Beyond the Hardships Lies Accomplishment: Mountain Climbing and You

The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.
2 For He has founded it upon the seas
And established it upon the rivers.
3 Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in His holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood
And has not sworn deceitfully.
5 He shall receive a blessing from the Lord
And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 This is the generation of those who seek Him,
Who seek Your face—even Jacob.

Psalm 24

Is Christianity mountain climbing, or a gentle hike? It’s interesting to note how many time the Bible depicts God as on top of a mountain, or high above. That reference isn’t unintentional; from a historical perspective (say, secular), YHWH was known by other nations as a mountain god, and thus He is frequently called “the god on High”. Heck, even Moses climbs Mount Sinai/Hebron, further adding to the reputation! But this also hides a different meaning: how do we, as people, ascend the mountain? Through sanctification and hard work, of course!

My parents drilled a Protestant work ethic into my developing brain, and I cannot extract myself. I like working, especially on things that I enjoy personally (such as, you guessed it, writing). Video games, with their structured systems and mechanics, work perfectly for me as both an entertainment outlet and an area of exploration for theological concepts. To go even further, my favorite genre of games also represent that strange work ethic.

Since I restarted Bayonetta, my desire to play so-called “stylish character action games” increased exponentially. Honestly, I imagined that playing the peak of the genre (in my humble opinion, of course!) would damper my enthusiasm, but not so! I would like to see what other developers cook up with this idea. From Goichi Suda (more well known as “Suda51”, so pretentious but awesome) to Tomonobu Itagaki, there’s a wealth of strange Japanese games involving this same archetype of lively 3D action with combos and fighting against enemies up close and personal. Even Western developers joined into the fray with titles like God of War and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (and Dante’s Inferno, I guess).

But there’s a distinct divide between one culture and another, and this also comes down to the design of said games. For the most part, the Western versions of these genres want to make you feel like the hero in the story. A cursory glance of God of War will tell you exactly this: you should feel satisfaction from ripping the heads of mythological creatures from their beautifully crafted polygonal bodies. The frequent quick time events (or QTEs, for short) allow the developers to craft cinematic camera angles while allowing the player to engage with whatever’s occuring. And what’s occurring, for lack of better words, is bloody dismemberment and death. Of course, most video gamers really don’t care much for the aesthetics after a certain point (unless they make a mental note to do that), but the mechanics and aesthetics combine to make the experience exciting and excellent.

Of course, on a mechanical level these games tend to stutter. The initial play done on Normal does succeed in making one achieve something wonderful and great, but subsequent plays start to reveal the reliance on the aesthetic over the mechanical. God of War, for example, merely increases the health of enemies and decreases the damage of your attacks. In that sense, most battles turn into a war of attrition and possible controller exhaustion than any true “skill”. As well, the combos which once look flashy will lose their luster. You’ll quickly find the optimal attacks in your vast repertoire and stick to it, rather than exploring the movelist. There’s really no incentive to mess around once that happens (nor does the game give you any incentive to mess around).

On the other hand, Japanese games in this category do not attempt to provoke these feelings first. Rather, they want you to become the character on screen, whether or not your immersion remains limited to manipulating digital limbs across a high-definition television. To do this, they provide your character with an unbelievable number of different tools, mostly offensive, to beat down the opposition. On the other hand, they also provide you with one or two limited, yet invaluable, defensive measures (think dodging, blocks, and evades) required to complete the game. In most cases, using all of these different tools means experimentation and spatial awareness never required in most other video games. You’ll need to attack, while at the same time looking at other enemies for the right time to dodge or move, while you also analyze which enemies to eliminate first out of the host out for your blood. It’s quite thrilling and engaging at all times when you find yourself in combat.

Furthermore, the better games in this genre force you to use a wide variety of tools. Bayonetta wants you to use lots and lots of different combo moves to enhance your combo multiplier for score (also true of Devil May Cry), while Ninja Gaiden makes each weapon great for different situations and play styles (also played for score if you’re into the Karma system). The enemies actually force you to move around, discover new tactics, and deal with different configurations. In the vein of platformers, I guess we could call this “level design”. The number of options also means that, within mechanical limitations, each player discovers his own style and preferences. Yes, creative violent self-expression is a thing that happens. Just watch two different people play Bayonetta, and there’s a vast range of different strategies to nearly every encounter. Of course, there’s optimal ones, but sometimes it’s fun to just mess around when there’s so many varied ways to eliminate the opposition.

That’s not to say Western developers do not craft their action games in this typology with equal aplomb, vigor, and attention to detail. They just focus on one aspect, the one easier to apply to a vast swath of people, rather than something more precise, challenging, and enjoyable to the “hardcore” gamer willing to put in the time. We can best exemplify the different between the two in this image:

Resident Evil Remake Difficulty Select

When booting up the Resident Evil REmake (get it?), you’ll encounter this screen when starting a new game. For one player, who’d rather enjoy the experience, fright, and game without the benefit/frustration of a challenging game, you can hike to the finish with a comfortable strut. You know the type – the guy who says “I only have a limited timeframe in which to complete X game or Y experience, so good thing the game starts me off with this stuff or at least gives me the option.” On the other hand, you have the Mountain Climber who sees the accomplishment behind the hardship. He/she wants to master the game systems, get right into the nitty-gritty, and truly immerse themselves in the systems of the game, creating an emergent story of their own doing – mountain climbing, in other words. It’s the fine line between passive engagement and utter absorption.

You might guess that, in video game terms, I like to climb rather than hike. And I would hope more game continue in this tradition. When we lose difficulty and challenge in our play, we lose something of human experience in the process. Removing it makes games less human by refusing to reflect on video games and their unique ability to replicate and create accomplishment and shared experience in that accomplishment, rather than going through the routine of discovering an auteur’s forced meaning. Video games exist as a vehicle for expression and the like, not as some exclusionary work of art.

Of course, not many would agree, but them’s the breaks.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.