Stop Me Before I Win Again!

I was thinking about Gravity Bone‘s ending again today, and particularly the way it sweeps you down a path of “failure” without giving you a chance. At the end of the game in particular you hit a point at which you have to round a corner, be shot, and thus end the game in “defeat”.

That sensation of being swept along applies every bit as much (and more often) to today’s video games in relation to success. While you often hear complaints about how games are getting too easy these days, it’s interesting to phrase it in terms of a kind of helplessness before one’s own inexorable victory.

I’ve been playing Alan Wake for the last week or so and it very much has that sensation. You run down paths, encounter the bad guys, beat them, and move on. Sometimes the bad guys beat me and I had to restart from a check-point so that I could beat them the next time. Once or twice a boss level was hard enough that I stopped for the evening so that I could return and beat it the next day. The beating was never in question though.

By way of absurd contrast, I started “playing” Kaizo Mario today. So far I think I’ve progressed about three centimeters worth of screen-scrolling. That’s as much as I can do. As much as I was entirely certain of beating Alan Wake I feel pretty sure I’ll never finish Kaizo Mario. I’m not even convinced I can make it past the bit I’m on now. The inevitability of winning Alan Wake (if you try) doesn’t necessarily make it a worse game, but it’s a definite sensation that forms a part of the experience – you’re never cast into doubt and, for that reason, rarely cast into fear in the way the game would like (though I think it has some nice creepiness that had me on edge early in my first playthrough).

This all seems a bit hilarious, given that video games are based at heart on a bedrock of contingency and (as Jesper Juul cleverly put it in a talk last week) a positioning of the player as deficient and thus in need of “making it up” to the game. In fact, the contingency these days (in single player games) is very much an illusion. While I can’t manage to get all the way through Super Punch Out these days, if you sit me in front of a contemporary single-player game the only thing that will put me down for the count is the sheer boredom of plowing through.

Of course, it would likely be too financially daring to produce large-scale games with genuine contingency and doubt and despair. But the indies are the usual ray of hope in these matters.

24 May 2011
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