Friday, June 10, 2011

How Games Cheat

That’s right—sometimes video games are dirty rotten cheaters.

They set up the rules of their fictional world and then they don’t abide by them, usually in the name of posing a challenge for the player. Nothing wrong with a little challenge, of course, but a well-designed game should be able to ramp up the difficulty without pulling the rug out from under your feet.

I use the word “cheat” with my tongue firmly in my cheek. What I’m really talking about are bad or lazy design decisions.

Infrequent save points

Crysis 2 is the latest in a long-line of culprits, including pretty much every Japanese RPG ever. This is a holdover from the days when drive space for saves was at a premium. That problem was taken care of about fifteen years ago.

The most frustrating thing about infrequent save points is replaying the same sequence over and over. And god help you if there’s a cutscene between you and your last save point. In the end, this strategy doesn’t so much increase the challenge as make the game more frustrating.

While I strongly feel that you should be able to save whenever you want in any games, I admit that some games handle save points very well. The Halo games, for example, and more recently, L.A. Noire. That is, the save points are so frequent that they don't create a problem.

Deliberately obtuse controls

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Vintage)In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell writes about the deliberately confusing controls and camera angles in the original Resident Evil. He makes a credible case that they contribute to the sense of panic and disorientation that the games are trying to achieve. But it also made me want to play the game less. I agree with the motivation of the designers, but not their methods.

To me, this is akin to playing baseball with a blindfold over your eyes.  It certainly would make the game a lot harder, but I prefer to strike out because the pitcher is better at pitching than I am at batting. At least then, I have a chance to improve and prevail.

Bosses that require completely new skills

I know—reality doesn’t present you with a set of incrementally increasing challenges. You could be a soldier shooting your way through a line of enemy soldiers, and then you turn the corner to find yourself face-to-face with a tank.

But we’re talking about games, here. The skills you learn are the ones that you should be able to apply to more difficult situations, even if you have to use them in new and creative ways.

A tip off that your skills are about to be rendered useless is when you square off against a giant carnivorous plant, a distressingly common boss in games (Bulletstorm, Arkham Asylum, Metroid Prime…just off the top of my head). You will likely have to shoot at a specific spot with a specific weapon until it is stunned, toss a grenade into the closest orifice, dodge spikes or some such nonsense, and repeat the process.

What game is this from? Seriously, I can't tell.
Yes, you’ve shot people and thrown grenades before, but never in such a random, unintuitive way. And you’ll never need to do it again in the game. Count on it. It is, however, training for the next game that can’t think of an original boss.

Stealing your equipment

Oh man, this one steams me (I’m looking at you, Dead Money).  It’s especially egregious in games where armor and weapons define your increasing power as you level up, such as in the Fallout series. In these cases, stripping you naked is the equivalent of busting you back to 1st level just as you face the game’s end boss.

This strategy makes sense in games where your equipment augments your skills, such as Assassin’s Creed. Losing a particular sword in such a game makes it harder for you to proceed, but it doesn’t render you helpless.

Make stronger and smarter enemies for me to fight as I grow more powerful. Don’t artificially weaken me.

Good counterexamples are STALKER, Metro 2033, and Dead Space. Lack of equipment, especially ammo, is a fact of life in those games. Coping with that is the point. They don’t have a dump truck of bullets follow you around for 90% of the game only to have it disappear right before the final battle!

Taking away your skills/powers/spells

Very similar to taking away your equipment. This happened to me at the end of Neverwinter Nights 2 when my party became trapped in a large dungeon in which we were unable to rest (and thus recover hit points and spells). We faced wave after wave of enemies who were more powerful than any we had faced previously in the game.

NWN2 hurt my self-esteem.
Nothing wrong with that in itself. The design flaw was that the game had allowed me to rest after each previous encounter, so I did. I had become so reliant on this strategy that I was unable to complete this penultimate dungeon without lowering the difficulty setting. Total gamer humiliation.

I had become a lazy player, but I maintain it was because the game allowed—encouraged, actually—me to play that way. If it had introduced such scarcity earlier on, I would have known to be prepared for it.

Rotten cheaters.

No comments:

Post a Comment