Out of all the series I’ve been writing on this site, I’ve got the most ideas by far for the Of Axioms and Idioms series. Kind of sad considering it’s among my newest, but at the very least, it gives me topics to write about. This is one of the earliest ones that occurred to me when I decided to start this little recurring series, so this article has honestly been a long time coming. That’s the best thing about this series: since it mostly relates to my tastes and opinions, it’s kind of difficult for any of them to really become irrelevant. Feel free to stay tuned for the next one, where I discuss how those new-fangled 32-bit consoles aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
The topic I’ll be discussing in this article is a little difficult to explain, but I’ll try my best. Put simply, when I win, I like knowing how I did it. Think of my reactions to gaming across two separate axes: whether I win or lose and whether I understand what’s happening in the game itself. The ideal is obviously for me to win and understand why I won. Losing but understanding why I lost is also fine, that just adds to the thrill of the hunt in my opinion. Losing and not knowing why is generally good as a first step, but hopefully it will eventually lead to an understanding of just how the game in question functions. A first step, if you will, in my process to figure out how a game works. Which brings us to the last possible outcome: winning without knowing how. It drives me crazy, I hate it so much.
It’s funny just how many of these ideas seemed to be inspired by my reflections on the Ys series. The topic came to me while I was reflecting on the differences of Ys VI and its direct predecessor Ys V. Despite the 8 years between the release of those games, they shared many similarities: in setting, in gameplay mechanics and even in my experiences while playing them. In both games, I beat the final bosses on my first attempt. Of course, how I came to the conclusions of each game were completely different. In Ys VI, I understood exactly what I needed to do to beat the final boss, the strategy I needed to follow to avoid losing and it worked out well, taking what I’d learned throughout the game and applying it within the context of a “final exam”. The end of the game just felt satisfying, even if I found that the game’s final challenge lacked difficulty. Ys V, on the other hand, I just sort of randomly beat the final boss. To this day, I still don’t know what strategy I had to use to beat it. I essentially just spammed jump slashes and won. It’s demoralizing to even look back at the video archive I have of it. There was no rhyme or reason behind my victory. Granted, I didn’t really have that much fun playing the game altogether, so my reaction was more one of relief than triumph. In retrospect, my victory felt accidental – and frankly, that’s never a good sensation.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time I remember feeling cheated by something like this. Way back in 2011, I attended PAX East, as I was living in Boston at the time. I generally just went to play demos for upcoming games that had interested me, and among them were two upcoming fighting games: the Mortal Kombat reboot and indie-darling Skullgirls. I played Mortal Kombat first – to the extent where I made a beeline for the booth the second I arrived at the convention, and there was a big line for it – and had a blast. Even though I got my butt kicked, I completely understood what was going on and decided that it would definitely be worth learning the various mechanics and techniques in full when the game released. Skullgirls, on the other hand, had a fittingly sparse booth, with absolutely no line. I got in one match …and I ended up hating it. I won, quite easily, but I didn’t honestly feel any challenge. The victory had no impact, I essentially won easily on a lark and I ended up hating the game for it. It got so bad that, for quite some time, I openly pointed out just how much I hated the game and almost ignored it completely upon its release, deciding to only play the demo on Xbox 360 at a couple of my friends’ requests. The final product was good and to this day I still love it, but it’s just amazing how much of a turnaround my opinion on the game changed from that initial gut reaction. Granted, when I first played the game, it was only beginning to reach a development stage that would eventually resemble the final product, so clearly an insane amount of work went into the game between my first impression and the original public release.
I suppose this last example only really applies as a technicality. I loved the original Dead Rising, even if I only got to it a few years after its initial release, around the time that Capcom was hyping up the release of the sequel. Regardless, my first attempt at a playthrough was disastrous at times. It eventually got to the point where I simply became unable to progress any more. So, I decided to restart the game …only to find that all of the experience levels and new abilities I’d earned on my first attempt had stayed with me the entire time, allowing me a much easier time of progressing through the game once again. Turns out that was Capcom’s intention from the beginning: trying to beat the game on a single run is a challenge that should only be attempted by the most hardcore Dead Rising fans. This had the bonus effect of also allowing players to learn from any mistakes they might have made during previous runs. This replay mechanic allows players to hone their skills and avoid missing out on the game’s main storyline or side missions, teaching them how to better manage their time through the tried and true method of trial and error. While I think the second game managed to strike the perfect balance between accessibility and challenge, the first game’s take was so clever, I can’t help but still love it. Then I think about what’s happened to the series since: Dead Rising 4 is nothing but a bland generic action game, which stripped out any unique elements from the first two and replaced it with the ability to take selfies with zombies. I’m almost certain one of those drinking bird toys could beat it.
