Glutton for (Gaming) Punishment

After finishing Chrono Trigger, my DS once again nervously placed itself in my hands as I powered on to play Castlevania: Order of the Ecclesia. I’ll make an admission here, the fondest memories I have of early gaming were on the PC; this is why I remain a PC gamer to this day. As such, Mega Man was never played, Battle Toads saw an occasional play with friends, and other such games that required memorizing a boss’s patterns? I’m sure I played them–they just don’t stand out to me.

The reason being that I don’t particularly enjoy it, even though I enjoy many of the other aspects of the game. The past three Castlevania DS titles have intrigued me because they are often enjoyable leveling and collecting while on the go, something that won’t lose me too much in the moment. The boss battles, though? The boss battles were difficult. Hellaciously so.

There’s now talk of the level of difficulty bandying about the gaming blogosphere again (to give you a smattering of my thinking from hereforth, acknowledgments given to N’Gai Croal, Noble Carrots, Groping the Elephant, The Brainy Gamer, and Experience Points).

What occurred to me while playing this game is that we have trained ourselves into expectations of what a videogame should be as much, or moreso, than the outside world has crafted expectations of what art may be, and how videogames fail in that realm currently.

We battle through hordes of minions of some sort in order to fight a boss, while using abilities to get there. We could start mapping out games by a plot diagram. You know: exposition (character and what you do or do not know about abilities), rising action (acquisition of levels or abilities), climax (learning how to use this to your advantage), falling action (use it to progress anew), denoument (defeat a boss with what was acquired). Rinse, repeat.

This diagram is fairly standard because things naturally fall into this pattern. In videogames this means it’s an attention-seeking Chekhov’s gun. For the most part, we’re fine with this pattern.

We also expect death of our protagonist if we fail to use this correctly. We’ve become a strange form of sadomasochism, whereby we request punishment for our failures to be visited upon our avatars and on our time and patience (some of us, at least).

The other game which I recently started again was Bioshock. Another confession, while I was told within the first few seconds of leaving the bathysphere for the first time that a Vita-chamber would revive me if I happened to lose all my health, I promptly forgot about this function and played the game as if these were just a rather pretty tube in an environment of tubes. This meant that instead of knowing what happens when my health falls to nil, I would just hit escape and reload once it was clear I could not leave the fight alive.

This means that when I heard people complaining about the teeth being removed from Bioshock’s difficulty, I was actually confused. What did they mean? It’s a matter of perception.

What does death symbolize in a game? Failure. What does reloading in a Vita-chamber symbolize? Not failure, apparently. Except, you did fail, but the visual is in many ways different. The main difference here seems to be one of what we expect from our failure. Again, sadomasochists.

For me? The failure itself has bred a habit of reloading a game when failure is imminent, not wanting to deal with a death scene which is often uninspired at best and aggravatingly long at worst (unless we’re discussing Sierra adventure games).

In fact, my first discussion with a friend concerning Order of the Ecclesia was how frustratingly hard it could be at certain points. This is why I had no problems leaving it to spend many hours delving into Chrono Trigger. I finished the game, but there were many moments where I’m glad that I have control over my temper, as my poor DS may have been thrown somewhere in absolute frustration.

In fact, this may be one of the best features I have yet to use in Rock Band 2: no fail option. Even I have bought into this idea of punishing myself for incorrectly enjoying the game.

Here’s the thing, and for what N’Gai Croal called, we need these options. I don’t typically play games on any difficulty but normal, Diablo II and Titan Quest being the exceptions among this rule (and I never play hardcore mode in the former). However, toggling what death means and what it can provide us the gamer seems what we may need to explore.

Is there a medium ground between failure-but-not-failure and failure-as-failure? Rather than perhaps just having text pop up on screen telling us how to perform whatever technique or sending us into the game time and time again, is there something more useful that can be provided in game? What do you do with the diagram when it’s broken off at some point?

Here’s a further problem. Failure is a very easy way to give a sense of agency and interaction to a player. If interactivity is what defines games from novels, poems, films, music, and all other art forms, failure can be a quick way to make this knowledgeable. Games are bounded by rules; failing to follow the rules, even the more exacting, detailed ones which we come across in games (reach 0 health and die), is a staple of games in general. We can fail to understand a play, but we can still see it to its conclusion.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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2 Responses to Glutton for (Gaming) Punishment

  1. I’ve found it interesting how much the mentality of games still seems locked in the arcade era; the die-retry-die cycle.We seem to subconsciously approach all games expecting a similar experience and when we don’t get it we can feel cheated somehow. The game is too easy, or dumbed down.I never really played many arcade games growing up but even I seem to have picked up this particular preconception.What is interesting is that one of the most successful games to not use this system is never criticised for being “too easy”. The Grand Theft Auto games never explicitly kill the player, the worse than can happen is that you’ll fail your current mission and lose a small percentage of your money.Failure here results in a loss of time spent, which is basically what it means in all games, however the manner in which it is presented seems to make it acceptable.I’ve thought a lot about BioShock and it seems like a solution to the perception of it being “too easy” would be to give the Big Daddies some degree of regenerating health. Therefore you would be encouraged to try and defeat each one in a single attempt instead of just chipping away at the health bar; which is what seems to be the common complaint.

  2. I think a major problem is the agency of difficulty that we expect from games. More specifically, the ideal sense of progression in the game where as the player continues to further progress in the narrative, so shall he progress in skill. Difficulty is often an indicator of this sense.The problem with your model I see is that it is following a convex model that I believe does not follow the trend of games. As Keverne has stated before, we are stuck in this arcade mentality.I think a better model is a more oscillating structure towards game pacing. But you want your skill peaks to be concurrent with narrative. If I had more time, I would try to model one from the Half-Life series, heh.Anyways, great post as usually and I hope the new Castlevania DS isn’t making you pull out too many hairs. It’s quite the monolith.

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