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Andrew Kauz avatar 12:35 PM on 10.23.2009  (server time)
A consuming power: The demon and the borderlands

Youíve been telling yourself to stay away from that latest gameplay video even as youíre clicking through the post and staring at the screen as the video buffers. The rise in your hype level is palpable as the sound thunders from your speakers, and you sit in your orthopedic chair wondering why you canít just play the game now, why it canít be here when you want it. You immediately regret your decision to watch the video.

Finally, the day of the gameís release comes, and you purchase it on your lunch break knowing full well that you cannot play until the evening. You tear the game free from its packaging and stare at it like itís the first videogame you have ever owned. A sense of pride washes over you even as you set the game down and return to work, where you waste the companyís money for your remaining four paid hours.

That night, you forget to eat dinner. An hour of play turns into six, and you groan quietly as you finally look toward the clock and realize that work starts in a short five hours. You resolve to sell some items and quit. Two hours later, you finally turn your console off and stumble into bed.

That night, you dream that youíre playing. You wake up disappointed and consider calling in sick to work. Your conscience gets the better of you. The level of your uselessness at work approaches the caliber of Peter Gibbons, and you realize a startling fact: you are consumed, and youíre helpless to stop it.

We have all been there to some extent. Games have a definite power to draw us in and refuse to let go, consuming our time despite our efforts to fight against it. But is it simply the high quality of a game that leads to the consuming of our lives, or is it something beyond that. To me, not all high-quality games possess this. Instead, there are a variety of independent qualities that affect whether a game can suck us in or not, and they act in rather different ways upon us, even if the result is the same.

There are two recent games that have consumed me in very different ways: Demonís Souls and Borderlands.

Demonís Souls, as many have said, is not an easy game. You may disagree about the level to which it is difficult, but it is, without a doubt, a game that will kill you often. Itís the sort of game that is liable to make you go crazy if you donít take a break from it fairly often.

So how is it that, despite my desire to take frequent breaks, I can never force the game from my mind?

You may have read other blogs about this game discussing the strategizing that goes on in your head even after youíve put the game down for the night. Well, all of these blogs are 100% accurate. Demonís Souls is the sort of game that requires your complete attention; in fact, perhaps it is more correct to call this a demanding game than a difficult one, though I do believe that both apply. However you decide to categorize it, one thing is completely clear: if you are not constantly thinking, you will die. This is not a game that allows you to turn your brain off and have some mindless fun. It will punish your lack of attention with ample doses of frustration.

But once your brain is switched on, it is extremely difficult to switch it off, even after your PS3ís light has dimmed. It consumes your thoughts, and even as you have vowed to stop playing for the night, you will invariably come back to it, sometimes far sooner than you have planned. Somehow, it manages to be the only game that Iíve ever experience that you find extremely difficult to put down even as youíre consistently threatening to give up on it completely.

So, what is the source of the gameís consuming power? Itís not the difficulty itself, but rather how the difficulty interacts with you. Some games (Brutal Legend on brutal difficulty, for instance) offer a brand of difficulty that doesnít do much in the way of sparking your mental powers. Itís a difficulty that is made so artificially. The game was programmed with one difficulty in mind Ė a normal difficulty Ė and both the easy and brutal difficulties do not represent the true experience of the game, the one that the game itself suggests is the true difficulty.

Therefore, the difficulty leads most often to frustration. The game is made to feel more difficult than it needs to be, and you wonder why you chose that difficulty at all. It seems like mindless self-violence inflicted upon you simply because you thought that a tougher setting might be enjoyable. A slider that make you die more easily and your enemies die more difficultly is not difficulty.

Demonís Souls is difficult because you, as an in-game character, are rather easy to kill. One solid thrust of a spear is quite enough to kill you in many instances, and these thrusts often come out of the shadows when you least expect them, leading to more deaths than you might be willing to admit.

But in this case, it is the only game experience. You arenít able to make the game easier, giving yourself more health and your enemies less. Thereís no easy way out. If you are dying too much, and you want to find a way out, it is up to you and you alone to find a way to progress.

