I was going to make this into a VGA post, but this seems more fitting; that and I was inspired over the weekend by a playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. As a first step towards what VGA 6-1 had to say on the nature of death in games, it’s titles such as this (1995 and prior releases) and many of its general gaming predecessors that are becoming scarce in numbers.
I don’t mean to imply that hard games are on the fall. No, I’m more inclined to state that it’s the subtextual challenge within games that’s on the fall. A hard game brings design into question and that creates a schism in an entirely different category. Even when one takes into account the subjective experiences that people have on games, the line between challenging and bad design is so fine that it's sometimes rendered invisible. I don’t much care for the term “bad design” either, because it insinuates a distinct spectrum of some set rule of objectives when it comes to design overall (an insult to the methodology of the whole process if you ask me). There are always things to consider and discard, but labeling this or that simply as "bad" can become quite a slippery slope to say the least.
So, where do we draw---the line as? [I say --- everywhere]
Should we at all? [I say --- of course]
What room is there for games that are intentionally frustrating to the player? More commonly for our industry is the presence of trial-and-error games. Once again, Nintendo basically pioneers the opposition to that design-canyon many still fall within to this day. Valve is another studio that is adept to fighting this process. I am of course referring to the ability to instill intuition and actual progression in understanding (for the player) as the game moves throughout its respective experience.
So between the smaller financed titles (i.e. The Path) and bigger budget franchises (i.e. The Legend of Zelda), where is the trail for experimentation? I mention Zelda because that’s what I’m currently playing on the side while still making my way through Thief: Gold. Despite my familiarity with the game, it remains one of those titles where I constantly find myself stuck in at the exact same points. There are some typical and cognitive hang-ups in design and therein lies my query behind this post:
To what extent can those be manipulated and how much accomplishment has been achieved thus far?
There are of course other pieces of the puzzle that are individual to a person themselves (i.e. the way my memory works makes me susceptible to becoming stuck in this game particularly). Zelda is a good jumping point here because it epitomizes that real-time dungeon crawling puzzle world that it’s still known for to this day. How many times have you been stuck in a dungeon, frustrated, spewing profanities, and threatening developers that you’ll never meet? Now, compare that with the times that you’ve actually discovered something on your own and actually put two and two together in order to make something work. That cognitive feeling is far beyond the process itself, as that’s where FAQS have already gained the most ground in when it comes to robbing the experience. In addition, the popularity of such easily accessible walkthroughs (though some are wonderfully more detailed than actual official guides) is aided by the cold hard fact that people simply don’t have much time to revel in that area anymore.
This is one of the big reasons why people cling to their nostalgia like such a damn life raft in the middle of the Pacific. They had that kind of time back then. They participated for hours on end, wandering, and partaking in “actual exploration”. As they grow up and adult priorities set in, they lose the ability to plug into that mindset. Some simply shelve that ability, while others just sadly forget how to access it ever again.
The pickle that’s laid out now is a fascinating one to look at because it has at least three factors circling the matter like vultures:
Stupid Buzzard #1 Subjective Experience - This is how much one enjoys the world and how their own character traits interact with that world. If someone is easily frustrated, they can’t and shouldn’t blame it on the game (yet so many still do).
Stupid Buzzard #2 “Design” – This is the amount of expertise that is presented in how the developer determines what will be introduced to the player (very few actually capitalize on “how” they are introduced, even to this day).
Stupid Buzzard #3 Time – Time rules a lot in our world, metaphorically, practically, and literally. So how many games are designed around that context specifically? I personally think this is the most challenging area of all, because developers have to deal with not only CAREFULLY raising a new generation of young gamers, but evolving the will of those that still serve as the bulk audience (not factoring in the casualties of the new age of course).
There’s far more room in games than the simple labels we attribute to them. There’s more than just easy, hard, or even challenging now. All that terminology serves as is the bread on the sandwich. Technically, it’s a necessary (and the largest) part of the whole sandwich. Practically however, it’s only the required background presence for the "meat", which defines the sandwich entirely.
Too many gamers are simply eating two slices of bread now. Their excuses may be valid and good, but my stance on that will always remain.
Even a DAMN good excuse is still just an excuse.
Oh yeah, if you have some freetime and are a Zelda fan, drop by the Vintage Game Clubs coverage of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Their formal playthrough starts on the 10th. I'm using A Link to the Past as an indirect juxtapositonary playthrough for personal insight (that actual thread can be seen here).