Progress through a narrative should stop just because you can’t press buttons fast enough.
Well, maybe not always. And maybe not every type of game. But, still, imagine this: You’re reading a super terrific novel. The setting’s wonderful, the characters demand attention, and you can’t wait to find out what happens next. The thing is, at the end of every chapter there’s a puzzle. Complete it and you get to keep reading. Fail and you can try again, but until you solve it, you can’t progress any further in the story. Never solve it and you’ll never know how the novel ends.
That’d be crazy, right? Because what if you’re really bad at puzzles? Or what if you could solve them but it’d take a ton of time and effort and you wouldn’t enjoy any of it? Why should not finding difficult puzzle solving fun — or being so bad at it that you’re unlikely to ever solve such puzzles — mean you can’t finish the narrative? Especially if it’s the narrative, and not the puzzles, that brought you to the novel in the first place? Put another way, a novel should always let you finish it. Even if it means skipping a section you can’t understand or don’t like. Just turn the page and keep going.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about now that I’m two-thirds of the way through the video game Dragon Age 2 — and stuck. Even with the difficulty level set to “Casual,” I’m at a fight I can’t figure out how to win. (I’m really bad at video games.) What this means is that, engrossed as I am in the story and its characters, I’m unlikely to see the end. That’s really a bummer, too, because not only am I keen to see it through, but “experiencing the world and story of Dragon Age 2” is why I bought the game in the first place.
Sure, I could practice — and practice, and practice. I could read strategy articles, focus on perfect timing, and maybe redo my character to optimize his power. I could go back to an old save game file, replay a large chunk of the game, and make sure I don’t miss finding the power-ups I did the first time around. I could, in a word, get better at video games.
But I don’t want to because — as shocking as this may sound — I don’t find that sort of thing fun at all. Stuff like that isn’t why I play games in the first place, especially games like Dragon Age 2. Rather, I play them as narrative mediums. I love the storytelling. I love emersing myself in the world, discovering its interesting bits, and seeing what happens as epic events play out. A game like this is an interactive novel or movie for me. Except it’s a movie or novel where I have to occasionally mash buttons during silly action sequences in order to advance the story.
Which means parts I can’t beat — acknowledging again my rather low degree of “skill” at game playing — are like those puzzles at the end of every chapter of a super engaging book. They’re the designers saying, “Unless you can perform this very specific sort of task, you can’t see everything we’ve designed.” They’re saying, in effect, “Our narrative is not for you.”
But it is, because I bought it and now it’s mine and I should be able to enjoy it however I’d like and enjoy as much of it as I’d like.
I grew up with PC games. It was only recently — long after switching to a Mac and so giving up most video games, and then years latter getting back into them after I bought a PlayStation 3 in order to stream NLF Sunday Ticket — that I transitioned to consoles. And the most obivous difference between the two, given my tastes and play style, is that PC developers get this need for catering to the range of players in a way console developers don’t. (Which is particularly odd given that, for many games, they’re the same developers.)
Take a look at a page of PC cheats for Dragon Age 2. That’s what I was used to as a kid. Open a console window, type in a few characters, and you’re invincible or have infinite ammo or something else that pretty much means you can’t lose. PC games let you win, no matter how much you suck them.
Now here’s that same page, but for the PlayStation 3 version. No invincibility. No cheat codes. Just some hidden items and some glitches the player can exploit to get minor benefits. The console version won’t let you win if you’re bad at button mashing and character optimization. Don’t like it? Go play something else.
Of course, these barriers to narrative didn’t matter much when video games were very new because the early games didn’t have much in the way of narrative. They were nothing but action sequences or puzzles, tied to the thinnest story and most minimal world. If you couldn’t beat the third level in Super Mario Bros., you weren’t missing out on anything meaningful.
But video games today aren’t like that. Instead, they’re like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, L.A. Noire, etc. Epic stories — and with the epic story the focus of the game.
Does it make the experience of the story pay off more if you had to struggle to get to the end? Probably, sure. If that final boss fight was a beast, what comes after may hit harder, the story beats stronger. But why can’t we let the player decide that? A minimally diminished payoff is better than no payoff at all. Console games ought to be at cheat friendly as their PC peers.
Or we should bring back the Game Genie.