But the main quality here that will lead to you being consumed Ė the one that so many reviews have mentioned Ė is that when you die, you know that it is your fault. Sure, the camera has occasionally led me to get killed, and the hit detection has been a little shaky a few times, but in the majority of cases, I have died because I did something stupid. ďHey, is that gigantic dragon asleep? Letís find out!Ē

While other games make you frustrated at the game, Demonís Souls makes you frustrated at yourself, and it is this frustration that keeps you moving forward. After all, we all want to believe that we can achieve difficult things if all of the required tools are presented to us. Indeed, Demonís Souls does this. There is no challenge in this game that is insurmountable if your actions are chosen very carefully and executed flawlessly. If you fail, it is because something went awry either in your planning or execution. Perhaps you didnít realize that a room would have three magic users rather than two, and you were killed. Next time, you know that you must plan ahead to tackle all three casters at once.

The idea of ďnext timeĒ is absolutely central to the game ability to suck you in. Whenever you die, you immediately begin to think of what you can do differently next time, and, before you know it, you are consumed by your desire to plan and act out your next brilliant strategy. So, you plan, you execute, and you succeed. The feeling is inimitable Ė the great feeling of accomplishment, one that, in a demanding game such as this one, is intoxicating. So you play again until the next time you fail, and you begin strategizing once again in your head. It is an endless cycle, and one that does, without a doubt, consume you.

So, whatís the one unifying quality that makes Demonís Souls so engrossing? Accomplishment. It a brand of accomplishment that isnít gained by unlocking achievements, beating games on artificially difficult settings, or winning an online game of Madden (though human to human interaction does provide a very interesting concept of difficulty). This is true difficulty, the kind that is incredibly rewarding. Perhaps the fact that it is so rare in games is what makes Demonís Souls such a consuming experience. We can only hope that we begin to see it more.

Borderlands is a very, very different game. It isnít the sort of game that you would call difficult, especially not in the same manner that Demonís Souls is. Yet thereís no doubt that it has a similar power to consume your thoughts and free time. I have already had far too many nights where I have told myself that I was ready to quit, only to continue playing for hours and hours.

For the very few of you who might not know, Borderlands tosses you into a world of loot, guns, ammo, and plenty of badasses to hunt down and kill, all seen from a first-person perspective. It has been considered Diablo with guns, and while this title is only partially accurate, it serves at least as a decent introduction, and it does prepare players to be consumed in a similar way to what Diablo did to us so many years ago.

But accomplishment isnít what gave Diablo its consuming power, nor is it what gives Borderlands its own power. It would be easy to suggest that it is pursuit of loot that makes it so hard to put the game down, but I think thatís selling the game short. After all, while I enjoyed Sacred 2, I never felt as consumed by the game as I do by Borderlands. Something else more powerful is in play here.

I think the source of Borderlandsí consuming power is progression. Now, all games have progression to some extent Ė you progress through a story, through tiers of fighters, and so on. What Borderlands does differently is give you many, many things to progress through all at once. You have a main story to progress through, a variety of side missions, character statistics, weapon proficiency levels, a large set of specific challenges, skill treesÖthe list goes on and on. Thereís just so damn much to progress through that you always have something on your mind that you want to do next.

Again, the idea of ďnext timeĒ reappears, but itís very different in this game. Rather than thinking ahead to next time in order to plan out a new strategy, your thoughts of the future will be how you can next progress. Maybe youíre ever-so-close to that next level, and you want to hit it before you go to bed for the night. You get your level, but now you see a chest off in the distance, so you decide to run over to it quickly before you go to bed. You find an amazing sniper rifle, but your skill level is a little low, so you decide to pop off some enemies before bed to get your skill up. Before long, hours have passed and you still have so much left that you want to do.

So, Borderlands succeeds in being an engrossing game because it always gives you something to focus on to allow yourself to progress. Youíre never at a loss for meaningful things to do, at least up until that nasty level cap. But while it lasts, Borderlands will grab you, and it wonít let go.

So, these are obviously two very different games, and they go about grabbing hold of the player in very different ways. But the one thing that connects them is that they put the thought into the playerís head of ďwhatís next.Ē All games should do this, whether itís with an incredibly engrossing story, a fantastic character progression system, a rewarding sense of difficulty, or any other quality at all that contributes to this feeling.

Any developer needs to approach the creation of a game with this idea in mind. It canít just be something as simple as ďWell, this waypoint will tell players where to go next!Ē Thatís not at all what I mean. It needs to be a desire created in the player to know whatís next, and that desire needs to be strong enough to compel a player to either continue playing or to constantly thinking about playing next. It is what makes a game great, and what makes it memorable.

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