Gaming challenges

Via slashdot, a post on puzzles in video games by Michael Abbott:

Despite my fondness for the adventure games of yore, it appears the days of puzzles in narrative games have come and gone. Puzzles – especially the serial unlocking variety found in the old LucasArts games – seem to have become a relic of a bygone era. Where they once provided a necessary ludic element to a—clever and often complex narrative – designed to add challenge and force the player to earn his progress through the story – few modern players have the patience for such challenges anymore.

If we follow the Alex Galloway/McKenzie Wark argument where games have a logic that needs to be learnt so the ‘rules’ can be exploited, then every game is a form of puzzle. Abbott is making a neo-Kantian point about the incorporation of time for reflection in this gaming logic. What Abbott calls ‘puzzles’ allow for a greater duration of reflection in the necessary circuits of action-reaction of gaming practice than the contemporary ‘action’-based games. The loss of reflection time is lamented as a generational shift in market-determined game design. This shift is perhaps also apparent in the rise of RTS games (often with RPG elements) over their turn-based counterparts. The duration of gaming challenges can be understood on an affective spectrum from immersion to patience. Broadly speaking, in the temporality of gaming a shorter duration between action and the contingent (albeit program-based probabalistic) outcome of the action produces a more immersive experience.

Various comments in the original blog post (linked above) talk about the boring “click everything” gaming action of Myst and the like. The entire gaming representational space becomes a low-level intensive space where anything could potentially become a necessary component in the action. Compare this to the dialectical opposite, the ‘horror’ aesthetics of Doom 3 where, again, basically everything — every ‘corner’ or ‘darkness’, which there was a lot of in the game — could potentially be the location of a necessary component of action (a DEMON!). The aesthetic architecture of contingency in Doom 3 produced a high-level intensive space that forced gamers to experience the game in a far more immersive way compared to puzzle-based games. The acceerated rhythm of short-duration contingency of intense action-reaction circuits defines the genre of FPS. To a certain extent however, gamers also rejected this mode of action as they got bored being continually interpellated into Doom 3’s atmospheric immersion ‘trickery’.

3 replies on “Gaming challenges”

  1. Great analysis of an interesting argument! The article mentions Portal as a notable counter-example to the modern trend towards puzzle simplicity. It certainly mixes high-octane action and complex, environment-based puzzles. Part of the appeal is probably that it’s built on the Half-Life II engine, which was also a fairly in-depth narrative/ puzzle-solving game. It’s interesting, too, that the same engine was modified later for the massively popular first-person shooter, CounterStrike.

    None of these have anything like the “realism” Galloway is arguing for — a deep connection to a realistic, situated social space which provides narrative and environmental context at once. The question is how to make RPG games more open, or put another way, how to “completely” merge a large-scale RTS and an individual-scale RPG? In a way, the problem is time, how to merge the two time-scales so they dove-tail smoothly. In addition to the dangerous burden you’d be placing on the user by submersing them in a ‘realistic’ social simulation, the fact is that the software technology needed for such a massive simulation of a realistic society is still in its infancy.

    Sorry to go on so long! Thanks for this.

  2. You make an interesting point about the two time scales. I may have to borrow it! RTS and RPG games operate on different scales of phenomenological event.

    An example of where ‘protocol’ does not matter so much is the use of the quake2 engine to run UFO: Alien Invasion basically a user made sequel to the UFO turn-based strategy game series.

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