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1-Up: Grow a Spine

Feature; Jan. 17, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Edward Kaczynski
Subtypes: Column
Welcome to the first run of our first column!

When did gamers become such pussies?

It’s not our fault – the industry has been force feeding us artificial victory for years, and we’ve gotten so used to it that any sort of actual challenge leaves a sour taste in our mouths. Most gamers have an inherent need to win, to relish every victory, both great and small. It’s not always the driving force behind our behavior, but we all know (and crave) the little rush you get when you take down a boss, achieve a rare item, or survive against all odds.


But really, is it that hard to do anymore?

Back when Doom was the end-all, catch-all shooter, it actually punished players for attempting to do better. Anybody who played the classic remembers this familiar scenario: you’re wounded, you’re low on shotgun shells, but the end of the level is in sight. At the same time, immediately to your left is a big open room, and right in the middle of that room? Health packs and ammo. 

So, throwing caution to the wind, you rush forward and immediately regret your decision as 20 monsters pop out from secret doors which just opened up when you entered the room. Live or die, you’ve learned an important lesson – Doom is not your friend. It doesn’t want you to do well. Doom wants you scared. Doom wants you anxious. And Doom wants you to agonize over every decision – because the next time this choice comes up, you will remember your last screw-up.

And the best part of this? We wanted it harder. We wanted more of a challenge. So, once we learned how to blast our way through a level as fast as possible, we kept upping the difficulty – more and more monsters spawning every which way, ammo and health packs become harder and harder to come by, until we eventually tried Nightmare mode – where the monsters we killed wouldn’t stay dead.

Difficulty settings and game play mechanics like those not only made games harder, they made games better – trying them made us feel like bad asses, and beating them made us feel like gods.

Years passed, and the genre continued to define itself based on the early parameters that Doom provided. Games like Duke Nukem 3D cause a slight shift, with developers focusing more on the development of style rather than substance, while Quake precipitated a major shift in style as one of the first true 3-D shooters.

In 2001, things started to take a downward spiral. Halo (whose tagline was ironically “Combat Evolved”) came on the scene, re-introducing the shooter genre as a bland, uninteresting time-sink. Yeah, it was okay to play with friends, but it isn’t the end-all, catch-all ultimate shooter that the fanboys will try to make you think it is. It really wasn’t too different from other shooters, with a few exceptions. 

One, you can throw grenades without holstering your weapon – I realize how trivial, minor and stupid that sounds, but it was a genuine point of pride for Bungie Software, which goes to show you exactly how far up their ass their heads are.

The other major "innovation" we got from Halo was the first step in turning gamers from hardcore players into whiney crybabies. Specifically, shield regeneration. Avoid getting hit for a little while, and your shield will recharge to full.

Think about it for just a moment: You’re being rewarded for not getting hit – all right, I might not agree with it, but it makes a perverse kind of sense. I would assume not getting hit would be a reward in and of itself, but hey, I guess it could be worse.

Then it started getting worse.

Nowadays, the Halo shield regeneration game mechanic has evolved into something ghastly and aberrant. Over the years, developers have looked at the game mechanic and no longer say "players want to stay alive." They say to themselves "players don’t want to lose" and design their games around making it easy for players to win.

The Call of Duty series is infamous for this, and if any genre of game deserves to remain a meat grinder – where you really do have to be that good to avoid getting killed – it’s a wartime shooter. You might not realize this, but the developers have no intention of allowing you to lose. Ever. Think about it: You get shot three times in the chest. You’re not dead, but you’re about to die. You know this because, despite not having an active health meter (ostensibly for realism’s sake – the only thing about the series that mirror’s realism) the screen is flashing red around the borders.

So, you hide. You avoid playing the game to hide for a few seconds behind a wall, or in a bunker, or in the shadows, while your wounds magically heal themselves. You are being rewarded for actively avoiding combat. 

It isn’t just limited to wartime shooters, either. Mass Effect 2, despite being a nearly perfect game, fell prey to this pitfall – which is unfortunate, as this was a conscious decision on the part of the development team (in the original Mass Effect, you had to apply medi-gel in order to regain health).

