Friday, July 3, 2009

FEATURE - Modern gaming has left me soft.

I'm going to use the terms 'causal' and 'hardcore gamer' in this piece. I apologize profusely if that pisses you off.

I've hit a wall in Final Fantasy VII. It's not that I can't overcome the problem - it's that I'm not sure I want to, and I blame modern console gaming. I'm used to opening the map and being shown precisely where to go. I'm used to having easy access to a hint system, a journal that keeps meticulous track of whatever quests I may have embarked on, and a compass that will point me towards the next waypoint. Such are the expectations of a modern gamer - and I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I think there's a sound argument to be made for the idea that games are, perhaps, better than they've ever been.

In order for games to reach a wider audience - to make more people more pleased with them - they need to accommodate a wider range of ability - and this doesn't mean making things harder for the hardcore. Assassin's Creed, BioShock, even Dead Space are all high-quality games, and very "casual friendly". Ignoring multiplayer shooters and fighters, few modern, triple-A games set out to be a hardcore experience. The only example of a major release with sufficient challenge that comes to mind is Mirror's Edge - and that's only if you count the time trials as part of the whole (which I do).

Perhaps the poster child for this shift is the Siren series. There is a lot to say in favor of Siren on the PS2. It has beautiful, haunting art direction, tons of creativity, a wealth of good ideas and an incredible story to tell.

But most of all, Siren is simply hardcore. Challenging is too kind a word - it's difficult to play, takes dedication (and a touch of masochism) to enjoy, and even when you know exactly where to go and what to do, it is a remarkable exercise in severe frustration and stress management. Naturally, there are more than a few tough-as-nails gamers who adore it. This cruel difficulty may have increased one's satisfaction at successfully navigating a level (not in my case), but when combined with horrendous localization work it was a commercial disaster in North America.

When Siren failed to find success in NA, Siren 2 was only localized for a PAL release and Team Siren set to tinkering with their formula, that they might successfully address the most lucrative market in the world: us. Given that it was a PSN-only release over here, I've never seen any sales numbers for the resulting Siren: Blood Curse, but I can tell you it is fantastic.

Beautiful, intelligent, chilling.

Blood Curse still employs classically arbitrary "find the stick to break the bottle to get the key to open the door" adventure game puzzles, but unlike the obtuse original every objective is plainly laid out for you. As a result, you're unlikely to end up banging your head against a virtual wall of twisted logic - you simply open your map and are told precisely where to go and why. And so, your focus is where it should be: on enjoying the game, not on the heinous puzzle that bars your way to further gameplay.

(But David, heinous puzzles are gameplay.)
Yes they are - in Space Quest and Professor Layton. Moving on...

While Blood Curse retains almost everything that bears retaining from Siren, it is in no way shape or form a "hardcore" game. SCE Japan Studio bent over backwards to make their game appealing to a wider audience and - with the cast change - North Americans in particular. And, to my eye, it worked. In almost every way, Blood Curse is an improvement over its predecessor. It's not as lengthy, it's not as challenging, and it's an infinitely more enjoyable experience than the severely intimidating original.

They stripped away The Hardcore, and made a game that's more accessible. A game that's better.

When it comes to sequels - to subsequent iterations - video games enjoy a much better track record than films. Most video games have qualifiable problems and therefor solutions and therefor measurable improvements over their predecessors, and as time passes this allows steady improvement in everything from graphics to - yes - fun.

Cloud keeps getting his ass handed to him.

So I finally got around to playing Final Fantasy VII (released in 1997) , and after 19 hours I've come across a boss that I cannot defeat. To make matters worse, I don't even think I have to kill this guy to advance the story. But he's there - I've found him and I cannot defeat him. There are no hints available, no waypoints to point the way, no NPC to give me some friendly advice - and I refuse to proceed until I have beaten the Terrible Boss That Lives In The Combination Safe.

Many would consider me hardcore, but RPGs have never been my forte. My thumbs have seen mighty battles, overcome impassable obstacles, and in my youth even the most obcenely cryptic adventure game puzzle would be solved with the grim determination that only a prepubescent can muster.

But I've gotten so... comfortable with the way things are, now. Games are better, sure. Games are more fun, but I've lost that stiff-lipped dedication of my youth - and it's not that I'm out of practice with playing games. It's that games have gotten out of the practice of giving me real occasions to rise to.

Tastes great, less filling.

I'm not saying FFVII is wrong - in 1997 it was considered the best-of-the-best. It's certainly no more wrong than BioShock is for dialing back on the difficulty from System Shock 2 and opening itself to a wider audience that is just as appreciative. But, perhaps, the further we travel down this road of Gaming For All, the harder it will be to go back. The obtuse, irreconcilable puzzle of classic games may become the games themselves, and how the heck anyone could ever draw pleasure from the experience offered.

When you can perform a flying uppercut with a wave of your hand, why bother to learn forward, down, down-forward punch? Maybe games are better nowadays. Maybe gaming is better - but I can't help but feel as though we're also in the process of losing something valuable.

Either way, I'm getting past that damned boss in FFVII. Thank goodness for GameFAQs.

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