On Challenge

A few years ago Jonathan Blow (the dude what made Braid) gave a talk about why modern video games are fundamentally perverse. In short, game developers are challenged to tell a story while simultaneously designing a series of puzzles that stop the story entirely until the audience is able to demonstrate sufficient dexterity or cunning to continue.

In this respect, video games are unique: no other form of expression demands anything from the audience. Literature, theater, music and movies; all are passive experiences. Games are an (inter)active experience, borne of balls and boards and the challenges they represent.

Here’s a fun thought experiment: imagine an alternate universe where you watch Sucker Punch or The King’s Speech in an AMC theater filled with stationary bikes hooked up to permanent magnet motors, which generate electricity when spun; fall behind the minimum watts/hour required from every individual to power the screen, and a warning buzzer starts to flash above your head. Fail too often and pray your fellow viewers are willing to pick up the slack, lest you find yourself kicked from the theater.

If you want to make things more interesting, permit power-hungry pedal-pushers to bank their excess watts and dole them out to theater-mates who can’t keep up. Demand different intensities or feats of dexterity during certain parts of the movie, and reward good performance (or repeat customers) with “AMC Achievement Points” and the option to unlock new bikes, new positions and preferential seating.

Sound ridiculous? It is. Yet we welcome such structures in our games because they are challenges first, and entertainment second.

Games and I have had a falling-out of sorts in the past few months, and I hope to use this space to explore where the blame lies. I worry that as our relationship matured I came to want different things from games: more options, more interesting conversation, and the freedom to explore new worlds. I needed my space, and the popular media reassured me I was right to ask for it; developers like Rockstar and Volition built easy, expansive games that catered to my wildest fantasies. But without those fundamental challenges that our relationship was based on, I quickly found my passion for games growing cool.

I live to experience new things. Games are awesome because they challenge you, and in surmounting those challenges you discover new things about yourself and the world around you. When I played Deus Ex for the first time, I discovered the silly joy of convoluted conspiracy theories and the thrill of a perfectly executed stealth kill. Years later I bought Morrowind on a lark and lost more than a hundred hours without ever finishing the game, too wrapped up in discovering the charms of an alien world.

Thankfully, the thrill of a challenge and the joy of discovery are not unique to games. Challenging myself to press bodyweight on the flat bench or set foot on every continent has been equally exciting; the pounds lost and the passport stamps gained have been equally rewarding, if not more so, and completely novel to boot. Perhaps I’ve grown too complacent in my game selection; every month multiple great games are released, including sequels and spin-offs beyond count, such that it’s seductively simple to sink into a glorious ghetto of your favorite game franchises. Why, one could spend the rest of 2011 playing only the games of Bioware or Blizzard and be perfectly happy.

But I am not happy, and I am beginning to suspect that it is because I am no longer challenged by the games I play. With that in mind, I propose a new challenge: every month, I will borrow or buy a game that I would heretofore never consider touching, and play it to completion. Sports games, fighting games, dating sims; nothing is out of bounds. First up is Bulletstorm, an openly brotastic obscenity-packed balls-to-the-wall blastfest from People Can Fly, the Polish brodeo behind Painkiller. It looks fucking ridiculous, and I can’t wait to dive in, wallow around and tell you all about it.

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2 Responses to On Challenge

  1. Pingback: Let’s Play! | Palette Swaps

  2. Pingback: Vanquish! | Palette Swaps

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