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.