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On Getting Better At Games

On Getting Better At Games

Filed inside: Editorial

I’ve encountered a strange phenomenon lately that I’ve had trouble putting my finger on, until I caught a Reddit post involving Minesweeper. Do people really get “better” at games anymore?

Outside of games that are deliberately designed for competition like fighting games and, to a lesser degree, many first-person shooter games, I’m starting to think that this answer is “no”, especially as you look at the single-player game space.

Minesweeper Expert

Still got it…almost.

Let me give you some context for the Minesweeper thing. Back in my younger days I spent more than enough time playing games over LAN connections with my brother, duking it out in Warcraft II or spelunking through Diablo. When he wasn’t around, though, I’d play something on our Super Nintendo, or load up some of the pre-loaded stuff on Windows XP.

Now one of these was Minesweeper. I’m sure you know it, big grid, lots of numbers, confusing as hell. Despite every bone in my body being awful at it (it was basically a guessing game to my ten-year-old mind), I persisted, always trying to somehow figure this game out. I understood the general concept: the number relates to the number of mines that surround that space.

At some arbitrary point, it became a weird obsession of mine. I was tired of being unable to finish the game without customizing the grid to be massive while only having ten mines on it, cheating the system for a win. So one fateful summer day, I plunked down and I really considered what I was doing.

Within a week I was regularly completing the hardest difficulties. Patterns had begun to emerge. Looking back, it almost feels silly that I couldn’t see some of the simple indicators. Threes on flat surfaces tag everything, a one on a corner, for instance. The difference in how I played the game before and after setting my mind to it was staggering, even over a short period of time.

Then I started to wonder. Have we reached the point where we no longer get “better” at games? And similarly, has the design of the modern game clouded any sense of improvement or betterment we might get from those games?

There are games that absolutely answer this question as “No.” As I mentioned before, games that are inherently meant for competition by design—fighting games, puzzle games and in some ways multiplayer-based shooters are prime examples.

By and large, though, many of the qualities of modern gaming—especially on the more mainstream end of things—have begun to overshadow the sense of personal improvement that I remember from those past experiences of mine.

Max Payne 3 Difficulty Settings

Games still feature a difficulty setting, that makes further demands on the player, perhaps demanding twitchier reflexes, or more careful movement, but in a single playthrough of a game on a given difficulty, it feels more and more like the drive to get better at a game you play alone has been dwindling.

Take, for example, your basic action game. Something like God of War or Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2By their very nature, the games get more “difficult” as the game progresses, you encounter stronger enemies in larger quantities, and the like. At the same time, however, you gain various forms of experience and new abilities with which to combat your foes. Death results in the loss of no more than minutes, as the games are autosaving nigh-constantly.

Call of Duty Unlocks

The modern FPS is another example. Heavy amounts of snap-to-aim (on a consolem, anyway) make individual enemies generally nonthreatening. Awareness of enemy spawn locations and good cover are more conducive to survival in a given level than general accuracy can be. And even if the game does throw more enemies at you (and if this is your general Call of Duty sort of game, there’s really only one kind of enemy, with a few exceptions) you’re often given some kind of improved gun or turret or what-have-you to balance the odds. Once again, failure only means going back a few minutes, so what do you have to lose?

I would cite one of my recent favorites, PayDay 2, as some kind of exception to this rule, but even it encounters some of the same pitfalls. There are difficulty levels that adjust enemy types, numbers, and abilities. The layout of a given heist can change every time you play it (though the general floor plan is almost always the same), and a death means going back to the beginning of the heist. That being said, you still “level up” in the game and unlock better guns, new abilities, and weapon mods to enhance your effectiveness—a quality that can easily overshadow any feeling of getting “better” at the game.

League of Legends

To a degree, I know that it can’t be said that gamers don’t at all get better at the games they play. I’ve jumped into some League of Legends games, and can easily tell you that some of those players are better than me. I’ve seen friends really commit to that improvement, and have reaped the benefits of such. But as I’ve said before, that is a game that is inherently designed to be competitive, and reward the “better” player.

This applies more to the single-player or fully co-operative experience, then, I suppose, which are more my focus in my gaming travels anyway. My most recent foray is Watch_Dogs, basically Grand Theft Auto, if it were worse at most things, but did have some cool hacking added in. The game really feels like it requires no real effort on my part, and that’s just wholly sad.

Watch_Dogs Combat Focus

I started on the “Realistic” difficulty (I would definitely not call it realistic). So I take lots of damage from bullets (Alright, I guess that’s realistic) and this does make things a challenge in some ways, but I quickly found an effective way to handle most combat scenarios, and was almost never forced to deviate from this method. Take cover. Run a ctOS scan to identify all enemies. Pop from cover, enter focus, shoot many people in the face, return to cover. Pop focus booster if necessary. Game done. The hacking puzzle section might grow more complicated as things go on, but I never felt like I had to drill down and improve myself to finish them. Similarly, escaping police or fixers didn’t become easier because I knew how to navigate my environment better, or became a better driver, but because I unlocked skills that allowed me to neutralize the threats as they drove past environmental barriers of various kinds. It’s like the opposite of assembling an IKEA desk.

The thing about it is that I love that sense of improvement, but also understand the necessity in some cases of acquiring better skills or gear, from a game theory perspective. I love Diablo II, for example. I wouldn’t cite the acquisition of better equipment as an impediment to one’s ability to handle themselves against their foes (well…depends on your build, I suppose), and that’s because looting better stuff is such a key component of the game. Without good gear, you will surely fail. An inability to properly utilize your skills and prioritize targets will also lead to failure, even in great gear.

