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Taking The Training Wheels Off: Why Games Treat You Like Dumb Children

Dave Cook

Column


What do Dark Souls, Tony Hawk’s HD and Portal 2 have in common? More than you’d think.

Published on Jul 20, 2012

Tony Hawk is back! After years of disappointing fans with awful plastic peripherals and increasingly poor releases,  Activision listened to you and commissioned Robomodo to give classic Tony Hawk the HD treatment.

But many of you still aren’t happy.

For years many people have been pissed off over how badly the Tony Hawk license had bailed onto hard times. Each new entry to the series felt desperate, chucking in a garbled selection box of mechanics into the mix that left the purity and twitch brilliance of Tony Hawk 1-4 as a distant memory.

But what really stuck out was just how easy the series had become. Think back to your days spending hours trying to identify the best trick lines on School, or attempting a flawless high score run on Airport’s legendary bowls. Those were good times weren’t they?

No one told you where to go, or what to do in those early Tony Hawk games. Laying waste to your friend’s high score was all down to trial and error – experimenting with combos, manual routes and scenery manipulation.

If you spotted what looked like a killer spot in the early Tony Hawk games, you had to find a way to trick up to it. In the later games, you simply got off your board and climbed up there. I’ll leave you to decide which method is more fun.

Or say, you’re missing one hidden VHS tape on a level in Tony Hawk 2. No one was going to tell you where it was, or how to get to it – you had to spend your tight two-minute run trying to work your way up to it. Man it felt good when you finally nailed it, didn't it?

In later Tony Hawk games you had HUD markers telling you where to go, and parkour, cars, Bam Margera acting like a prize tit, doing an ollie over a stampeding bull for no reason, and doing tons of things that detracted from the sheer brilliance of the early games.

What’s brilliant about Tony Hawk HD is that people are lambasting developer Robomodo for sticking so rigidly to the old control method. There are no trick command lists, no camera control or anything like that. It makes the game harder to play, just like the original.

Honestly, the game isn’t too hard, it’s just right if you’re a fan – as challenging and as rewarding as ever. Sure it’s clunky in parts, but this is what die-hard fans of the original have wanted for so long. Let us have our fun please, won’t you?

 

But don’t blame Tony Hawk or Activision if you feel that the game is impenetrable or awkward. It’s the industry that’s to blame for making games too easy, and I don’t mean easy in a difficulty sense either. Let me explain.

Hands up if you’ve played Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls before? Those are two of the most clunky, most awkward, utterly crushing and impenetrable games ever created, but they are so absolutely brilliant as a result.

Imagine if you played a game of Call of Duty and all of the expended rounds lying on the floor killed you if you walked over them. You’d go absolutely ballistic wouldn’t you? That’s what Dark Souls feels like – needlessly hard and unfair.

Except it isn’t unfair, it’s just treating you like an adult. It’s up to you to learn what will kill you or not. It’s up to you to memory map every sneaky trap or pitfall, and it’s up to you to decide how half of the game’s mechanics work.

I appreciate how it looks like From Software made a bad game when it made Dark Souls to the uninitiated, but it’s a misconception. When you earn a small victory in Dark Souls you feel like you truly earned it, and it makes you feel great.

 

There are no HUD markers, no mini-maps, minimal dialogue, a threadbare tutorial and then you’re cast out on your own to die, die and die again until you learn how to play with restraint, again, like an adult.

Now most games have giant flashing arrows or crumb trails pointing you where to go, as if you’re a moron. How many times have you been annoyed at a text pop up that reads, “Press X to reload” in a Call of Duty game even though you’re playing your 5,000th multiplayer match?

It’s an intrusive flashing assault on the senses that dullens the mind and coddles gamers to the point of complacency. Forget trying to use initiative or spending time to explore on your own, just set your waypoint and follow the marker like a greyhound chasing the fake rabbit.

Are you a dog or a gamer? Remember the original Tomb Raider? Do you remember those “How do I get up there?” moments that would see you spending hours trying to climb around the environment to reach that elusive spot?

You climb up there, you fall. You climb up this, you fall. You climb up that, you fall. You try to climb up a rock but Lara doesn’t latch on to it. Nope not there. You spot a suspiciously flat edge that looks like it can be climbed on. You climb up it and…wait…yes….YES!….YOU DID IT! Woooo!

No one told you how to do that –  you just tried some things, used your brain, got frustrated but remembered you’re a grown up and swallowed your pride, and then you did it, you actually freaking did it. Well done, you smart cookie you.

OK we get it – Games have become mega-mainstream and therefore people of varying skill levels might be playing and some may need more help than others. But so what, that’s not me, and chances are that isn’t you either.

In a games industry where ‘Normal’ mode has become the new ‘Easy’ and where gamers can buy microtransactions to boost their progress – essentially cheating their way to victory, come on, it is cheating – what does a challenge mean in games today?

Is a challenge as simple as upping the difficulty level when the same assists and aids apply, or does the beauty of a good challenge still lie in using your own skill and initiative to overcome the seemingly impossible?

I see increasing evidence that Hollywood is dictating games in that cinematics are taking over the actual control segment of a game. Why show us the hero doing some mad balletic attack combo in a QTE sequence when actually making us control it would be ten times more fun?

Probably because it’d be too hard, but so what?  I get minimal feedback from a mad action scene when I’m not controlling it, and it bores me to utter tears. I love Bayonetta because the top-tier combos look insane and I’m actually executing them. Sure it’s hard, but that’s the reward.

HUD clutter is reducing, but hand-holding isn’t – they’re just finding new ways of sneaking the crumb trail into the mix. If the aim is to reduce the amount of time players spend aimlessly searching for their goal, then perhaps the onus is on developers to make that wandering more fun.

Which brings me to Journey. No clear objective, no HUD markers, no coddling of any kind. You just walk, drinking in the environment’s visual cues to decide for yourself, which is the right way to go.

You see a shining mountain looming far in the distance and without uttering a single line of dialogue, the game has already told you clearly where you need to go.

That in itself is a masterclass in game design, and it’s something more developers need to nail to make us feel less like idiots, and more like the smart gamers that we are.

Because we are a smart bunch – We collectively fund innovation on Kickstarter, we rally for change, we vote with our wallets, some of us code our own games and many of us do want a challenge, even if many games are keeping us locked in a cinematic cage.

Test yourself, up that difficulty level, seek out games beyond your usual tastes and challenge your experience of the medium, and I guarantee your gaming hobby will become richer for the effort.

 

 

 

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