The problem with this line of thinking is that, if I sit down to play the guitar, and I mess up a chord or a note, I’m not going to get better at playing the guitar by setting it aside and not looking at it for an hour.

Probably the worst moment in gaming, as far as presenting a challenge goes, was Bioshock. Bioshock had one of the best stories I’ve ever played in a shooter, and it was completely ruined by the fact that you could never lose. Dying became a minor inconvenience, given that you respawned in a vita-chamber something like 20 feet away. I remember spending a solid 30 minutes wasting EVE on a Big Daddy because I didn’t want to waste ammo, and every time I died, I respawned with a little EVE for free.

Thankfully, Bioshock 2 gave you the ability to turn vita-chambers off, but the story was so weak and the game play so tired compared to the original Bioshock that it didn’t really help fix what was broken.

So what’s the point of this mini-tirade? What exactly am I trying to say?

Dying – truly dying, not Bioshock dying – isn’t a bad thing. Losing a life isn’t the end of the world, and maybe, just maybe, we should stop allowing game developers to wipe our chins. If we’re actively worrying about our health counter, our sanity meter, or our mana bar, then we’re going to plan ahead, react faster and learn how to be better gamers.

Despite my over-reaching and broad statements, there really are a lot of different companies out there still taking the time to challenge their players. And a real gamer should always be looking for a new challenge. Most of these are indie developers – companies like From Software, the developers of Demon’s Souls (critically lauded, but criticized by players as being "too hard"), and Team Meat, the developers of Super Meat Boy (which is brilliantly brutal and unforgiving).

Many will probably avoid these titles because they don’t want to spend the money on something that isn’t going to provide them with the instant gratification that Call of Duty or Halo could. They want the McDonalds of the gaming – a quick, easy win that satisfies, but doesn’t necessarily nourish. But if something isn’t going to force you to either think with your brain or hone your skills, is it really worth doing? 

I, for one, don’t think so. After all, the easy win isn’t satisfying, and the satisfying win isn’t easy.



GizmoDuck - Feb. 8, 2011 at 9:51:41am

I do agree that alot of games are too easy nowadays but a few odd ones slip under the net and surprise you. The now Donkey Kong for example says its for ages 3+ on the box which is utter balls ... its hard as nails from about 1/3 of the way in.

One of the bosses had me swearing so much that the girlfriend told me off so i said to her to have a go and handed her the controller. Within 5 minutes she was turning the air blue like a sailer on shore leave ....

I dont think there is anything particularly wrong with instant gratifacation in games aslong as the game doesnt take itsself too seriously. Somthing like Serious Sam or for example.


themightkai - Jan. 30, 2011 at 1:47:36pm

It is a really good and fair point! But the Gaming industry has come so far over the past 15-20 years that a large proportion of the worlds population in the developed world is playing some sort of game.

With the advent in higher computer/ console function, developers have come under pressure to make short games that will allow the player a little replayability but keeping it short means, as Rob states that, that person can then go on to buy more games to keep them occupied for short periods of time. its just how the industry will go!

Nadorade - Jan. 25, 2011 at 11:45:38pm

Back in the day, it was the game rental industry that kept games difficult. Why spend 50 bucks on a game you could beat in a 3 day period? All you have to do nowadays is make a good enough trailer (probably with the requim for a dream theme in the backround) and people will pay 50-60 bucks for 8-20 hand-holding hours of gameplay.

Bioshock might have been patched or modded to disable vita-chambers, but it was absolutely not standard on the vanilla PC version.


JCXanirus - Jan. 21, 2011 at 4:57:25am

Devil May Cry anyone?


rfludwick - Jan. 19, 2011 at 6:59:45am

One argument I will throw out there for allowing games to at least have a setting that keeps them as easy as they've become these days:

If you end up spending hours upon hours upon hours to complete most games, then you're not going to have a whole lot of time to play a bunch of games. Only a few. Unless you're fine with not finishing any games.