But in a game like Watch_Dogs, not giving me more tools would have made the game stagnant, it just doesn’t work for that kind of game. Without new weapons and tools, there wouldn’t be a good framework to allow players to develop their own personal abilities, the game isn’t geared that way. The acquisition of new items and skills is in itself rewarding, and keeps players coming back to play. That I do get, and even appreciate. New skills can really make a game worth coming back to, but can also impede the sense of accomplishment that comes with tackling sticky situations with few tools on-hand.

Even the increasingly popular PDL-style (Procedural Death Labyrinth) games and roguelikes are, to some degree, guilty of this, though less so than your modern AAA experience. These games are built around the concept of a shorter experience that is, for all intents and purposes, randomized every time. Within a particular set of rules, you are left with hopefully a little luck and an entire game that is designed only to cause you pain and grief. This would include games such as FTLPixel DungeonSword of the Stars: The Pit.

FTL Advanced Edition

I cannot deny that these games are subject to a degree of skill. I can generally complete a game of FTL on the normal difficulty with a little struggle here and there, whereas many of my friends have not yet completed a single game on easy. I would attribute this to the action-based nature of combat in the game, as well as clever crew management—elements which can reward quick thinking and reflexes. Even so, a run in the game can be crippled by a bad batch of RNG events, events which were almost wholly out of the control of the player.

My brother and I are both avid Pixel Dungeon fans of late, and both of us saw the same progression in which we couldn’t get past the fourth stage, until we really started to understand the some of the core elements of the game. It took me exactly 100 games to get my first victory. That win, however, was predicated largely on a lucky armor find early in the game that kept me from taking too much damage. My brother, similarly, attributes his first win to an early ring of Haste that eventually allowed him to attack and move twice for every monters’ single action. Though our understanding of how and when to upgrade equipment, when to run, and how to manage the use of certain potions might have pushed us a little further, it took luck to get us all the way.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t games that truly foster this sense of improvement. I do love a good puzzle game (played enough Tetris), and those are prime for really watching yourself grow in ability. In my experience, the most dramatic change I was able to identify in myself came with Lumines and Catherine. Both are fantastic experiences. They have their little quirks and rules, and these are explained and rarely—if ever—deviated from.

Catherine Gameplay

Your character or avatar within the game never improves, in terms of abilities. In Catherine, Vincent doesn’t gain the ability to suddenly move a kind of block he couldn’t before, or jump up two levels instead of one (excepting the item that does allow that temporarily). Instead, traversing these levels in new ways is explained throughout the game as “techniques” that the characters in the game are developing on their own, as each struggles to reach the top of this mysterious tower. These are techniques that you can do at any time, and might have sorted out on your own, and serve as inspirations for new ways to move in your environment to reach success.

Full Bore, an indie puzzler that came out quite recently also managed to really foster the sense of self-improvement that I feel has been flowing out of the gaming space for so long. It was even a focus of the developers to make sure players felt this way. By combining insanely ingenious level design and simple block mechanics, the devs made a game that looked like a Metroidvania exploration title (which hinges on the acquisition of new abilities to further progress) that focuses solely on the player and their interpretation of the environment—you never once gain a piece of equipment or special skill that changes how you navigate, it all comes through experience and experimentation.

Why is it, then, that the modern game seems so against us as players becoming better? It almost feels as though, unless specifically mandated to dominate other players, that a game just is, and requires little to see it through. Gone are the days of Contra, where dodging bullets and properly placing shots were necessary to success. You got three lives to handle entire alien hordes, and there was no simple recipe for success. Less prevalent are the XCOMs, which demanded careful advancement of troops, careful allocation of resources and equipment, and consideration of one’s every move to preserve the integrity of your squad. Lost to us is Ikaruga, a brutal bullet hell that requires so much focus, it literally hurts my face to play sometimes. Even the ever-present Battletoads, to which so many players never knew the glory of completing that hoverbike section.

Child Of Light

All is not lost. We do still have games like Child of Light, a turn-based RPG that rewards not only clever timing of attacks and abilities, but proper allocation of skills and knowing when to change tactics. We have The Binding of Isaac, a PDL that still requires proper movement management and threat assessment, and can still be beaten without picking up a single item. We even have Surgeon Simulator 2013, a hilariously frustrating exploration of precision and control. There are still games like Mirror’s Edge, which rewarded situational awareness, good timing, and sharp reflexes without once granting the in-game character a new power or ability.

Dark Souls is probably the most mainstream example that exemplifies the sense of improvement, still requiring careful precision and consideration to your actions. The game actually holds a very special place for me, helping me to sort of  “rehabilitate” myself after a severe injury I’d incurred.

I do hope we see more of them (Mirror’s Edge 2, yes please). Games have become so much more in so many ways when you compare the modern experience to the “retro” days. They have so much more potential to keep us thinking, growing, and learning, even if we never know it. Studies have been done to indicate that regular gaming can improve goal-based thought processes, successful logical thinking, and even aid in the rehabilitation of people with traumatic injuries. Games can absolutely be a tool to “improve” ourselves in so many ways, and I hope to see it become a trend again.

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Written by Ray Allaire -The Reasonable Gamer

Writer, game designer, and gaming analyst. Practitioner of all nerdy arts: Games, tabletop, TCG, and all. Twitter: @mateusrayje

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