Are Video Games RUINING Gaming?

Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on the question Are Video Games RUINING Gaming? Where we question whether games really are games anymore by discussing: Arcades, Checkpoints, Frustration Free Gaming and Innovation.

Written by: Bashir Eustache
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Jacob Salamon

Are Video Games RUINING Gaming?

Whether you’re solving mind bending puzzles in Portal, managing resources in Starcraft, or pulling off sick no scope headshots in Call of Duty, video games ask you to master skills to overcome challenges. And how do they do this? With carrots and sticks.

The carrots are how the game rewards players for doing well: Think points, better weapons or unlockable content. The same way you’d give a horse a carrot for doing… horse stuff. The sticks are the ways that the game punishes the player. Like being whacked with a stick. Lots of horse metaphors here. And the strictest punishment short of Game Over? The Fail State. Death.

So let’s talk about fail states: how they’ve evolved and how they are threatening the very existence of videogames as we know them!! But don’t worry, it’ll be fun…

Let’s go back to the infancy of video games — the arcade: failure cost lives (and quarters) – but not progress. If you die, you simply respawn in the exact same spot, minus 1 of some limited number of lives.

Lose enough lives and it’s time to hit up the change machine again buddy. This design was pretty smart: Arcade games were meant to be quick and digestible. And with games that sat in public spaces, the business model was built around converting your frustration into stacks of your hard-earned quarters.

That all changed when games moved into the home. With the rise of console and PC gaming, suddenly it wasn’t necessary to focus on bite sized gameplay. People were gaming for long periods of time. And I mean looooooooooong periods of time! It would be decades before developer revenue would be tied to gameplay again (in the form of microtransactions). Suddenly, when you bought Super Mario Brothers outright, you could die over and over and over again. It didn’t matter how long it took you to kill that Hammer Brother, you never had to pay another cent!

Those changes weren’t immediate — it would take years for games to slowly outgrow their old contrivances. Some games stayed with the “3 lives and you’re out” system for a long wile, making many games impossible to beat without cheat codes. (Everyone claims to know a guy who knows a guy who beat Contra without the Konami code, but I have my doubts.)

Still, it was in this environment that games evolved past the death and quarters paradigm, and into the diverse offerings we have today. Games could start to tell stories.

Today, failure usually means returning to a checkpoint. The clock and enemies are reset and you get to try again. It’s like Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow or dating — you get to learn from your mistakes and take that wisdom with you on the next go round.

The game provides a little bit of punishment, a minor wack from the stick, but doesn’t prevent you from completing it once you’ve developed the skills. There’s no need to restart from level 1-1. Just dust yourself off and try again, sport!

Even still, those resets have changed dramatically over the past 15 years. Today, setting you back even 5 or 10 minutes is likely to garner criticism for “poor checkpointing” or “sucking ass” and fosters a lot of rage quitting and broken controllers.

By contrast, modern games like Arkham Knight or Tomb Raider rarely ask you to replay even 60 seconds of gameplay. This hasn’t always been the case. One of the most well-remembered console action games has to be GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64. That game was awesome. But Golden-Eye’s single player missions were brutal, sometimes requiring perfect stealth. A failed mission would send you back to the very beginning of the mission.

But that sort of punishment wasn’t so uncommon for the time period. Until things started to change: First, games started telling more intricate stories with stories as an increasingly critical piece of the games package, developers started to see how challenging checkpointing could also undermine storytelling. When a game has a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, replaying the same part without ever seeing the payoff lets all the air out and well… kinda sucks.

This is especially true as games started to add cutscenes, dialogue, and tremendous technical set pieces. No one wants to watch the same three-minute cut scene over and over again. The narrowing of checkpoints also reflects an aging gaming demographic: When gaming was in its infancy, it was associated with children or young teens. For younger gamers, it’s not a big deal to spend the day replaying a mission to perfectly master a level. But I’m a grown-ass man. I’ve got precious little time to give.

