When I game, I’m there for the content, not bragging rights. I want to look at the scenery, discover the story, hear the dialog, and see all the bad guys. Sometimes I’m playing an RPG or a first-person shooter and I take the gameplay very seriously. If I like a game enough, I’ll gradually ratchet the difficulty all the way up during subsequent play-throughs. Other times, I just want to soak up the content and move on with as little hassle as possible. If I’m playing a platformer or fighting game, I want to put it on the easiest difficulty possible and roll through the game tourist-style.
At least, this is how I used to game. It’s become increasingly difficult to be a tourist over the last decade or so. The once-ubiquitous cheat codes have been all but abandoned. On the exceptionally rare circumstances where games still have cheats, they usually do something un-helpful like unlock a new hat for you to wear while you’re getting your ass kicked. Or if there are cheats that make the game easier, you have to earn them by beating the game first. Which sort of defeats the purpose of having them in the first place.
Difficulty selectors have become less useful as well. In the old days Quake, Wolfenstein, and Doom had four or five levels of challenge in addition to functioning cheat codes, and the lowest difficulty really was pretty easy. A completely new player could pick “easy” and roll through the game with only a few deaths. Today I’m noticing most games just have “normal” and “hard,” where “normal” means “the average experienced gamer who is good at this genre of games,” and “hard” means, “we dare you.”
I don’t see any rationale for this. Certainly making the game frictionless would be a great insurance policy against a flop. Just about all A-list games have something worth seeing in them, but they’re not all worth taking the time to learn to play well. I’ve got Velvet Assassin right here. Some of the locations are quite striking and while I know the plot is purportedly a bit bland, I’d still like to roll through and see it all. But there are no cheats. No easy mode. If I want to see the endgame, I’d actually have to endure the stiff trial-and-error stealth gameplay. I’d have to take the time to master the game, and I just don’t care that much. (And no, watching the play-through on YouTube isn’t nearly as satisfying, for the same reason that your slideshow of Paris isn’t nearly as exciting to me as actually visiting Paris.)
I’ve overlooked a lot of games over the past couple of years because of this. Once in a while a modest underachiever of a game will land in the bargain bin. For $20, I’ll buy just about anything. It’s a magic price point that shorts out my ability to make wise decisions. I’ll have the game in hand, ready to buy. Then I’ll worry about how much hassle the game is going to give me if I decide I just want to stroll through. Eventually I’ll put the game back, remembering all those other times some mediocre game put up too high of a wall around the mid-game and I gave up on it.
Everyone has a different play style they like. I had a friend who enjoyed playing first-person shooters by using cheats to give himself all weapons and infinite health, and then exploding every single foe in the game with the rocket launcher. That would completely ruin the game for me, to the point where it would hurt to watch someone else play that way. But I’d love to turn on similar cheats in a fighting game and pummel the bad guys with impunity. I don’t know why. It’s just fun for me. Or it would be, if modern games gave me the option.
Yahtzee alluded to a moment in ‘Splosion Man when the sheer difficulty and frustration of the game drove him to keep trying to beat it. I remember approaching games the same way when I was younger, but unlike Yahtzee I never enjoyed overcoming them all that much. Looking back, I see those times as a low point in the hobby for me. Now that I have more than a couple of decades of gaming under my belt, I can revisit my prized memories and see that the moments when gaming really made me happy weren’t the ones where I plowed through some murderously overbearing challenge to reach the finish line. I don’t cherish the times I got stuck for two hours on a boss fight or spent the better part of an hour repeatedly attempting a tricky series of jumps.
I loved the atmosphere of Fallout, the grace of movement in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the setting of Max Payne, and the scenery in Jade Empire. I love the characters in KOTOR, the dialog and acting in Grand Theft Auto 4, the tension of Thief, and the hilarity of Evil Genius. Certainly the games needed to push back in order to work as a game, but how much they pushed back didn’t have a lot to do with how much I enjoyed them in the long run. The important thing isn’t to appeal to “hardcore” or “casual” layers, but to just let players go through however they like. Even if that means they can hit a win button.
The designer sees nothing wrong with insisting a certain level of skill and proficiency from players before they’re allowed to see the game. This is like insisting people pass a real driving exam before letting them ride the bumper cars. Wasn’t this supposed to be about having fun?