Not Being Good At Video Games


Dissertation is out of my hands awaiting approval from someone to send it out to get approval from other people. Academia really knows how to make work.

In any case, I wanted to stop and talk about something I really like: video games! Specifically I wanted to talk about a game called “Cuphead.” Cuphead is basically a side-scroller boss battle game.

For those who don’t do gaming, you run from left to right, shooting things until you reach a boss, where you shoot it, until it dies. Level complete, begin next level.

I first became aware of this game several E3’s ago when Microsoft included it in a montage of upcoming games. (It was delayed a few times since then.) What really impressed me about it was the throwback 1930s cartoon style animation. I’m a sucker for retro stuff like that and so I was interested. Now to be entirely clear, I haven’t played Cuphead yet, I’m keeping my gaming to a minimum until I defend. Also I primarily console game and haven’t gotten an Xbox One yet. (I haven’t PC gamed in so long I don’t even know where my USB controller is.)

The game looks hard, and reviews seem to back that up to an extent. Although reading the Polygon review it seems the game doesn’t get insanely hard until the very end. Nevertheless, there’s now apparently an ongoing discussion about whether the game is “too hard”. This is coupled with praise for UbiSoft’s inclusion of a conflict free “tourism” mode in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed game.

The general idea percolating here seems to be one that can be summarized thusly: Games shouldn’t have barriers to entry for people who lack skill.

This is a dumb idea for several reasons. First and foremost, the people writing these articles, who ostensibly are people who play video games, seem to have forgotten what makes video gaming a unique entertainment experience, namely the interaction element. But even more than that (since choose your own adventure novels have some small level of interaction) there’s the challenge aspect of the interaction element. Broken down in into it’s most basic element any game (video or not) requires some level of skill to access. That skill level to access a game varies, consider checkers vs. chess. It can be a rudimentary level of skill (see Tic-Tac-Toe) but still a skill aspect is a necessary part of games. (To be clear, there’s also a difference between being able to play a game and having mastered it. I play chess, I’m bad at chess. This is not a contradiction. The skill level required for mastery is a totally different discussion.)

Now video games represent a special category of games in that they are coupled with the video element. More recently this video element has been used to tell a story creating a hybrid form of media. (To the extent Pac-Man had a story, it was very thin.) I’m not sure if follows though that because there is a story tied up in the gameplay aspect that we must throw out the gameplay. You’d no longer have a video game then. (You might still have an interactive video, which is a different media altogether.)

I’d also note what Ubisoft’s “tourism” mode doesn’t have: it doesn’t have the story. As described it’s basically a way to wonder around looking at the game’s art and possibly interact with some factoid robots. (An interactive digital museum of sorts.) It is not, as the article implies, a “skip boss” button. Why they don’t just let you have a free floating camera at that point is beyond me, but I’m not the designer.

Which brings us to the second point: games have designers/creators, and those designers get to make the choices they want for their games. Just as directors get to make choices for movies, authors for books, etc. Listen, I find Neuromancer to be incredibly hard to read,  this doesn’t mean I get to demand that Gibson create a simpler work for me to digest. Not everything needs to be for every person. You are allowed to target specific audiences.

Now yes, as a practical matter, if you want to create a game for the mass market, I recommend some difficulty settings. People have varying skills, and to hit the widest market you’ll need to cast a wide net. But there’s no rule that says you have to target a wide audience. (It’s arguable that the market for sidescrollers is already pretty well defined to the point that difficulty settings wouldn’t add any value to the market.)

This brings us to my last point: there’s nothing wrong with challenge. Have I given up on games. Yep, if I find the challenge no longer worth the payout I stop. I’ve also beat my head against the wall for days trying to get past the point in some games. Heck just this last week or so I was stuck on the last level of Sonic Mania. Over and over and over again. Eventually I got past it. But you know what, I still didn’t get all the chaos emeralds, so I didn’t get the “good ending” and I’m OK with that. I had fun playing (and will likely play some more.)

There’s nothing wrong with being mediocre at video games. For a variety of reasons (poor hand-eye coordination, slow reflex response, etc.) I’m pretty mediocre at games. And yet, there are very few games I feel have been “exclusionary” towards me. And those that are, I don’t play. (Never really had an interest in Dark Souls.) This is how entertainment is consumed. No one owes you anything.