As gamers get older, they’ve become more likely to have a full time job, children of their own or other obligations that would leave less time for gaming. For them, being forced to replay a lengthy section (or to continue playing for a long stretch to reach a distant checkpoint) creates fatal levels of frustration. So maybe this narrowing of checkpoints is good for gaming…

Orrrrrrr maybe not. As with all things, there are some downsides too. By smoothing over friction, a developer drops one of the most powerful instruments in his toolkit: Fear. Yes, fear of that stick we were talking about earlier – since we’re all just a bunch of horses.

Even in virtual world of video games, dying means loss. Lost money or loot or points or respect or whatever. In almost all cases, it means lost progress and time. By minimizing those losses, games minimize the risk. And just like in real life, you can’t have thrill without risk. Without the stick, that carrot wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet!

We all play games to engage with that risk. It’s why we don’t play games on God Mode. Without that fear of loss, there is no pleasure in the triumph. Nowhere is this evolution clearer than in the Far Cry franchise. The console version of Far Cry 2 was much maligned by people who hated respawning enemies, dreary landscapes and yes, a jacked up checkpoint system. Instead of dying, an NPC friend would appear to drag you to safety. In some cases, the NPC could get injured or even die in the rescue effort. Nice work, dude. And when they did, they were gone forever. If you died without an NPC friend to bail you out, you were forced back to your last stop at a save cabin, which could be far away and make for tons of lost progress.

To add insult to injury, the map was spread out with extremely limited fast travel options. Even getting to a mission in Far Cry 2 required crazy long treks across desert and jungle where you could be ambushed at any second. The result was a game where failure could lose you substantial amounts of time, effort and progress. Combat in Far Cry could be terrifying just by virtue of how much you could lose by failing.

And fail you could. Enemies were smart and accurate. And how about that infamous weapon degradation? Your weapons rusted over time causing older guns to jam unexpectedly! Talk about gettin’ the stick!

Yet Far Cry 2 quickly developed a passionate cult following. Every firefight seemed to matter. If you didn’t want to lose all of your work and time, you had to plan carefully, to keep your wits about you and to expect the unexpected. Some masochistic fans even tried to take the game’s strictness a step further with “Permadeath playthroughs.” Essentially, these sick people would give themselves one life, forcing themselves to cautiously inch their way through the entire game without a single death or reload. Talk about fear of loss.

To this day fans fondly remember how engaging Far Cry 2 was, however they played it. But as I said, Far Cry 2 pissed off many gamers, and Developer Ubisoft Montreal responded to those complaints in the franchise sequels. Far Cry 3 and it’s successor, Far Cry 4, removed almost all of the fear and discomfort for which Far Cry 2 was known. Producer Dan Hay even addressed the issue directly in his interview with CVG in the months leading up to launch:

“We want to give the player the opportunity to turn on the action whenever they want,” says Hay. “We want to make sure the AI isn’t just hammering you with bullets. We want to let you move around the periphery of an area, making the game wait for you.”

Regarding that crazy degrading weapons thing, he commented.

“We don’t want to punish the player, so the reality is that when you pick up a weapon, you’re going to shoot it and you’re going to be successful.”

The Buddy system, was removed (good riddance), and autosaves and plentiful safehouses were added to the game. Far Cry 4 doubled down on that modernization, employing automatic checkpoints before any significant encounter. By Far Cry 4, failure rarely cost more than a few minutes of progress. Hallelujah.

The marketing also played up whimsy and mayhem. The message was clear. Come have fun. Fuck shit up. Don’t worry about making a mistake — we won’t give you a hard time about it. You have nothing to lose. And the message as well received. Far Cry 3 and 4 were incredibly well reviewed — and they are undeniably fun games that anyone can casually pick up and play for a few minutes on a relaxed afternoon.

