Life, The Universe, And Gaming — It’s Complicated
Complexity and difficulty.
Two huge aspects of gaming that many have argued, no longer exist in gaming.
Everything’s simplified now, easier, more accessible. A first-time gamer could pick up and play most games, and not have much trouble in doing so. A far cry from previous times when even those who’ve played a game for hours on end still had a lot to learn. When you had to endure hours of frustration before you could rightly call yourself a game’s master.
Or so the common consensus goes…
Allow me to let you in on a little secret: Games are still complex and difficult, they’re just complex and difficult in a different way.
The topic for today’s column came about first in a discussion with friends about the Pokémon games, and then while playing The Witcher 2 — for which a review should be out shortly, I promise. Sorry it’s so delayed.
On the Pokémon side, we discussed the existence of what’s called “Effort Values” or EVs for short (not to be confused with the evolution Pokémon Eevee), which basically took the otherwise seemingly child-like Pokémon games and turned them into something truly complex and challenging, when you factored in such things as EVs and breeding techniques. At face value, a Pokémon has a certain moves-set, stats and nature. However if you’re inclined to doing so, usually for the sake of having not just all Pokémon but the perfect versions of each, through breeding you could teach certain Pokémon moves that they would otherwise be entirely unable to learn (such as a Charizard with Thunderbolt) and furthermore, you could boost its stats to the point that it becomes the super-saiyan equivalent of its usual version.
Explaining EVs and breeding techniques isn’t really the point of this column so if you’d like to find out more, by all means check out the links. The point with the Pokémon games is that at face value it seems like the simplest thing on Earth, or whatever region your game is based (Kanto ftw?), in that you simply set out on an adventure, defy all common sense and as a youth, somehow make your way across the land collecting Pokémon and winning battles until you’re strong enough to become the area’s champion, then you proceed to collect all the other Pokémon you’ve missed on your way to the top. That’s the premise, more or less. But the real complexity lies in training your Pokémon and having the best, something that takes the complexity level of the game and shoots it through the roof.
I can’t even explain how much of calculation and forward thinking is required in order to have the perfect Pokémon.
On that note, let’s take another example of a game many call “easy” because it pretty much is. Except it isn’t.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a game that Jim Sterling himself defended in a Jimquisition episode a while back, stating that while it is easy to navigate and complete in terms of level structure, it is one of the most difficult games to exist in terms of acquiring all the stars in each level and effectively achieving high scores throughout the game.
That actually reminded me of the Guitar Hero games where it’s pretty easy to get into and you could play every song on Easy and enjoy yourself, living in a bubble of comfort where a missed note means nothing. Or you could challenge yourself by bumping up the difficulty, playing a more edgy version of a song you’ve already played on a lower difficulty, finding out what you’re capable of and then doing it again until you finally hit the Expert difficulty and it suddenly becomes not a story of song completion and survival, but of five-starring every song and setting high scores on leaderboards, because survival is no longer an issue any more.
The second game I mentioned was The Witcher 2, or The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition as it is officially known, with the Xbox 360 release. Geez, imagine filling that out on a block-celled form… No, I don’t know why one would. Perhaps they tried to marry it because of what an awesome game it is?
The Witcher 2 is all about complexity and difficulty, in the more classical way at times but also in a more modern style as well. To begin with, the game is brutally difficult — or at least it was on PC, as I recall — and forced you to think before rushing into battles. Every battle required preparation and the game refused to allow you to drink potions on-the-fly, forcing you to quite literally take a moment to drink the potions when you were otherwise able, meaning not while some enemy is pointing the sharp end of their weapon at your face. Not a sexual reference.
The game also had an inventory, journal and character screen that quite honestly, took forever to get used to because of how seemingly cluttered and all-over-the-place it was, at least, until you figured all of it out and realised that it was actually done very nicely. To the point that you miss that level of complexity in other games.
What’s become extremely apparent to me is that in recent years, game design has moved away from being explicitly difficult and complex, rather offering a more implicit means of conveying said difficulty and complexity.
Consider higher difficulties in games. Sure it was difficult playing Castlevania on the normal difficulty, but have you tried Castlevania: Lords of Shadow on the hardest difficulty setting? It’s rather formidable as well. Other games, granted, not so much; I finished Darksiders the first time out on the hardest difficulty without breaking a sweat, however that game had more tools and weapons than trees have branches so there you go, some complexity.
Look at the recent Batman games and the amount of gadgets the dark knight carries around, while trying his hardest not to break into tears at the thought of his lost parents. Again, complexity. The game isn’t hard by any means, but you try getting all three medals in all of those combat or predator challenges. Spoiler alert: I did it.
Look at the things you were made to do in Portal 2, a game I hold dear to my heart. Were some of those puzzles not frustratingly difficult? Did you not also wonder what on Earth you were meant to do with a certain puzzle involving three turrets blocked by a screen, with a blue goo dispenser nearby? A year later and I still remember that. It wasn’t difficult in your typical sense; no enemies were insta-pwning you, you only ever had your portal gun to defend yourself in any case. Yet there was difficulty present in solving the puzzles that were thrown at you.
Yes, there are explicit examples of difficulty and complexity as well; one needs look no further than the Demon Souls and Dark Souls games for examples of pure difficulty where you get hit and die and reload and repeat, for hours. No doubt, that’s still around.
The point however, is that games have evolved. They’ve changed. And yes, we love to resist change because we’re either afraid of it or apprehensive but change, unfortunately, is inevitable and eventually when we’re accustomed to it, as is human nature, we will resist the next bout of change as well.
The implicit nature of complexity and difficulty in games today betrays the explicit portrayals of previous years in that they’re no longer entirely visible at face value. Kind of the point of calling it implicit, but also referring to the fact that games just don’t throw those aspects at you. Is this a good thing?
Very much so.
You see, and again we factor in this current hot-topic of newcomers to gaming, the games we play today are easy enough that you could simply play them and enjoy them. Yes, there are exceptions to this, such as Dark Souls and The Witcher 2, but for the most part you get games that seem easy enough and can be completed with minimal hassle. The challenge of the game is then left on the player. The onus is on you gamers then, to derive your difficulty.
Why simply tap the combo buttons in Batman, when you could throw in a gadget or two for extra score in challenge maps? Why simply play on Easy when you could try out Medium, then Hard, then Expert in Guitar Hero? Why simply Why simply collect Pokémon when you can train them to be the best (like no one ever was)? Why simply walk to the nearby mall when you can try Mordor?
One does not simply play difficult games any more.
Gaming in the current generation is complicated. It’s time to get with it and rather than complaining that it’s no longer the brutally difficult experience you remember from way back when, find the challenge and difficulty for yourself.
Unlock Achievements. Increment your GamerScore.
Spoon-fed difficulty is so last decade.