The 10th Art

We all love a good film, right? I certainly do. And a good book for that matter, though I don’t read nearly as much as I feel I should. I love that feeling you get when you reach the last page of an excellent novel, or experience a fitting climax to a fantastic film. I remember the first time I reached the end of Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, one of my favourite books. It was satisfying because I really felt that I’d seen a compelling adventure through to the end (even though in the case of this book, the end was really the beginning of a whole new story, unlike in the ridiculous cinematic version, but that’s neither here nor there). It was thrilling because it had adhered to the accepted structure of a story, and happened to be an excellent example. You have a beginning (awaking in the hospital and discovering the Triffids), a middle (trying to get to Manchester) and an end (finding his love, accepting that with the Triffids roaming the world, life would never be the same).

This basic structure can be applied to most established forms of entertainment. Take the first film of The Matrix trilogy – Neo if freed, Neo ponders if he is The One, Neo accepts that he is The One and defeats Smith. You can even apply it to a complete trilogy – Luke Skywalker discovers the Rebel’s fight against the Empire, he learns the truth about Darth Vader, he saves the galaxy. It’s a basic structure applied to most narrative forms of entertainment simply because it works. It’s a formula that we’re all accustomed to and expect. Of course, there are always examples that buck the trend, some very successfully, but they rarely achieve the kind of mass-market success as more formulaic examples.

Now we come to games. They’re funny, weird things y’know, but there’s one difference that stands out above all the others. Most games, other than sporting, puzzle and racing titles (though even then there are exceptions) do indeed have a beginning, middle and end. However, only a tiny percentage of people who buy the game ever experience this. Why? Because so few of us ever finish the games we buy. Does this make gaming structurally flawed as an entertainment medium? Now, I can recall a handful of times in my life when I’ve not watched a film through to it’s conclusion or not finished a book, but these incidents are nothing compared to the huge volume of games that sit on my shelf relatively untouched or abandoned after a few hours play.

Why is this? Well, there are probably several reasons. Most obvious is the fact that whilst a film lasts a couple of hours, a game can last anything from 5 or 6 hours to over 100! This is the key reason why I finish so few games, but to 14-year-old Johnny average who can only afford a game every few months this probably isn’t the reason. Maybe more important is that whilst anyone with eyes can watch a film, and anyone who can read can finish a book, it’s not the case that every gamer can complete every game. There are so many obstacles between the average gamer and the completion of a title, aside from the time investment required. Yes, anyone can sit down and complete ESPgaluda with infinite continues but how many people are adequately skilled to complete the likes of Ninja Gaiden or Gradius V?

In Gradius V’s case, it’s a deliberately ramped up difficulty curve that is to blame, but at least that’s a matter of design. How many gamers gave up on Driv3r simply because they lost patience with the poorly designed chases that required Jedi-like precision? Those of us that have been gaming for as long as we remember simply accept this – overcoming a particularly stubborn end of level boss is a mark of respect as much as anything, and many of us don’t mind having to try dozens of times. However, there is an argument that this very structure is detrimental to the industry.

OK, picture the scene. Ricky Casual has just returned from the shops with a couple of titles, Generic Platformer A and Unspectacular Racer X. He plays Generic Platformer A for a few hours but then becomes stuck on a particularly fiddly section where he needs to jump along a line of moving platforms. He can’t get past it; whether it’s due to poor design or his gaming incompetence is irrelevant – he wants to see what comes next. Frustrated, he loads up Unspectacular Racer X only to find that he can’t initially race in the sexy red Ferrari on the front cover. To do so he has to complete all of the competitions on the Expert difficulty, which in turn will unlock the Ferrari. Ricky Casual contacts the developers to complain. They say that the games are made like this so as to reward skilled players and to give them an incentive to carry on playing the title. He says that since he’s spent ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£40 on each title he’s entitled to do whatever the hell he wants with them. After all, if he buys a book he’s free to turn to the last chapter, if he buys a film he can fast forward to the conclusion. If Ricky wants to damn well drive the Ferrari from the off, why shouldn’t he be able to?