In the end, I suppose this all extends from how I view video games as a whole. Much like how someone who likes doing crosswords or solving math problems in their spare time, I prefer to think of most video games – or at least the ones I enjoy – as puzzles, challenges to be solved and completed. As such, I like winning at video games with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it as much as a mathematician would enjoy solving a math problem by just guessing the answer at random or a crossword enthusiast would like solving a puzzle by just writing the letter Z everywhere. For me, there needs to be a logic behind any achievements or victory: if I’m just going to randomly win based on nothing, I don’t really see much of a point in putting any form of input into it. I might as well just be watching a Let’s Play at that point – how much of a difference is there between watching someone play through a video game and playing through it yourself when it almost feels like victory is assured from the beginning? I’m afraid I can’t get much out of a game if there’s no struggle, nothing to strive for, no challenge to overcome. At that point, I feel like I might as well be watching a movie. If it feels like I don’t need to earn whatever victory condition is set before me, even in the most rudimentary way, it just ends up feeling patronizing and turns me off.
You’d probably expect this opinion of mine to manifest into a hatred of the trend of “hand-holding” in modern game design. Honestly, you’d be wrong. The thing is that, even at its most blatant, hand holding shows the player everything they need to do. Outside of the most extreme cases, it doesn’t just automatically win the game for them. Even in those rare cases, there’s usually some kind of a caveat, even outside of my own personal “you’re only cheating yourself” perspective. Maybe it doesn’t actually count the stage as beaten, like the Super Guide in various Nintendo platformers: putting a little asterisk there to twist the knife and remind the player to go back and complete the level when their skills have improved to the point where they can do it without help. I’m not going to lie, there are times where forced “hand-holding” is detrimental to game design, but I can’t recall any case where it outright tears out a victory condition and replaces it with “yeah, sure, whatever”. Frankly, I find that way more annoying than every arrow pointing towards the next objective or any sidekick whose sole purpose is to constantly reminds players of various things they either learned in the tutorial or just instinctively knew in the first place.
This might actually be a pretty big part of the reason why I’ve always liked fighting games, ever since I first played Street Fighter II on my cousin’s SNES when I was really young. At their core, fighting games end up coming down to strategy. A good grasp of the fundamental concepts behind the fighting game genre takes people further than being able to do a pretzel motion ever could. Psychology matters far more than all but the most basic of executions: I can’t even count how many easy wins I’ve thrown away simply because I wanted to finish off someone with a flashy technique, when I should’ve just punched them and been done with it. In fighting games, every loss is merely a new learning experience and every hard-fought victory is simply a crystallization of all that learning. Most importantly, in all but a few fighting games, there’s never any case of winning or losing for no reason – all is laid bare when fighting games are approached from the proper mindset. Adapting to one’s opponent or learning how to play the game in general is more important than a thousand Raging Demons or Deadly Raves, believe me.
I guess I should consider it fortunate that there aren’t that many games where players can simply win “by accident”. It’s to the point where I can’t even think of any more off the top of my head, aside from the one I mentioned earlier in the article: Skullgirls doesn’t count, that was pre-release build. Yet, I’ve heard many a claim that it is the opposite – losing for inconsistent reasons – that is a true scourge of gaming. While I’d argue that win and loss conditions, not to mention the rules of a game in general, should remain consistent, I’d still say that the worst thing that a game could do is allow victory for seemingly no reason. In my opinion, the existence of a failure state is what makes a game “a game” and by extension, fun. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks that winning at a game is more important than knowing how and why they reached that conclusion. I’d have to say that I’m not sure what I’d be able to say to them. In the end, video games are more about the journey than the destination for me.
So, what do you think? Do you find it infuriating to win in a game while never really knowing why? Or do you feel like it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re winning? Does it matter to you whether you know why you won or lost in a video game? Feel free to sound off in the comments below and let me know what you think.