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Xander Markham avatar 3:14 PM on 03.13.2011  (server time)
Technical Difficulties: The Masochist Gamer

I wanted to write a Monthly Musing last month but couldn't find the time, so was a tad despondent when this month's topic turned out to be something I'd already written a full blog post on a while back, which you can read here. Fortunately, since my Wii was totalled by Black Ops last week, I started playing a few of the games on my Steam account I hadn't used for a while, one of which was Ice-Pick Lodge's magnificent The Void.

Now when I say magnificent, I'm talking about the overall experience, judged retroactively after the game has been turned off rather than during play. There are some games that are immediately enjoyable, where every second spent in that world is a new joy: The Void is not one of those games. The closest analogy I can draw is that Ice-Pick Lodge's games are like reading a difficult but brilliant novel. Each page is a struggle and often makes you question whether the effort will be worth the end result, yet you keep on trucking because every time you put the book down, there is a sense of pride as much at decyphering the author's complex creation as at your own sheer perseverance. When reading James Joyce's Ulysses, supposedly the most 'difficult' book ever written, I barely understood a word of what was going on, yet there was something intoxicating about participating in this new kind of reading and a delight every time I did pick up some scrap of coherence or obscure reference and was able to cast just a tiny bit more light on the meaning of the baffling text. I even ended up going to re-read chapters in case there was something I missed (which usually turned out to be everything), an odd path to choose in order to reach the end of a 1,000 page book whose final chapter comprises a 30-page long sentence.

The point I'm circuitously arriving at is that reading Ulysses was an enriching experience, despite proving in equal terms frustrating and infuriating over the weeks it took me to reach the end. Sometimes I feel like doing it all over again, before realising that an unread, several-inches-thick edition of The Divine Comedy is still staring at me from my bookshelf. (And despite what EA would have me believe, I'm told it involves little to no epic scale slaughter of the damned.) Ice-Pick Lodge are the only developer I've found to have tapped into the power of the difficult read for gaming: The Void makes you work and work and work, often into dead-ends where you have to start all over again, yet making progress, even if it is measured in inches over days, feels more rewarding than any other game I've played. The original Dead Rising was much more user-friendly, yet flirted with this nuance with its single save file, strict three-day time limit and high entry level difficulty. Many people complained, yet when concessions were made for the sequel, something was lost in the satisfaction of pulling off a well-executed plan within the space of a single day. Both are very enjoyable games - I wrote a review DR2 a while back, awarding a respectable 7/10, but it was lost in the limbo of Destructoid's short-lived flirtation with Mammoth - but as unfriendly as the original game could be, it was to me a more rewarding and engrossing experience for the suffering it sometimes put me through.

The average gamer, it must be said, is not really accustomed to having to fight for their rewards. There are of course the über-hardcore who spend days in front of a flashing screen to gain three extra points on the latest bullet-hell shooter, but the vast majority of players are pandered to by developers worried that the last third of their multi-million dollar extravaganza will go unseen unless every puzzle can be solved in under a minute and no enemy able to cause more than a scratch on the protagonist's armour (with myriad checkpoints in place just in case, Miyamoto forbid, something should go wrong). The million-selling success of games like Demon's Souls and Monster Hunter Tri prove that there is an audience out there who don't want to be held by the hand through a game and don't need to be constantly rewarded to keep playing, yet there seems as little enthusiasm on the part of even indie developers to explore the power of the negative experience in their games as there is in gamers ready to reflect on how sometimes the 'bad' parts of a game actually make the good parts better and improve the overall experience. I talk about No More Heroes a lot so will be brief here, but I remain absolutely convinced that the reason the sequel was in some circles felt less engaging as the original was because it was made more user-friendly. The much criticised side-jobs (lawnmowing, etc) might have been boring for the three minutes they took to complete, but not only made the game's action sequences more exciting by contrast but also added a layer of thematic depth to the story. I wrote at length about NMH in one of my very early Cblog posts, so go here if you're interested in a more extensive analysis of the game.

There is a difference between a difficult game, which can be a challenging version of a familiar and accessible scenario, and one which is brave enough to manipulate its players' negative emotions. Sadness, anger, powerlessness and boredom are a part of everyday life and while many would argue that games should be an escape from those things, they are also emotions which can enhance the positives and elevate an experience, be it a book or a film or a game, to a level where you feel better for having gone through it and maybe even teaches you something about yourself. I'm not going to pretend that gaming is the only medium where those kinds of experiences are kept outside the mainstream, but it is a medium that more than most seems fixated on the short-term reward, constantly throwing treats to its players to entice them a little further towards the end. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does result in a lot of games feeling emotionally flat and forgettable. In games like Call of Duty, that's fine: who wants to feel something when there's shooting to be done and kill/death ratios to increase? It would be interesting though to play a war game that challenged gamers to take in the boredom, or the more mundane difficulties, of being a soldier, rather than a constant flood of viscera and explosions. If combat only broke out once or twice in a game where the vast majority of time was spent performing menial tasks, those moments would be absolutely heart-pounding, especially if combined with the permadeath which AwesomeExMachina so eloquently advocated in his Monthly Musings post.

I don't know or much care whether games can be considered art, but I do know that when I look at many great works of art, they inspire a mix of positive and negative emotions and challenge the way I would normally look at life. When I play games, the emphasis almost always seems on positive things, be it offering regular doses of success or looking visually attractive, for example. (Ice-Pick Lodge's Pathologic is one of the few games I've played with the courage to be genuinely - and deliberately - unpleasant to look at, yet is stronger for it.) Games might not need to be art, but it wouldn't hurt to step back and take some inspiration from it. Van Gogh's depression caused some of the most stunning paintings ever put to canvas. James Joyce's Ulysses expanded my views on what could be achieved and conveyed through literature. Ice-Pick Lodge's The Void inspired me to come up with a topic for this Monthly Musing. Sometimes a little suffering can go a long way.


Flixist: The Cult Club - Django (1966)

Hit-Reset: Is it time to send the Wii into retirement?

Flixist: Review - The Adjustment Bureau

Hit-Reset: 25 Years of Zelda - The Legend of Zelda (NES) retrospective

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