Are mainstream-oriented games too stupidly easy for their own good?
The very mention of this question makes me sound like a snooty old codger, who knows beyond all doubt that gaming is not as challenging and admirable a pastime as it used to be.
“Waypoint markers? Bah! In my day, you had to FIND the objectives without a dirty great arrow stuck in the middle of your heads-up display! I spit on your waypoints, sir! And what is all this business about being able to save your game at any time you choose, hmm…?”
You get the general idea.
The question of whether modern gaming is built for idiots is posed here not because I’m condescendingly scrutinising the shortcomings of a younger generation, rather because I’m worried that all gamers across all generations – myself included – are gradually becoming too reliant on hand-holding bullshit.
Tutorials are one thing. I view them much the same way as I view suppositories; a sometimes necessary evil. No, this is about gameplay mechanics that permeate not just the beginning but the entirety of the gaming experience. Waypoint markers, modes or powers that let us see enemies through walls, guiding arrows, and step-by-step objectives that effectively ‘walk’ players through a complex open level. Stuff like that.
Let me explain. As much as I try to expand my gaming repertoire and keep tabs on all the emerging classics, I haven’t played EVERY gaming franchise out there. Some stuff I just happened to play years after it gained critical acclaim. Final Fantasy VII was one such title. Half Life was another. Both were relatively easy to pick up and get into gameplay-wise, because the humble JRPG and FPS frameworks haven’t been altered all that much since the 1990′s.
Then there are the groundbreaking titles, the ones that changed the way we thought about gameplay.
My brother is a huge fan of the Hitman series, or rather Hitman as it used to be. He played through Hitman: Codename 47 several times back when it was current. I was more into Thief as a stealth series, so it was only in the last couple of months that I downloaded the Hitman: HD Trilogy with the intent of playing the first couple of games from beginning to end.
At first all went well. A few missions down and it was time to take out the big leader of a Chinese Triad gang on his home turf – a mission, I should point out, that my brother described as “piss easy”.
…I couldn’t do it.
I spent a solid three and a half hours in that level, exploring, trying to get to grips with what I could and couldn’t get away with, and at every goddamned turn it felt like the AI was unjustly undermining me. In no less than eight separate attempts poor old Agent 47 was made to look like a proper wally, shot to death while dressed in all manner of disguises.
I yearned for the concentric objective structures of modern times, where everything is laid out nice and simply for players to achieve success, but Hitman: Codename 47 is a game in which you can do almost anything you want to in order to reach and eliminate your target. No hand-holding to be found here.
When I talked to my brother again, his reaction was contemptuous to say the least. “If you’re having that much trouble in that level, you’re not going to enjoy what’s coming after it.” he told me.
OK, perhaps I just wasn’t keyed into the hardened contract killer mentality that Hitman required. I tried playing Hitman: Absolution on a whim and was surprised to find that it was a much kinder experience than my time with Codename 47 had been… but something had been lost in the evolutionary process. I didn’t feel like the game was challenging my brain enough and spotting enemies was far too easy with 47′s ‘instinct mode’. It was less subtle, more action-oriented, and dumbed-down compared to the earlier games.
I will finish Hitman: Codename 47 at some point. In spite of the setbacks I really like the way it does things. Hitman: Absolution is staying on the shelf, though.
Another example of this kind of gameplay retardation that I’ve been more acutely aware of is in the Tomb Raider franchise.
I’ve been playing as Lara Croft since she made an entrance on the Sega Saturn back in the mid-90′s. While I’ve not played every single Tomb Raider game I’ve played enough to know that puzzles used to be the focal point, while action sequences and climbing pushed players between sections. Tomb Raider Anniversary was a gorgeous revelation for me; I lapped up the evolved puzzles and set pieces. Tomb Raider: Underworld – while nothing to write home about – retained that key aspect of encouraging the use of players’ brains.
Then Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot arrived. Entertaining, cover-shooting, action sequenced, QTE button-mashing nonsense, where Lara Croft was reduced to Marcus Fenix with tits…larger tits, and a jump button. Wait a minute, didn’t she have an ‘instinct mode’ that revealed enemies and hidden objects, too? Oh no, wait, that was ‘survival instinct’. Same shit, different name.
This is the kind of thing that really aggravates me when I look critically at games, particularly triple-A releases, because developers no longer seem interested in crafting a challenging, engaging experience. They’re interested in making something that will sell in big numbers. Recently the best way they think they can do this is to relaunch a recognised genre brand for the mainstream gaming crowd. Watered-down gameplay mechanics compensate for what’s perceived as the player’s unwillingness to invest time, while the knobs are turned up on swearing and violence. It’s gaming for idiots rather than for the core fans who made those franchises what they are today.
I’ve got some pretty big reservations about Eidos Montreal’s upcoming Thief game, especially now that they’ve revealed a major gameplay component is main character Garrett’s ‘focus’ ability that lights up points of interest in the game environment. Also, there are supposedly navigation beacons to show players where to go. Why, Eidos Montreal? WHY?
Players don’t need to be explicitly directed towards things in games; they should be allowed to explore, to find their own way to completing levels, and to make mistakes. This was actually one of my biggest gripes with Arkane Studio’s Dishonored, with players being shown via a magic compass device where all the powerful goodies were.
Sure, it can be frustrating when you’ve got no defined guidelines to help out, but the sense of accomplishment you get when you finally beat a difficult mission, or find hidden rewards, is beyond phenomenal. Games should be designed to increase gamers’ intellect and problem-solving abilities, to encourage an inquisitive state of mind, instead of letting our brains go to waste.
So I suppose this is me announcing that gameplay retardation should come to an end, or at the very least be mitigated, and that gamers should get back to applying themselves just a little bit more if they want to win.