What's in a Game?



If you can walk, you can dance. Or, at least, you can pogo. Dance enthusiasts tell every novice they can learn if they try, and yet, swaying to the rhythm isn’t the endgame of dancing. If you take a ballroom class, say, for six weeks before your wedding, you just get a glimpse of what it leads to, but in the end, you spent a few hours practicing a foxtrot. But go to a ballroom dancing championship and you’ll see years of mastery in every move. Real dancers know the steps cold, combine them in creative ways and change plans on the spur of a moment. And they’re having more fun than you.

On The Escapist blog, Joe Blancato recently asked, “Is dancing more fun when you don’t know the steps?” Sometimes, yes – and sometimes, no. Just as dancers have their learning curve, in gaming, skillful players study combo moves. If you learn how to hit the buttons on the right-hand side of the controller in complicated sequences at exactly the right time, your on-screen character will do something exceptional. In fighting games like Dead or Alive Ultimate, you might trigger a special move, like teabagging your opponent. And many action and RPG games reward you for mixing up A’s and B’s to finish off the enemy. But in those cases, the combos usually feel like “bonus” moves: They help you beat the game, but you don’t absolutely need them.

On the Xbox, Ninja Gaiden stands as one of the console’s most difficult and intricate action titles. It’s unforgiving from the first boss fight to the last – and it’s practically un-winnable unless you learn and use every special move available, from the basic combos like the Izuna Drop or the Windmill Slash, to running up and along walls to fly down and rain blows on your enemies. Just getting to level five of that game ranks as my greatest gaming achievement, and I was playing on “Normal” difficulty; I’ll bet the only people who can beat it on Master Ninja level are ninjas.

Unfortunately, challenging games aren’t in fashion right now. The story-driven, “cinematic” games of today assume the customer won’t get any value from a game if they can’t finish it, and they make it easy for any player to muddle through. Compare Ninja Gaiden to a newer martial arts adventure, Jade Empire. In that game, you can mash a single button through almost any fight, and you only set up a “harmonic combo” if you want to see more blood. Your grandmother could beat Jade Empire in a weekend. And even Ninja Gaiden relented when its 2005 update, Ninja Gaiden Black, added a simpler “Ninja Dog” mode to help struggling players get to the end.

But who gave us the right to finish a game? The makers of story-driven titles think watching the final scene is the reason you play. But not every dancer gets to enjoy the Viennese waltz, and not every gamer gets to beat Ninja Gaiden. Mastering the controls, and especially those game-specific combo moves, is the goal; winning the game means you’ve learned them well enough to get confounded, frustrated, then satisfied and, finally, rewarded by the pleasure of doing something well. Anyone can play a game – but challenging games encourage us to play well.

Chris Dahlen is a freelance writer for Pitchforkmedia.com, the Boston Phoenix, Signal to Noise, Paste, and The Wire (New Hampshire). His website is Save The Robot.

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