Lakaishia - Jan. 18, 2011 at 10:18:46pm

I do agree games have become insufferably easy now.... Makes playing them boring and fruitless. Games should be difficult to get through and I have yet to really see any new ones come out that satisfy the need to spend hours playing a game that takes thought and coordination to play it through fully.


rfludwick - Jan. 18, 2011 at 7:08:36am

I enjoyed the hell out of Bioshock 1, but I always tried to not die. Felt like cheating, actually.

darkstar2380 - Jan. 17, 2011 at 11:02:50pm

I don't recall that option.


kjhovanec - Jan. 17, 2011 at 9:33:16pm

There was. There was even an extra hard "survival mode" in the PS3 edition of Bioshock. The vita chambers did next to nothing, ammo was nearly non existent, and plasmids were more or less your only saving grace. Now that was a hell of an experience!


JCXanirus - Jan. 17, 2011 at 6:55:05pm

I could of sworn there was a "Turn off vita-chambers" in Bioshock 1. Maybe it was only the PC version.

darkstar2380 - Jan. 17, 2011 at 5:25:10pm

At not point was I arguing or confused about the reasoning behind games being easier - you're absolutely right, it's an attempt to make money. That doesn't make it okay.

WalkingClock - Jan. 17, 2011 at 4:37:54pm

@kjhovanec -

While the idea that a wider audience will bring more money, which will in turn bring us more games; that really only speaks to support the idea that gaming today is becoming more like your typical Wal-Mart of McDonalds. Quantity over Quality. I could either spend $5 and get 20 Chicken McNuggets, made mostly of Soypastes and Seaweed (Your Call of Duty, Halo, even Final Fantasy these days). Or spend $25 on a nice fresh-cut and grilled Steak. (Super Meat Boy, Demon's Souls, Starcraft\Diablo.)

While McDonalds for sure will bring in more people per day, you can't say there isn't a grand market for people who want a high quality steak. Those who cater to that market are not homeless, or going under.

Back when gaming was just a budding industry there had to be money in us Super-Nerds who just HAD to beat Ninja Gaiden, elsewise it woulden't have taken off to the billion-dollar industry it is today. Using the "Easier games make for a wider audience!" argument doesn't excuse the majority of developers for handholding or 'wiping our chin'.

In this day and age, gaming has moved from a past time for geeks to the mainstream; the audience is there. It's time to start kicking it up a notch instead of hand holding.

Also: CoD is in no way difficult, even on Veteran. It's the same "I've been hit, let me hide and wipe jelly off my face" tactic as it is in the easier difficulties. There's just a higher chance of an actual death to "What was shooting me?" which isn't difficulty so much as it is just inflating annoyance. There's a difference between "I have to focus on these eight things at once, on a timer, while protecting this dude" and "You take more damage, and the AI won't stand there and LET you shoot them as much."

Difficulty vs "Veteran" Difficulty.

OT - Loved the article, games could really use a ramp up in challenge. There are plenty of developers out there to suit the casual audience and those looking for more challenge.


kjhovanec - Jan. 17, 2011 at 2:11:05pm

Interesting articles but I do have this to say:

Games have become "easier" due to the need to attract a wider audience. Gaming at the end of the day whether we like it or not is a business and in order for that business to keep supplying us with games, a profit has to be made. Wider audience, more profit.

All of the games listed can be considered easy, but in fact can easily be increased in difficulty in the single player portion to make it more difficult. In fact the COD series is know for being obscenely difficult in singe player on veteran due to the scripted nature working against the more aggressive AI.

As for the online arena, calling it easy would be a vast understatement as the learning curve to become proficient in these shooters (meaning a fairly high and or consistent K/D ratio) is not an easy task. Even the usual means of practice makes perfect, and playing everyday isn't enough. One hit in COD online is usually more than enough to kill you.

As for games like Bioshock and Mass Effect 2, while there is once again a difficulty option, the overall focus on the gaming is providing a narrative structure to be presented within a video game world. Game play difficulty was secondary to telling a story first. Yeah you didn't have to use medi gel in Mass Effect 2, but you also didn't have to deal with a cumbersome inventory, poor controlling vehicle, bonehead AI, pop in textures, and arguably rough around the edges combat system. The improvements made to the sequel in terms of mechanics far outweigh the difficulty issue.

There will always be games that have an increase in difficulty, but there are always options to make most games harder.

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