The Only Way To Survive Was To Become Legend: Musings On Old Vs. New Videogame Design

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 15.678% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

These days, people play videogames to pretend to be a badass.  In my day, you had to be a badass.
I say this because I finished playing Prototype 2 this weekend, the epitome of the “Press X to kick ass” style of videogame that’s become increasingly prevalent.  You play a virus-infected shapeshifter who slurps up enemies, runs up buildings, and slices tanks in half.
Yet none of this is difficult.
To hijack a tank, you press B to grab it and then mash X to tear its gun off.  The military rains useless gunfire down on you while you mash Y to Hammerfist them into oblivion.  You can fall infinite distances and never get hurt, soaring over the landscape before slaughtering a crowd full of people by mistake as you land in a thunderclap.  Even the boss battles are rendered easy, as you destroy a cancerous giant one limb at a time, your targeting system telling you which leg is vulnerable.
You’re doing these incredibly difficult things, but it boils down to “mash these buttons.”  You feel like a God because hell, you’re destroying the city block, but none of it is difficult once you master the control scheme.  I got through the game in less than a week, playing part-time.  Which is pretty much the same as God of War, wherein you perpetrate legendary violence through a series of Simon Says events, and Mass Effect and Dragon Age wherein you can destroy entire caverns full of mooks right off the bat, or Grand Theft Auto.
Videogames have made power fantasies trivial.  Here!  Do this quicktime event to DESTROY THE UNIVERSE!  You pressed X, then Y, then A?  You, sir, are a badass.
Which is interesting, because the worlds of my old videogames were designed to kill you quickly, so the next quarter could be inserted.  Their whole profit margin involved shuffling you to that “GAME OVER” screen as soon as possible.
When I was a kid, the world was designed to show you how insignificant you were.  You weren’t the center of a universe that was waiting hand-and-foot for you to come along and rescue them; you were a small, pizza-shaped wedge beset by four ghosts, any of whom could kill you by touching you.  You were a spaceship at the bottom of a screen, harangued by hundreds of flying, shooting enemies.  You were a small spaceship struggling to survive in a deadly asteroid field.  You died easily, trivially, unfairly.
Your only way to survive was to become legend.
There was no easy way to do this, aside from applying hard-earned skill.  You plunked quarters into the damn machine until you figured out the patterns, honed your reflexes, slid into the game’s rhythm.  Bit by bit, you lasted longer: two minutes. Five.  Ten.  If you were exceptionally good you might last fifteen, at which point other pasty nerds would edge forward to watch you, knowing they were seeing something that few got to witness.  Sometimes you’d show them screens that had only existed in rumor before.
There was no in-game reward, and little out-of-game reward, as videogames weren’t particularly cool then.  But the right people would know that you had that high score, your three letters your call sign (“WTS” for me early on, “WZL” now), the unremarkable skill.
There were no faux-skills to be built up.  You had to learn a real skill – perhaps one that wasn’t usable anywhere anywhere else, but one that set you apart from other people.  You didn’t pretend to be a badass soldier – you became a badass player, and that in turn gave you a strange and ephemeral confidence.  You’d watch the novices play and realize how far you’d come.  You’d put the quarter in and feel invincible.
Thing is, I spent maybe fourteen hours devastating New York in Prototype 2.  I tore the heads of goliaths, I firebombed secret bunkers, I fought the US Army and the mercenary forces of watches to a standstill, then defeated Alex Mercer in an epic rooftop battle.
Yet none of that meant one-tenth as much to me as my legendary Ms. Pac-Man run, where I spent two agonizing hours racking up a personal best score with my Dad and wife at my side cheering me on.  Because in one game, all of my prowess was granted to me by a developer who wanted me to feel good about myself.  In another, I had painstakingly built up an arsenal of skills over the years, stealing prowess from a developer who wanted me to die, die, and die now.
The design has changed.  And I wonder how that affects people today.


  1. Megan Gedris
    Jun 4, 2012

    I was musing on this same thing last night as I played a bunch of pinball. Figuring out the tricks to each machine, which parts to hit, I felt so much more accomplished than figuring out a video game. I decided I wanted to be the kind of person who is good at pinball.

    • TheFerrett
      Jun 4, 2012

      We should totes meet at Pinball Pete’s before the next con and get some pinball on. I, too, wanted to be the kind of person who’s good at pinball. So did Gini.

  2. S Kennedy
    Jun 4, 2012

    I think that in this case you need to recall that that remarkable skill only applies to a very narrow set of people (that being what makes it so amazing). The gaming industry is an empire now, where it was tiny before, and they intend to satisfy as many people as possible. Of course, they have created Nightmare mode (or its equivalent), and those can indeed be challenges – they just aren’t requirements.
    I think many players just play games on the default level and are then dissatisfied with the ease of the outcome, when what they really want is the challenge that the designers created in another difficulty setting. Though even some games on the atari had varying difficulty levels to be honest – accessed with an old-school switch.
    Anyway, I want to experience the entire game, not be stuck on level 8 over and over and over until I run out of continues and then put the game aside forever, as I have done in the past.
    There is only so much routine before a game loses its charm (talk to any expatriate of World of Warcraft).

    • The Ferrett
      Jun 4, 2012

      My answer can be found here. The shorter version: Yes, it’s nicer from a marketing perspective, but a) it’s not the same, and b) you do lose something in pleasing massive crowds.

  3. Emanuel Viçoso
    Jun 4, 2012

    Man, this brought me back a few years.
    I was, as a kid, an arcade junkie. At my town, we measured our skill by how many arcades we had completed with a single quarter (the ones that were able to be completed, such as Golden Axe, and such).
    That number, and seing your initials weeks on end on the same machine (EGV for me), were the only intangible trophies you acquired as a gamer.
    Thanks for the trip down to those years, man,

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