One commonly talked about theme in Video Games these days is frustration. Depending on the video game, the difference between frustrating and rewarding difficultly can be one additional death for your character, or spending an extra fifteen minutes wondering around lost. There have always been difficult games, but since the NES days games seem to be getting a little easier. Constant checkpoints and recharging health are just two of many ways that games have eased off on players. Is that a bad thing? If these parts of game play are getting easier, why do video games seem just as frustrating as ever?
The answer lies largely in the amount of new variables video game players now have to deal with. From video game controllers, to the amount of game types, games have gotten more complex. They influence the levels of difficulty, frustration, and time needed to learn a game. They can stop casual gamers from becoming hardcore gamers, and make video game theory much more difficult than it was during the 8-bit era.
The first example is one of the most apparent. Modern game controllers have more buttons now than in previous generations. Anyone with eyes knows this, (maybe even some people without eyes, like mole people.) Yet how often do we reflect on the complexities of these hand fitting devices? Do you remember the first time you gripped the square form of an NES controller? What about the first time you had to wrap your hand around a Dreamcast controller?
Just in terms of input, our current controllers demand a lot more of us than during the 8 or even 16 bit eras of console gaming.
The controller is often the most talked about hurdle for people that don’t play video games. Perhaps it was for this reason that Nintendo made the Wii around more accessible actions, with Sony and Microsoft following suit with the Wand and Natal. However, the controller isn’t where the problem with increased video game variables ends. Modern video games in and of themselves have a lot more to visually digest, (in your eye stomachs,) and a lot more going on behind the scenes. The amount of enemies, scale of the levels, even the budget for video games has increased at an impressive rate. Adding more buttons to a controller was the outcome of video games evolving, not the other way around.
Games from back in the day, (NES era,) were generally on a 2d plane. All the traps, enemies, power-ups, all of it, were immediately seen and able to be approached. The only worry from off screen in Mario might be the occasional errant turtle shell. In other words, Mario’s entire world at the moment was what you could see, extending off the edges of the screen ever so slightly in either direction. Problems of the future didn’t have to be dealt with yet, and couldn’t affect you until they scrolled on screen.
Most games these days take place in a 3D space, yet you’re still viewing them through a flat screen, and interacting with a controller. The game worlds have become a lot larger in all directions, and because of that your view of the world is more limited. In both third person and first person games, your vision has been limited to a certain area in front of you, while at least half of the game world keeps on truckin’, unseen by your character. It could be two lone snipers lurking just to the sides of your sight, or a million trained monkeys, each with rabies and an adorable pair of suspenders.
So while the worlds that we interact with become grander, they also become more complex, and so have our ways of interacting with them, but not at the same rate. We now have multi-buttoned, pressure sensitive controls to try and help us interact with the various game worlds.
All of these added variables, to both the controllers, and game worlds, have made games more difficult to understand and interact with. Whereas a game company in the NES era could be fairly certain how you would approach an obstacle, (probably from the left if it was a side scroller,) game companies these days have to figure out a myriad of possibilities. How much ammo do you have? In what direction should you be looking? How much information do you need for a quest? Does that door look like you can open it when you can’t? How many ways can the player enter this area? Can enemies kill you too easily in this section? All these problems are now compounded by the fact that in all first and third person games you cannot ever view the entirety of the 3D world at once. Different game developers have tried different ways to solve these problems, with varying amounts of success.
Many action games such as Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, and Gears of War will have separate fight areas. Many times, walking into these areas, all of the enemies will be presented up front. So while not all enemies will always be present on camera, the player will have a good idea of how many enemies are in any given area. This works to a limited degree, as it’s never unclear what you have to kill, but getting hit off screen by a giant flying sickle or exploding arrow still chastises the player for no reason.
Batman: Arkham Asylum cuts down on confusion by separating the combat into two segments, stealth and brawling. One of the main elements of the stealth segments is to identify all of your enemies, then take them out one by one. This allows the player to always know the reason they perished and to slow down the pace of play. The brawling sections have the camera pan up slightly, which allows the player to see all the enemies that are currently attacking. The player might not see all the enemies they have to brawl with, but at least they can see the ones they need to defend against.
The COD Modern Warfare games provide a video game experience that has made the series very popular by creating a realistic wartime environment . However, this action-packed single-player experience can end up being a great frustration to the player. By constantly surrounding the player with far off enemies, and enemies at higher elevations, they can create a better simulation of the chaos of war, but it is also extremely frustrating to the player, especially at higher difficulties. Getting flanked by enemies with shotguns that you never knew were there, getting hit by random grenades, these are deaths that teach you very little. It’s not uncommon to die and have to replay a ten minutes segment, only to play it the same way and come out alive the second time.
Once you address the rising number of variables in video games, it’s easy to see where developers have tried to simplify games. The Halo series popularized rechargeable health for just this reason. Now game designers no longer have to worry about what level of health a player is at when he enters a new encounter. As long as the player survived the last encounter, developers only have to find out the amount of ammo or items the player has walking into the next fight. Is this way superior to health packs? Valve has shown us with the Half Life series that health packs can still be a valid method of healing; it just takes more work to make sure that the player always has a certain amount of health.
So frustration in games has evolved with games themselves. While games are getting easier in terms of the tools players have available, they have become so complex that the frustration aspect is just as prominent as ever due to a much larger amount of information a player has to accurately process. What started out as raw frustration in relation to difficultly has changed into frustration due to lack of game play clarity. These can be annoying hurdles to hardcore gamers, and locked gates of entry to casual gamers. Modern video games demand not just that you have fast reflexes, but that you are able to quickly identify the variables in a level and how to interact with them. Push the wrong button, and you might find yourself jumping to your death more often than climbing to safety.