Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Problem of the Inevitable (Yet Challenging) End in Video Games

My latest post at Pop Matters combines a number of my favorite topics: challenge, storytelling, and game design philosophy. I also compare Moby Dick to Killer7 and find a common thread: I haven’t finished either.

For a long time, I’ve been of the mind that many of the works we call “video games” aren’t very much like games at all. Today’s single-player, story-driven games simply aren’t interested in real competition. It’s very hard to “lose” a game like BioShock or Uncharted because those games go to great lengths to keep the player moving through the experience.

Perhaps players have moved on from competitive games? In a happy coincidence, this week Jorge wrote about his weariness with the glut of iPhone games that lack a story or an ultimate resolution. Without a finite narrative or ludic arc, some games can start to feel like purgatory. However, one person’s purgatory is another person’s pleasure: arcade-style games are philosophically similar to more traditional board games or sports games. Like chess or football, Flight Control can’t be “beaten,” with any definite finality; it can only be won and lost within discrete sessions. I hope I’m not the only one who finds the never-ending quest for mastery somewhat romantic, even if ultimately futile.

Unlike the arcades and the early days of home gaming, players today rarely have to face the prospect of simply not being able to “beat” a game. The difficulty found in mastering specific skills is nominal and often diluted via difficulty settings and various rule options. The real challenge in many story-based games is hard quantify: the difficulty lies in interpreting intangible factors like characterization, plot development, the ludo-narrative relationship. Rather than a test of skill, reaching the end of many games becomes a question of personal taste, intellectual investment and mental stamina.

Red Dead Redemption isn’t difficult in the way Pac-Man is difficult, it’s challenging in the way Moby Dick is challenging.


  1. I have very, very similar ideas about videogames at the moment guys. I have posed that exact same question to my students: "What do we mean when we say a book is challenging? Is it the same as what we mean when a game is challenging?"

    I find this stuff really interesting--including the ontological stuff about how very different these things we call videogames can be. I just got through a draft of some theories about winning and losing, about the always-ever-upward arc of most player-characters in videogames, and their lack of loss. One of my major points is that because of the death mechanic allowing you to retry in virtually every game ever made, you will never suffer the consequences of failure. Not in a narrative/fictional sense, only in the ludic, which is to say, only as the player, not as the character. Interesting stuff!

  2. Hey Adam, thanks for stopping by!

    I'm reminded of some web-based games that use your browser's cache and cookie settings to lock you into certain choices. I like those types of exercises, but they seem a bit too avant-garde for the big developers.

    I'll be interested to see if you encounter a generational difference in students' tastes for challenge. Michael Abbott has written about the decreasing tolerance his students have for text-based or trial-and-error heavy games.