Which position sounds right to you? Being a gamer, I’m used to unlockables in games and don’t really question it. But Ricky has a point. I’ve been frustrated in games, we all have. It’s infuriating to get stuck at a particular point in a game simply because you’re not able to do whatever the game deems necessary to continue. Obviously, it’s worse if the problem is due to poor design but it’s still annoying if it’s because you’re simply not good enough. You’ve paid for all of the information on that shiny disc – surely you shouldn’t be excluded from seeing some of it simply because you’re unable to overcome one of the challenges placed in front of you?

It’s a unique situation, and uniqueness is one of the things that I especially love about games. A superb film or book can evoke feelings of elsewhereness, but a game is able to take you there. It allows you to interact with these environments. It allows you to actually play in that team that wins the cup instead of merely following their path, you can save the day, you can make the decisions. But it’s that interactivity which puts up a huge barrier that prevents many from enjoying the real wonders gaming offers. To me a joypad feels as natural in my hand as a spoon, but to some the joypad is a cumbersome, complex device that baffles and alienates.

I’m not saying that this is necessarily a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s more an issue that needs to be kept in mind. Gaming will never be like films or any other standard mainstream pursuit because fundamentally it is so removed from other forms of entertainment. Does this render it flawed? You could argue so, but I disagree. It simply makes it special.

Mailbox:

Following on from my piece about region coding and importing, Nik Thorpe mailed me with some further comments:

“On the subject of importing, the release schedules aren’t the only reason for a UK gamer to import. In the past, import titles have been hugely expensive, far more so than domestic titles: I’m sure you can remember ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£100 for SNES Street Fighter 2 [Yes, and I also remember paying ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£80 for Starfox on the SNES – Ben]. However, at present it’s also a good financial bet to import. I can pre-order Virtua Fighter Cyber Generation or Silent Hill 4 for ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£33 or so with free shipping. This means I’m getting the game months early, and cheaper than if I bought it from a shop. One game on the Xbox list is Psyvariar 2. If this 2D shooter ever receives a release over here, I won’t be getting it, because I’ve had it since the Japanese February release on my Dreamcast, and I got it for the same price then.

Obviously, some retailers don’t charge the standard ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£39.99 rrp, and these companies are to be commended. So too are companies such as Sega, which not only gets it’s games to Europe in a timely manner (a month or so, in the cases of Sonic Heroes and Puyo Pop Fever – in this regard, the American branch is worse, America receiving the latter in June and only on GC), but allows it’s European branch to seek out extra games to suit the market. However, it’s still not every company, and we’re often left envious unless we import.

A question for the US gamers: if your market regularly charged $70 (ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£39.99 = $72.84) for games that had already been in your language for months, wouldn’t you be tempted to import?” – Nik Thorpe

I agree with everything you say here, Nik. It’s all very easy to take a plain stance stating that importing is wrong simply because the games companies denounce it as quasi-legal, but if you explore the subject a little further I cannot see any real argument that justifies a clampdown on importing.

Jairo Maldonado e-mailed me following on from my column about 2D and retro gaming:

“Mere words cannot express what an excellent article that was plus it hit quite a nerve with me on the scope of gaming today. I don’t wanna be one of these gamers who blames the casual market but I wonder if it is true, we got gems like Metal Slug 3 and Gitaroo man with low sales yet crap like Driv3r and Enter the Matrix sells
millions.

I myself have 5 consoles hooked to my TV. My snes, N64, Gamecube, Xbox and PS2 are all hooked and each one offers something I enjoy but I always find myself going for the quirky or unique titles in each system. Things like Luigi’s Mansion, Metroid Prime, Otogi, Gitaroo Man and Gadget Racers. These are games that tried something new and IMO worked beautifully for them although I can enjoy the mainstream games as long as their done right.

I do have one question for you…
How in the blue hell you beat the final stage in MS3 for the Xbox? For the life of me I just can’t pull if off.” – Jairo Maldonado

Thanks for your kind comments, Jairo. It’s certainly bizarre how Sony’s “quality contol” can pass the likes of Catwoman and Enter the Matrix yet turn Metal Slug 3 away, merely because it’s in 2D. I too share your love of quirky titles – watch out for a future column for a piece on that very subject. As for the final boss in MS3, I would love to say that I beat it with nothing but skill, but there was something else helping me… infinite continues! Where there’s a will there’s a way!