As the sun goes down and the curtains close on another day, all seems well in this quiet neighbourhood. Suddenly, the tranquility is shattered by a scream of anguish. Concerned individuals rush to the scene, only to find a young boy, staring grief-stricken at a screen with the words ‘Game Over’ flashing mercilessly in his face.
Hey, games were serious business when I was a kid. It was an unforgiving world, and you could be undone at any moment by the slightest lapse in concentration or a single mistimed action. In fact, the original Prince of Persia game had a 60 minute timer counting down from the moment you started the game. If you hadn’t managed to finish the game in an hour, too bad, you had to start over again. Since saving games wasn’t an option at the time, I had to play the game several times, eventually mastering the lower levels and figuring out how to navigate through the subsequent ones. But the sense of achievement that I felt when finally persevering was a treat.
The irony is that, now that games have become big business, developers are loath to indulge the masochist gaming population. The casual crowd is apparently a bigger market, and you wouldn’t want to scare them off with a challenge, would you? While it may come off as a bit elitist, you can’t deny the truth behind it — you could easily go through the single-player portions of a lot of modern games in one stretch. And even when you get stuck, the game usually chimes in with a hint, like some sort of nanny watching over a kid who’s obstinately trying to stuff a square peg in a round hole.
It’s terrible when I’m playing Bejeweled — get stumped for a few seconds trying to find a combo, and then the computer condescendingly points out a move, with a ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?’, presumably muttering ‘Idiot’ under its breath right after. If things keep developing in this manner, we’re going to get to a point where games play themselves, only occasionally pausing to wait for a key press from the player. This is definitely not a good thing, since player agency is one of the key features that separates gaming from other media, and marginalising this robs the medium of character. Maybe the pendulum has begun to swing the other way, though. There’s been a lot of plaudits for Dark Souls and its predecessor, Demon Souls, and both of them didn’t hold back from pummelling the player. The indie scene is also a great place for tough-as-nails games, with the ubiquitous platformer genre boasting the most entries — Super Meat Boy, the Bit Trip series, Dustforce, Nikujin — you’re not going to be blazing your way through these babies. There was an interesting comment from one of the developers at Starbreeze, where he worried that the four-player co-op for the first-person Syndicate reboot might be a little ‘too difficult’. While that’s probably not too daunting for people who cut their teeth on tactical games like Rainbow Six or SWAT 3, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Maybe soon I can relive the joys of throwing my controller against the wall in frustration. Well, one can hope.