At work, I have random quote generator at the top of my email inbox that sends me down a surprisingly large number of mental paths. This week, I opened up my inbox and read the following quote:
"If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you."
It does not take much to get me thinking about video games, but this saying was particularly resonant in light of our completion of Resident Evil 5 and Jesper Juul's paper about the importance of failure in games. I am becoming increasingly convinced that some of the most thought-provoking game are ones that not only offer the possibility of losing, but also go out of their way to make sure the player must learn by failure and experimentation. In other words, if you want to think really hard about solving actual problems in games, you better be ready to lose.
It delights me when I listen to folks who played the same game as me, encountered the same events as me, found the same solution as me, but still derived from the experience a level of enjoyment completely different than mine. Iroquois Plisken over at Versus CluCluLand has some interesting thoughts on RE 5, and I will quote him at length as he describes one of the game's boss battles:
It's a fundamental unclarity about affordance that had us stuck on some of the later boss battles. RE5 leans heavily on its context-sensitive button prompts to inform you about the environment-- whenever you're in the vicinity of something that can be used (pulled, pushed, operated, swung, cut, uppercutted), the X button appears at the bottom of the screen. That's how you find out something is usable.
The problem is, when you're faced by some homicidal ex-partner who's flipping around and unloading clips into you, getting some proximity is the last thing you want to do. Nothing signals to the player that this enemy can be used in a totally novel way when you're both at close range. We spent a lot of time hung up on the wrong solution-- shooting from a distance-- before we accidentally ended up at close range. And it was only then that the context-sensitive menus popped up and the game telegraphed the correct solution to us.
This basic issue recurs in a suite of late-game boss encounters-- these enemies have unique affordances that you need to know, but the only way you discover them is by approaching really close under select conditions and seeing the X button pop up at the bottom of the screen. This is bad puzzle design.
I agree with everything said except the last sentence. Like Jorge and Iroquois, I found this sequence, as well as the overall game, frustrating. Unlike them, I also found it exhilarating.
RE 5 is full of arbitrary rules with little bearing on our reality. While this can be confusing and frustrating, the game's rules, while arbitary, are constant and can be grasped, tested, utilized, and exploited with careful study (we discussed this in depth on the podcast).
Jorge and I approached the boss battle Iroquois described the same way we approached the previous ones: guns blazing. We actually succeeded in killing Jill. We rejoiced, thinking that we won, and were instead greeted by the game over screen. The encounter was designed to throw into question everything we had learned about the way the game worked up to that point, and in order to progress, we had to start thinking. We employed an in-game version of the scientific method we all (hopefully) learned in grade school:
1. Question: "How do we beat this boss?"
2. Background research: "We beat each previous boss and enemy by blasting the hell out of it."
3. Hypothesis: "If we blast the hell out of this boss we will beat it."
4. Experiment: "Shoot her with the rifle Jorge, I got the shotgun!"
5. Data Analysis: "We killed the boss, but still 'lost' the game."
6. Conclusion: "Using guns is not the way to win, let's try another tactic."
The catch with this way of approaching a game is that, like science, it requires trial, error, and re-trial. I like to think that games like Zelda help me flex my mind muscles, but the truth is I have not died or become stuck in a Zelda game since A Link to the Past. We praise games like Zelda for making us think, but I am not convinced the thought they inspire is particularly deep or creative thinking because there is little failure to learn from. The environmental puzzles are designed to catch the players eye and communicate meaning before any interaction has taken place. See a crack in the wall? Since there are no other cracks in any walls, something must be up. See a particularly well rendered boulder? Odds are you should interact with it. Encounter a new enemy after getting the boomerang? Well, guess which weapon is its weakness? Very little experimentation is required, and yet solving the "problem" is meant to feel rewarding.
Deep thought and analysis necessitates punishment, and gamers tend not to like punishment, which brings me back to the quote I shared at the beginning. When a game like RE 5 comes along, it is criticized for presenting challenges whose solutions are not readily apparent. Like the adventure games of yore, sometimes the answers in RE 5 necessitate some creative thinking and that often comes after failure.
As Jesper Juul's paper concludes, there seems to be "sweet spot" in regards to game difficulty. Players tend to function like game-playing Goldilocks: A game should not be too hard nor too easy, but just right. More research needs to be done, but I have a suspicion that the average "sweet spot" of analytical thinking in games is very low on the y-axis:
I want to save some of my thoughts on the relationship between thinking and difficulty in games for future posts, but I would like to hear from you all: How often do games make you think about the literalgameplay rather than the artistic meaning? Is there a place for "scientific-method" style gaming in modern games? Have there been any games that made you frustrated at the time and then proved satisfying upon your triumph?
Have I turned into a mindless RE 5 fanboy whose only goal is to shamble to the nearest Internet connection and try to corrupt your braaaaains? Some outside opinions are necessary.