Thursday, June 23, 2011

Annoyances of the Mainstream - Trials and Tribulations

I generally don't pay attention to mainstream (IGN, Gamespot, et al) game reviews anymore, as I've noticed a disturbing trend in gaming; mainstream reviewers seem to be downscoring games based on increasingly frivolous things. I'm not even talking about a game having strange mechanics, something being off story wise, or something simultaneously loved and feared because of its insurmountable odds akin to a Ninja Gaiden, I'm just talking about complaints about things like challenge that seem to be getting worse as gaming moves into a more casual forum.

It's odd, as I notice reviews from back in the day heavily focused on an overall aura, a combination of graphics, sound, gameplay and overall value. Now, since graphics are at such a high as to be homogenous, it takes truly reprehensible (read: mostly last-gen) visuals to have some sort of visual discrepancy. Since every console practically defaults to multidirectional sound, a game has to have a really questionable score to be noticed outside of our increasingly orchestral norms. But gameplay is more heavily scrutinized than before, with what I feel is a misplaced focus.

Annoying Scrutiny #1 - "Trial-and-Error" in Games

One of the chief complaints of the mainstream reviewer is this, criticizing what is a fundamental aspect of design. Trial-and-error is an aspect of games that is much maligned, and in some cases, with good reason, but it's not something that needs to be eliminated.

Death in games comes often, and sometimes swiftly, but this was something we've always dealt with as gamers. The entire institution of even having "extra lives" was the notion that you would fail, and if you weren't completely up to snuff, there was always a secret code to help out in case of emergency.

These days, our games are littered with savefiles to record progress, checkpoints to cover what the savefiles don't get, and autosaves just in case you manually forgot to save. The challenging aspect has endured to a point, but now there's a ton of concessions to ensure you aren't taxed too hard. Why then does even a game like Limbo, which is literally littered with checkpoints and death spots, get criticized for its difficulty, being called a "trial and error" game with this as a negative aspect?

Trial-and-error in its purest form is a fudamental part of design. Gamers love to be punished (when we aren't, we complain MORE), and part of the discovery element of ANY game is figuring out the limits developers have assigned us. You can't find out if a bed of spikes is dangerous to your avatar without first propelling them onto it, and reacting accordingly, can you? When did this fall by the wayside? Short of putting massive signs everywhere that says "Don't try to do x, or you'll die", there will always be a bit of a trial-and-error aspect to games.

But what happens when a game (unintentionally) parodies a reviewer's desire to eliminate the frustrating aspects of trial-and-error?

You get the 2008 Prince of Persia, which was met with a massive negative backlash, due to its refusal to let a player stare at a "Game Over" screen.

I never saw the difference when people started to complain though. Elika physically pulling you from a ditch is no different to me than appearing a few feet in front of a trap that just killed you in Limbo, or mashing F5 before a particularly difficult part in Half-Life so your life is secure. It's no different than Gears of War constantly covering your ass with autosaves, and it's an amusing point of contention that when a game is lacking some sort of system similar to this, it gets pulled apart. So why complain at all? It sets in motion a needless effort by the developer to accomodate with easier modes that see no use, or a overly simplified design that, as criticisms would label it , "Suffer from a lack of challenge or sense of danger."

So which is it guys? Are the games supposed to be so straightforward that we coast through them without being challenged, or is it only acceptable if the game doesn't make it obvious that their hand is being held? I don't know if there is a right answer. I believe a game's accomodations should only reach as far as the developer allows, but to compromise their vision in some way by removing what has been a cornerstone of design is silly. A game in which you're unable to die is little more than an interactive movie (leading to complaints of unimagination and linearity), and without some sort of risk-reward system to propel a player forward, there's little reason to continue once you've started (or even revisit). My notion is, people looking for the former need to simply watch movies, people looking for the absence of the latter need to question why they're engaged in an interactive challenge in the first place if they aren't expecting to be challenged.

Some of my favorite experiences in gaming were earned after much repetition of seemingly insurmountable odds, and I can't see that changing as long as our minds continue to favor being told we can't accomplish something initially with a robust set of obstacles.

The wide world of the internet takes a reviewer's opinion as gospel at times like this, and while it's nice, I realize we have to be careful. It's easy to forget, but readers are always on top of what we say as soon as we say it. They also take what we say to heart, faux-quoting us like parrots in an effort to sound "professional". Developers pay close attention as well, and shape their next title's aspects in line with our criticisms. If reviewers like the ones I'm mentioning don't watch out, it'll be exactly the predestination paradox their complaints are trying to avoid, and a slew of linear, hand-holding games will be the future. I remember Call of Duty's campaigns being somewhat tactical and open before it became akin to a treadmill with an explosive-filled hot dog on the end.

With a slew of ill-informed criticism favoring easier, more straightforward games, they just may be undercutting the most fun aspect of our medium. Which leads to a better question for the next segment:

Why are they complaining about visuals too?

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