Mastery in Modern Games

Thursday, January 29, 2015

My wife and I played Towerfall for about two hours today, an hour and a half yesterday and two hours the day before that. In all that time, we only played one level in Quest mode. We've been trying to beat Ascension on Hardcore for at least two or three months. Today we topped off our 200th attempt. We've improved so much, but the last stage still gets the better of us. We're determined though. However long it takes us, we'll soldier on through our bloody bicentennial. It isn't about just beating the game. It's about mastery.

Mastery is a term we've thrown around a time or two in past articles. What exactly do we mean by mastery? As with any craft, mastery of any game requires dedication and skill. With enough time and the rigorous application of effort, a game can feel like second nature. You learn to anticipate actions in the game based on experience and your own understanding of the game world. So often, when we play, our minds know exactly what we need to do but we aren't able to make our body react in time. Mastery is the honing of that speed and understanding to its keenest edge.

When I think of modern games that are built on these concepts, two immediately spring to mind: Towerfall (as mentioned above), and Blood of the Werewolf. Both are fast-paced retro style games that demand a lot from your reflexes. The systems at play are simple enough that you can clearly see where you are going wrong from the outset . Rather than tone it down for you on repeated failures (like so many of today's AAA titles), these games insist that you are the problem and only through trial and many, many errors, will you finally complete the challenge.

The challenge level given by your average AAA title these days is nothing compared those that came before them. I know I sound like an old man here, but I miss the challenge and unforgiving nature of those old games. Some still offer a taste of the old days, but I'm too often treated like a completely inexperienced player. Puzzles give out hints every thirty seconds, maps funnel me directly to the objective and enemies leap out like fun house mannequins or are nearly oblivious to my presence.

Why is it that so many of today's games have sacrificed challenge for accessibility? I can't offer any definitive voice on the matter, but I suspect it has less to do with development costs or time constraints and more to do with the game's audience. Easier games are more accessible, more compelling for newer or younger players. Easier game = larger appeal = more consumers = money.

Whatever the reasons for less difficult games, this much is true. A truly trying and difficult experience can be more rewarding than the standard hand-holding exercises in your Call of Duty. It feels more like an actual accomplishment when you have to really scrap to make it through. I know I echo thousands of other gamers out there when I tell you that every defeat along the way only makes the eventual victory that much sweeter.