But after playing all three games, it’s hard not to think that something cool was lost when the harsh edges of Far Cry 2 were sanded down. It’s not just that the difficulty was dramatically reduced. It’s that the player was no longer compelled to learn. The fear of loss was gone. Too many carrots. Not enough sticks.

Given the fact that everyone likes to win, it’s not surprising that developers have continued to look for new ways to help players finish their games without pissing them off too much. Games like Bioshock and Battlefield: Bad Company abandon the checkpoint for a respawn system. Instead of rewinding time, the player is remade in a fight that is still ongoing. It’s almost like the old arcade games but with infinite quarters. While common in multiplayer gaming, such systems have always been unusual in home single player games.It’s like gaming with training wheels.

In Bioshock, dying would lead to respawn in VitaChambers without any lost progress. The cost was a little in-game money, but other than that you could respawn infinitely. You were more like the agents in the Matrix movie than Tom Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow.

The benefit? Players never waste time — they never have to explore the same rooms, listen to the same dialogue or kill the same enemies. But Bioshock’s VitaChambers is also a great example of how reducing frustration undermines learning from risk.

You see, in traditional checkpoint games, repeating the same failing strategy is bound to produce the same result. Rush into a situation without careful consideration, and you might find yourself facing a game over screen. But in a Respawn game, that isn’t true. Players can just whittle down challenges by dying and retrying, essentially Rambo-ing their way through tough situations without ever understanding why the game keeps beating them. You can beat Bioshock without ever actually getting better at Bioshock.

This was incredibbly apparent with the game’s Big Daddy fights. Big Daddy’s were the bullet sponge bosses, and they were unique in that players got to choose when to fight them. Smart players would lay traps for Big Daddy’s and trigger them into fights with enemy A.I., beating them or at least devastating them before firing a single shot.

But a player could also rush in guns-a-blazing wihtout a thought to any sort of strategy. The result? Player death. Lots of it. And a significantly weaker Big Daddy that might be vulnerabble to the second or third attack upon respawn. The player could be rewarded for winning without ever having to change.

Similar reasoning applies to the Down But Not Out systems that have become increasingly common in AAA Shooters, like Killzone 3, Gears of War 3, Halo 5, just to name a few. In these games, instead of returning to a checkpoint, the player falls to his kness and waits to be resurrected by an AI controlled teammate. Besides the infuriating wait for the slowest AI buddy ever, this has the same effect as Bioshock’s VitaChambers. You don’t have to understand those games or be good at those games to beat those games. Where’s the fun in that?

In an attempt to reach more players with more diverse liftestyles and limited time, these attempts at time-saving features are admirable. But they also pose an existential threat to what games are. The loop of learning and reward and punishment is exactly what makes a game a game.

Leave videogames aside for a second, and think of a basketball. You can dribble it. You can pass it. You can bounce it off your friend’s forehead. But it’s still a toy. It’s not a “game.” Basketball become a “game” when it has rules, when it is constrained by success and loss, risk and strategy. This is why the Illiad is not a game, but chess is. We risk nothing when we read the Illiad. Except a possible papercut.

It’s worth stating the obvious here: It is no more inherently wrong to reduce player frustration than to say there is something wrong with the Illiad. There is nothing wrong with storytelling for its own sake. Some of the most entertaining titles of the last few years have met that description: In Gone Home, the player gets to inhabit a woman returning home from college to find revelations about her family. There are no puzzles or fights. You can’t lose at Gone Home, and the only way to “beat” Gone Home is to finish the story. By the definitions I’ve discussed, Gone Home is definitely not a game. It’s probably best described as some new form of interactive entertainment. We can make similar arguments about “games” like The Stanley Parable and Journey. They’re pretty far from being pure games, but they’re still awesome.

But now you see how removing the punishment of failure in traditional games, like shooters and racing games undermines so much of what’s cool about playing a game. By smoothing all of that risk and loss, we also smooth out strategy and success. We lose engagement. All because we’re all so eager to eat that damn carrot!

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