Sometimes you just want to play by the rules. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, as I continue to peck around in Sins of a Solar Empire, playing through tutorials to reacquaint myself with its particularly unique (and particularly complex) brand of gameplay.
I was inspired to return to the game by the sight of Dungeon Masters, dice and character sheets at New York Comic Con a few weeks ago. These plastic and paper menageries are, in their own way, precious, like the tiny Victorian Villages people painstakingly assemble every Christmas. But mostly I was inspired by the rules. I flipped through dense books of lifestyle-defining conditions and even watched a man explain an online card game, a kind of Japanese version of Magic: The Gathering, to an attendee for 20 minutes. And then there was the videogame area, which illustrated with booming audio and high-definition screens the growing schism between people who play by rules and those looking for something different.
We are a shrinking majority and a growing niche, those of us obsessed with gameplay systems and complex rules. Bottomless inventories and piles of menus have been replaced by characters who can only carry two weapons at a time and whose physical appearances indicate their health. Where videogame manuals once made excellent bathroom reading material, games are now accompanied by black-and-white pamphlets whose best advice is to use the in-game tutorial.
This is, after all, the way it should be. Who wants to read about how many hit points it takes to kill a dragon when you can just ignite your flaming sword with one button and swing it with another in a spectacular display of cause and effect? Quite a few of us, I imagine, but not enough to outweigh those for whom these exposed machinations mean nothing. This isn’t about the hardcore versus the casual; it’s about a changing of the guard among enthusiasts.
Older games showed us the man behind the curtain because they had no choice. There is an entire epoch of gaming history devoted to the transition from D&D rulebooks to on-screen immersion. Dragon Warrior and Might and Magic are games of menus, text and little illustrations by design – their great innovation was giving the Dungeon Master a break and hinting at a visual interpretation of a fantasy world. And with time, we’ve grown fond of these limitations. We dearly love the random battles that have us select an action instead of just doing it, and the fold-out tech trees allowing us to chart our progress like a project manager overseeing the construction of the world. Etrian Odyssey, a roleplaying game for the DS, takes this nostalgia even further. Its central conceit is that you must use the touch screen to make accurate and carefully labeled maps of the dungeons you explore in order to succeed – and homage to the painstaking maps people created for D&D campaigns.
Of course none of that matters anymore. Nothing you can draw by hand will be better or more accurate than the three-dimensional HD map in the corner of the screen. Map making isn’t the skill; map reading is the skill. Take Metroid Prime, whose maps are fantastic wireframe images that require the player to think in three dimensions to understand them. These maps don’t just give players the lay of the land – they show details like the approximate heights of entrances and exits in a room.
This changing approach to in-game maps points to a larger generational difference.. The language hardcore games once spoke, a combination of roughly animated illustrations, text and numbers has been replaced by an entirely visual one that is no less complicated. The days of explicit controls, when each individual key corresponded to a single action are gone. These days, everything is context sensitive: Being near a wall and pressing one button will draw you up against it, while being near a car and pressing the same button will open the door. The complex visual cues that signify these actions are about as intuitive for the uninitiated as sitting down in front of 26 hot keys.
Metal Gear Solid 4 typifies how differently hardcore gamers now looks at games. It’s one of the most complicated games I’ve played in a long time. You sit and watch human behaviors, waiting for a yawn to indicate you can walk past or an inquisitive turn of a guard’s head to halt your progress. Camouflage requires serious attention to your surroundings at all times, and you can extensively modify any of the numerous firearms available in the game. Controlling Snake and understanding the proper contexts in which to use his talents is not easy, and it’s largely all done through visual cues. Sins of a Solar Empire and Metal Gear Solid 4 are not as different as some might think.
It’s interesting to watch game companies struggling to deal with this division in hardcore gamers. Dragon Quest IX was originally going to have action battles, but they were eventually shelved for fear of how the fan base would react to this radical departure. Still, the developer realized that turn-based battles just don’t hold the relevance they once did. It’s likely that BioWare came to a similar realization in the transition from Knights of the Old Republic to Mass Effect. KOTOR was a turn-based game; the player was still, for all intents and purposes, rolling the dice and then watching the outcome. Mass Effect provides a much more interactive experience with an eye toward a new generation of gamer. You run and take cover, and when you fire the camera zooms in over your shoulder, not unlike that other thrill ride of this generation, Gears of War.
The gap between the old and the new isn’t impossible to bridge, however. Games like World of Warcraft show how designers are actively addressing this split. A player can talk about WoW on two fundamental levels: in terms of aggro and DPS, or in the lighter terms of interesting areas and cool looking loot. It’s an extremely visual game that ropes players in with fantastic settings and interesting quests. And that’s enough for the more casual players. (It’s certainly enough for me, anyway.) But there’s a much deeper level to this game, a level that speaks to the stat and rule lovers among us. It doesn’t overwhelm a game made up of easy to understand icons, but it’s there and it subtly works to make rule lovers of us all.
I like to think that games will always come with fold-up maps, that the damage my sword does will always be quantifiable. But I’m also glad I can whack my way through groups of enemies without the menu-based attacks and delayed animations of the past. So I’ll finish slowly playing through the Sins of a Solar Empire tutorials, enamored with their complexity but quietly happy that, as beautiful as its game manual might have been a decade earlier, I can learn these lessons as I play.
Tom Endo’s room is wallpapered with tech trees.