There are some subtle, and some obvious, ways in which games have gotten easier on us. The rise of "casual" games being too obvious an example to discuss at length, it still portrays how video games are now designed to appeal to people who don't play video games. Video games used to be for gamers.

However, my favorite example is the end-game screen. In the old days of arcade and some early console games, what happened when you lost all your lives? In most cases, you saw a screen that said two words.


How often in the last.. three to five years, have you seen that screen? Here and there, I'll admit, but when you consider the sheer volume of games? Not terribly often.

Those were powerful words. They meant that you had lost, failed, and you had to start from the beginning and do it all over again. Everything you had been working towards was suddenly brought to an abrupt and heart breaking halt. That, however, was the addiction. You lost, so you try again. And again. And again. You kept going until you beat it and you'd feel damned proud when you did. You had to work for it, which brings us to another end-game screen. These days, when you beat a game, you're treated to a cinematic, a cutscene, or some visual display of your epic heroic awesomeness. It made you feel special, while at the same time, made it so that it was a natural thing. You saw the conclusion of the story, because you beat the game. But really, you were always going to get there, the story had to end somehow. Go back to some of those crazy-hard games that would take a dedicated gamer months to beat, and quite often the only thing you'd see would be along the lines of:

"You beat the game! Congratulations!"

Maybe some kind of cutscene, maybe a little victory video, but mostly it was just the credits rolling.

And oh, how good that felt. The feeling of accomplishment and victory that came with that screen. Modern gamers are spoiled, because its getting easier and easier to get to that screen. It's almost unheard of to play a game that you can't beat in under a month, maybe even a week. Continues, save points, extra lives and health bars all contribute to this.

Another trend in gaming: regenerating health. Halo, Gears, Call of Duty, so many recent games have a system where you can take a few hits, and if you can manage to remain unhit for a little while, you gain your health back. Arcade games? One hit, you are dead. Extra lives were a blessing, a gift. You would sometimes risk your current life in order to get an extra one, or something to help you along.

Galaga, anyone? Do you take out the alien ship nice and safely, or do you let it take your ship, so that you can try to get it back and have 2 ships, thus increasing your firepower? It was always risky, and you had to have an extra ship in reserve to do it. But if you miss and hit your ship, you just lost a life, and what a blow that felt like. Especially since it was all your fault.

Modern games don't have "game over" screens. They have "Continue?" screens, or "Go back to the last save point" options. Tools that would enable you to progress with only a slight hindrence. Games used to be made to be hard to beat. Now they're designed to be easy to beat. They even have difficulty settings, so that if you can't beat the game, they will make it easier to beat.

Today's gamers are spoiled by games that are made to be beat. I mean, come on, dynamic difficulty? Automatically adjusting the difficulty of the game to custom cater to the individual gamer. It will change the difficulty for you based on how badly you're failing.

The thing is, all this is smart investment. As games are becoming increasingly popular and more "casual", even the hardcore games need to be able to be played by a wide variety of gamers. After all, most gamers will not admit to having to play a game on easy. Everyone wants to be able to beat a game on its hardest setting; the appeal of that top "elite" ranking is what sells games to a lot of people. People don't want to have to work for their achievements anymore; you can purchase, for cash money, MMORPG characters that have already been upgraded and leveled up for other people. You can skip the work and get right to the part where you're awesome.

I play games because they're challenging. They make me think. However, its less and less common to see Game Over. Now there's always a backdoor.

Modern gamers are spoiled. Video games have gone soft.


"Think Deeper"


Efrique said...

Ah yes, memories.

Memories, like clocking over Battlezone.

Walking in with 40 cents** at the start of lunch, and an hour later, walking out with the top row of the screen filled with extra tanks.

**(it was originally 20c here, but was 40 by the time I was good at it)

Of course, it took a fair number of games to get to that point from where I started (where if I was lucky, I'd maybe kill a few tanks before I lost my last guy).

Anonymous said...

Yup, back in the days of Wizardry, after a year of trying to beat the thing and finally, finally, beating the boss. What did we get? An extra little carrot next to the character name.

We shouldn't even talk about the Infocom games.

miller said...

If a game forces you to backtrack a long ways whenever your get game over, I consider this a form of "fake difficulty". In theory, it sounds like a great way to challenge players, and put in them the fear of death. But in practice, it causes the player to repeat long sections of easy gaming so they can have one more go at that final difficult bit. There are far better ways to challenge the player. Restrictions on saving your game is only the lazy game designer's way of adding difficulty, thus "fake difficulty".

I would also suggest that this used to be more common partly because of technological limitations of old consoles.