The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

The Marines in the original Half-Life are the classic example of a challenging enemy and, with the possible exception of the Replicant soldiers in FEAR, have never really been superseded. What made them such outstanding enemies was the fact that they were hell to defeat while remaining entirely fair. After all, the Marines were effective because they used the same weapons and tactics that players were used to exploiting. They tossed grenades to flush you out of cover, they unleashed nonstop gunfire when you came within sight, they ran for cover when they were exposed, and they tried to find good flanking positions where they could trap and kill you.

Unlike the zombies and aliens you encountered earlier in the game, you could not march up to these guys and shotgun them at close range, nor could you simply pick them off from a moderate distance. You had to actually fight, burning up ammo just to hold them at bay, maneuvering the moment your position was compromised, and listening closely for the sound of a frag grenade bouncing at your feet. You had to improve your twitch-shooter skills, but also start thinking like a tactician. However, “twitchier” players could lean on those skills and power through the ambushes, while slower, more thoughtful players could make up for lagging reflexes with a good plan and smart use of the available tools. There was more than one way to handle the Marines, and between the three difficulty levels, anyone could get past them with a little effort. Better still, making the effort was actually enjoyable.

Valve left enough room for players to find an approach that worked for them. Also, the Marines were not so overpowering that a single slip-up would result in instant death. Players had a fair chance in almost each and every encounter. It was the kind of challenge that was fun to encounter and rewarding to overcome.

It’s difficult to choose a single example of frustrating, challenge-free difficulty from all the choics that bad shooter design has given us. However, since it is cloudy and rainy outside my upper-story window, I find myself thinking about Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and its ghastly “Sniper Town” level.

The sniper level was inspired by the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the squad is ambushed by a German sniper in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. The American sniper engages the German in a brief duel, and unforgettably shoots the German through his scope. The scene was so good that the MOH:AA team made an entire level out of it, but what worked as a ten-minute movie sequence was utterly excruciating as an hour-long shooter level.

In the sniper level, you are given a scoped rifle and have to travel through a French town that’s been infested by enemy snipers. There’s probably about 20 of them, all hanging out along your route just waiting to shoot you. Unfortunately, there’s no way to locate them until they’ve already taken a shot. Since you are the only person they’re going to be shooting at, this means that you have draw their fire. However, they can also kill you in one shot.

So what the player has to do is lean on the quicksave / quickload buttons. You shuffle along for a few steps until you hear a rifle shot and fall down dead. Then you reload, take the same few steps, and get killed again. But this time you think you saw where the sniper was. Reload. Die again. Yep, he was definitely hiding in that attic. Reload. Look through your scope and train it roughly where the sniper will be. Step sideways out of cover, duck back in just before you get shot. Now you know exactly where he will be when you step out of cover again. Step out, shoot as the crosshairs glide over him, and you’ve defeated the sniper.

Now repeat twenty times.

There’s no skill involved. The enemy snipers always see you first and kill you before you’re aware they are there. So you just repeat until you’ve memorized where they will appear. You aren’t improving and you aren’t being clever. You’re just taking advantage of the save / reload feature to overcome a roadblock the designers put in front of you. It’s not there to challenge you, because there are no tactics or skills that can see you through. There is only rote memorization.

Bad adventure game puzzles are similar in that they are wholly illogical even by the genre’s wacky standards. Gabriel Knight needs to create a fake mustache out of cat hair and maple syrup in order to disguise himself as a man who actually does not have a mustache in order to fool a moped rental clerk? No gamer is ever going to deduce that this is the correct course of action, so all this puzzle wants from players is their endless patience as they flail at item and object combinations until they begin making progress.

The bottom line is that a game can be tough as hell, but all is forgiven provided it remains stimulating and doesn’t make players feel like they it is rigged against them. The Myth series was savage on its highest difficult levels, reducing me to a sense of despair on more than one occasion, but I always had the sense that if I was just a little better with my formation management, and if I just found a slightly better piece of terrain to defend, I could get through it. To the game’s credit, I always could.

Is Passivity Ever Good?

Lewis Pulsipher would still consider these games self-defeatingly challenging. By his reasoning, the notion that games should challenge players, should actually demand something of them, is outmoded. The sooner we hurl that notion overboard, the sooner games can become as big a medium as they deserve to be.

After all, he writes, “Viewers of movies, which are passive experiences, are rarely challenged.” The same cultural and commercial ubiquity is within gaming’s reach, if only they stop being so damned challenging and embrace the non-gamers who find games too frustrating to play.

I must be watching movies incorrectly, or perhaps I am just watching the wrong ones. While movies are passive insofar as I do not have to do anything in order to get through to the end, my mental engagement with movies is quite active. I contemplate characters, judge performances, notice shot composition and editing, and identify cinematic influences. If I cannot engage with a movie on most or any of these levels, it’s probably a crap movie.

Furthermore, anyone who actually likes movies (rather than the revenue figures that have such a mesmerizing effect on Pulsipher) would argue that movies can be and frequently are challenging. It is painful to watch the series of misunderstandings and the bone-deep desire for vengeance that culminate in a tragic killing in Mystic River. Watch Dave Boyle beg for his life and try to explain the truth through a psychosis that has finally broken him. Watch how Jimmy Markum reveals that he is past caring, and that he will forever be settling scores with a world that keeps taking from him. That’s powerful, challenging filmmaking, and it’s why film is a great medium. No one is ever going to point to Terminator Salvation as a reason why he watches movies.

Pulsipher doesn’t really care, though. His attitude is that big, dumb movies like Terminator Salvation make a lot of money, therefore they are a role model. Games should also be big, dumb, and easy so that the same people who love watching battling robots will play videogames. You cannot argue with commercial success.

On the other hand, as a gamer and a cinephile, I’m at a loss as to why I should care. As long as Pulsipher was looking to Roger Ebert for insight into the nature of entertainment, he would have done well to read what Ebert had to say about the arguments people made in defense of Transformers 2:

Do I ever have one of those days when, the hell with it, all I want to do is eat popcorn and watch explosions? I haven’t had one of those days for a long time. There are too many other films to see. I’ve had experiences at the movies so rich, so deep–and yes, so funny and exciting–that I don’t want to water the soup. I went to “Transformers” with an open mind (I gave a passing grade to the first one). But if I despised the film and it goes on to break box office records, will I care? No. I’ll hope however that everyone who paid for a ticket thought they had a good time, because it was their time and their money.

The opening grosses are a tribute to a marketing campaign, not to a movie no one had seen. If two studios spend a ton of money on a film, scare away the competition, and open in 4,234 theaters before the Fourth of July, of course they do blockbuster business. The test is: Does the film have legs?

Pulsipher’s argument might provide a roadmap to more lucrative games, but it has absolutely no relevance to anyone interested in better games. Pulsipher conflates them and is careful to present a dismissive, inaccurate view of what gamers get out of challenging games, but the bottom line is that he cares about audience share and not quality.

concludes with Part 3

  1. No comments yet.

  1. No trackbacks yet.