If I were an old man, which I’m not, I’d tell you what it was like in the early 80s. As it stands, I was born in July 1986. However, I was brought up playing a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (I believe it was this early exposure to prolonged flashing lights and awful sounds that has made me so incompatible with nightclubbing culture). Between the Spectrum, and the BBC computers at my school (it occured to a few friends and I that we could sneak into a classroom during dinner and play on the BBC without detection, this would have been in 1996 – so I was retro even then), I’ve had a feel for the ways of old gaming. Games that were programmed by men in their bedrooms in basic. Games that weren’t made with concerns like “What is the deomgraphic for this kind of thing?”. Essentially, before Tom Hanks changed it all in “Big” by becoming a one-man focus group (Note to self: That wasn’t real).
What I’m trying not to rake over again is that it’s widely accepted that games are easier now. Developers spend more time and resources (and I’m not passing comment negatively) in making their game accessible with tutorials, on balancing, and with things like the AI Directors of Left For Dead 1& 2 and the currently in development Napoleon: Total War (their aim to give you a challenge, a good fight, not to absolutely paste you). Extended introduction sequences try to ram the game’s core concepts into some blurb at the start, which is something that, by repetition, we’ve almost stopped noticing – as though we expect in real life that as space-marines we will only be told how to fire a gun once we’ve arrived on whatever tiny rodent infested planet we’re headed to. Why is this?
We pay this little “immersion tax” at the start of a new game because we know we’ll be a bit lost if we don’t. It seems a bit unneccessary but there are cheques and balances in play. See, if you suddenly find yourself met with a grenade throwing system that’s alien to you in the middle of your cookie-cutter WW2 shooter, you’re going to break immersion completely checking out the manual online, or the key bindings, and you may bemoan not being told how to do it sooner. Imagine playing Fallout 3 without the slightly tedious Vault chapter at the start? As irritating as it seems, you may have needed to escape your play pen, shoot that radroach, and beat up Butch to get the swing of things in the DC Wasteland.
Now 9 times out of 10 I want a game that introduces its concepts elegantly, unpatronisingly and, at its best, without me even noticing. Braid was masterful. Yes, nothing subtle about a bit of landscape with “PRESS SPACE TO JUMP” written on it, but do you remember the moment you learned that in this platformer there was no need to fear the leap of faith? There was no great fanfare about it. You simply fell, missed or hit some spikes. And survived either way, because the time reversal key appeared next to frozen-in-time-Tim. What didn’t occur was a pop up message that paused gameplay and yelled triumpantly “YOU CAN REVERSE TIME! HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?”. That doesn’t mean Braid isn’t difficult. But it is forgiving. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, gamers don’t want to be forgiven.
Let’s talk about the 1s in 10s.
And where better to begin than with a Roguelike? Let me just lay this one out: Derek Yu is a sadist. A wonderful sadist. Yes, Spelunky has a tutorial, but you’ll find quite early on that while the basic mechanics are demonstrated, nothing else is. This game is hard. Very hard. Death can come quickly, and with little explination. There is no debrief. You got killed by that moving block. Oh? You didn’t know it could move? You do now. BACK TO THE START. Why doesn’t this game make me want to stab things? The random level generation. The unbelievable sense of achievement when you accomplish something, and the knowledge that if you really want to take the risk you can hightail it out of that room and go to the next – though you may not be well equipped enough to survive. It’s also full of charm. And clearly not every level is randomly generated, as I have chanced upon a crashed flying saucer at one point. There are new enemies, items, and all sorts revealing themselves gradually over time, and unlike most games it doesn’t require you to have actually progressed through the levels to do this. You will, of course, see new things as you do progress, but there’s enough hidden gems at each level to keep you coming back and slamming your head against the proverbial brick wall. You will die. A lot. Don’t kid yourself.
Oh god this game is wonderful. Full of wonder. It sort of relies on your preconceptions of it to inform your judgement. If, like anyone who sees a game with two men in Sumo poses readying for a bout, you think this game is about fighting you are wrong. So very wrong. But you won’t care. It hates the player not because it is harshly difficult like Spelunky where progress is lost. It hates the player because there is practically no progress at all. It also can put you in unwinnable positions from the get-go, but much more importantly it just doesn’t want you to control it.
The fighters move like drunk toddlers. You control “Blue Guy”, but you would never know and in fact I didn’t for my first 5 bouts. It tells you the controls on the screen before every bout but not to help you, just to twist the knift a bit when you see how ineffective they are (you aren’t directly controlling him, so much as nudging him). This is intended, however, as the joy in this games comes from watching drunk ragdolls fall over, stumble into eachother, break things, attempt to get up, and trip eachother over. The physics ragdoll rigs are constantly in a battle to balance themselves from the moment movement occurs. Locomotion is actually a by-product of this, so technically it’s a physics masterpiece (especially when factoring in the size as well – 372kb). In essence, due to the spastic autonomous movement of the ragdolls, it is a hilarious slapstick comedy game. The down key, once play commences, is a sit down key. What game has a sit down key?
The comedic nature of Sumotori Dreams isn’t lost on its creator, Peter Sotesz, clearly, as one of the arenas you can do battle in puts all four combatants at the top of a flight of stairs. Stairs they inevitably fall down. It also led me to pondering the amazing nature of a game that brings to the spotlight what other games take for granted: How hard is it for a robot sumo wrestler to climb bloody stairs?! Literally impossible. Sotesz’s angle on the site is “This is the game where beginners can beat hardcore players”. What he should have said is “This is the game where it doesn’t matter who wins, because it’s so incredibly funny to watch ragdolls fall over the littlest thing.”
Back to games that hate you because they’re hard. VVVVVV, by Terry Cavanagh, is an 8-bit looking platformer, set in the most ridiculously health & safety defying space ship ever made. Another game where you will die more times than take a step. It’s got a soul, though, in that death doesn’t set you back too far. Your progress isn’t lost, and while there is a counter of your deaths I don’t think it negatively impacts things. It does hate you mind. There is a difficulty curve, yeah, but you have a one hit kill, and only one tool at your disposal: The ability to flip gravity. You have to navigate spiky tunnels aiming for small and/or moving platforms with a well timed gravity flip, and the chances of success first time are bloody slim. The good news is the lack of a load time, and the lack of a penalty for death make it horribly addictive, like running your tongue over a mouth ulcer.
I’ve chosen these three in particular because you can find free demos (or in the case of Spelunky the whole game) for free on the links provided. They’re all independent, also, which isn’t a coincidence. We’ve reached a time in gaming now where publishers are marketing for wider and wider audiences. This, I actually welcome. It’s about time the stigma of gaming was lifted, and hopefully us human beings will finally outnumber the leet-speaking weirdos ruining XBLA for everyone. But to cater to a wider audience you’re going to have to make concessions, and publishers understand that people have jobs, children, commitments. What we don’t have a lot of is time. So they need to make games that remind you how to play it while you’re playing it because they know not everyone can hammer it for 20 hours straight. They need to make games that gradually let you in so that inexperienced gamers can be included and so reviewers can say it’s appropriate for them to buy.
If gamers want to have an experience outside of this, it’s not the end of the world at all. There’s a renaissance happening right now. Brilliant experimental games are being released on the big platforms and given attention. Indie developers are getting genuine shots at the big time. In this month’s PC Gamer UK there is a 6 page article on Spelunky, and a two page review of VVVVVV you may want to peruse after you’re done here. So when people say games are getting easier, just remember, not all of them are. Some awesome games still hate you.