How is this a game?


— 5:24 PM on January 26, 2009

I checked dictionary.com before starting this blog post to make sure my definition of "game" was correct, but apparently, a game is just "an amusement or pastime." So congratulations to Prey, Mario is Missing, and the new Prince of Persia. You are, technically, games. I don't agree, but at least you've got a dictionary on your side.

I remember when Mario is Missing came out on the Super NES (I was in junior high, so I'm dating myself a bit). One of the biggest points of ridicule for the game was that you couldn't lose. It just couldn't happen. You pretty much just followed the "game" along its set path until it concluded. This was around the time we were getting our asses handed to us in the Mega Man X games and, especially in my case, repeatedly loading Gradius III for that extra dose of humility, so a game that was impossible to lose just seemed, well, stupid.

Flash forward to the past few years, and we've had titles like BioShock, Prey, and Prince of Persia take the sting out of losing. BioShock's Vita-Chamber system didn't bother me that much, because it still meant dragging my wrench back to wherever the Big Daddy elected to wander. However, it ticked off my girlfriend and obviously a number of other people, and the option to disable the chambers eventually materialized in an official patch. At least someone at 2K Games learned a valuable lesson there.

My major disappointment was Prey. The Spirit World mechanic broke that game completely—worse than, say, how Knights of the Round broke the classic Final Fantasy VII, because you could still lose that game if you were a complete mouth-breathing moron. Dying in Prey just meant going to the blue world for a little while, then coming back exactly where you were when you died. You could shoot the flying things in the spirit world for bonus health or what have you, but it didn't really matter, because dying was just sort of a formality in that game and not of any actual consequence.

Unfortunately, once I realized I could stand in a room full of enemies, not shoot anything, leave, and come back to the game in a half hour and still be more or less in the same place, I got decidedly sloppy. What's the worst that could happen? I go to the Spirit World a couple more times? Oh noes! Not that! I essentially stopped caring entirely, which is a shame, because although the weapon design was just a little too esoteric for its own good, the environments in Prey were pretty incredible. I spent the rest of the game looking at the pretty architecture and periodically killing bosses with the wrench. The actual thrill of playing was pretty much gone.

I confess I haven't picked up the new Prince of Persia. I've heard mixed things about it, but I have zero interest in a game I can't lose. If Elika is just going to bail me out of every situation, why am I even playing? If it's just to wander around a beautifully rendered world, I'm sorry, I'll just go watch a movie. The Pang Brothers film Re-Cycle is available on Blu-ray, and it's not going to trouble me with the formality of pressing buttons just to see the cool stuff.

I can appreciate that game designers have grandiose cinematic visions for their games and want us just to experience them. Every nascent art form has been defined by what came before it, just like how film was defined by photographs and plays, and photographs were defined by paintings. It just so happens that video games are being defined by film, and that's fine—great even—because it produces brilliant works of art like Mass Effect and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The problem comes when designers seem to forget their end of the bargain: that they have to produce a game that rewards the player for doing well and punishes him for poor performance. With something like Prey, I wonder why they even bothered making it a game.

One of the justifications for this "no death" design is that dying just breaks the flow of the game, and the player is just going to load an auto-save or what have you. To that, I have two responses: first, I was a big fan of the checkpoint system employed in Far Cry and the Rainbow Six: Vegas series, because it forced you to make it through on the game's terms while simultaneously cleaning up any kind of auto-save, auto-load business. Second, the frustration of being delayed, of having to get back to where you were when you died, is a punishment for failure. It makes the game a game. Do well and you get to advance. Fail and you get to stay where you are until you figure things out.

The auto-save system works just fine, anyhow. My first run through Mass Effect involved lots of retries, and on repeat plays, I remembered where the more difficult encounters were so I could save in advance and experiment with ways to pass them successfully. When I finally did clear a room or kill that last Geth Sniper, I got a feeling of actual accomplishment. The game wasn't holding my hand; I had to figure it out and make it through myself. If I had just re-materialized exactly where I was before with barely a skip in my step, how much skill would advancing really have required? I'm not good; I'm just persistent.

I wrote this blog post because I wanted to articulate the importance of losing a game and the role that simple, time-honored game mechanics like saving and loading—be they off a function key or off a save point—have in maintaining balance and keeping a game from getting too easy. If I'm playing a game that thinks so little of me as a player that it has to keep me from dying, what's the point?

   
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