Easy Life, Easy Video Games, Vice Versa

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I apologize for the incessant Max Payne coverage, but it’s at least contextually relevant here.

I’ve been wondering whether video gamers have gotten a bit soft. The most notable recent example of this phenoemnon (jf you can call it that) was Max Payne 3. Every single review I read noted its difficulty. As Marty Silva says in his 1UP review:

…the gunplay in MP3 feels like the only element in the game that has yet to evolve over the past decade. This becomes obvious when you begin anticipating the twists, turns, and drops on Rockstar’s expressly designed roller coaster. A few of the more difficult segments of the game forced me to repeat the same sections over and over until I memorized the actions of every single enemy. By the 10th iteration of a specific firefight, it began to feel less like a video game and more like a frustrating round of Simon. The worst of these offenders occur in the latter half of the game, where enemies begin to flood Max’s world decked out in body armor that covers them from head to toe. Even the exposed skin of these soldiers seem to be relatively impervious to your bullets. Watching an enemy shrug off a shot that clearly hit them in the neck is a pain that gamers shouldn’t have to endure in 2012.

Without liberal use of bullet time and a constant awareness of your surroundings, you’re going to be watching Max die a long series of deaths. Once you train yourself to speak the game’s language, most of the frustrations melt away as you enter a zen-like state of genocide. However, the game remains unflinchingly rigid regarding the amount of ammunition available to Max in certain combat-heavy segments. I can’t understand the choice to make ammo such a rare commodity in a game that allows you to dive through the air like a Superman film directed by John Woo, but I oftentimes found myself pressed behind cover without a single bullet to my name. Thankfully the load times are short and the checkpoints frequent, so you’ll rarely have to replay too much of a section after you inevitably find yourself gunned down.

Now, I have my own problems with the game (in a review to come), but they don’t include the difficulty as a problem in itself. It’s only that the difficulty, as stated well here, comes from video games conventions in a video game that wants to be “realistic” in some sense. The context doesn’t lend itself well to enemies who can live through multiple (more than 10) bullets to various areas of their body except the head. Although it’s fun and you can literally turn your brain off if you just like the challenge, it doesn’t lend itself to the game’s excessive focus on story (which you aren’t allowed to skip…AT ALL your first time).

As far as the “evolution” of shooters, it’s nice that the game doesn’t give you some kind of regenerating body armor. Cover actually MEANS something because you’re fragile and can die easily – that is realistic. For anyone to complain about that seems…odd, in the least. Why complain about something realistic (at least on the player’s end), a disability that forces you to use bullet time and use limited resources effectively? The game requires a specific skill of the player; it’s not the right of a critic to argue about that, I’d imagine. It is their right to criticize wheter Rockstar actually achieves their objective in that regard.

I’d say it’s because we, as whole, don’t like difficult experiences. Max Payne 3 may play like a movie, but it surely takes its roots from video game shooting of a decade ago. I’m glad they decided to bring this style back; sure, there’s lots of death or dying, but that’s part of the fun. You’re put in the role of an action hero, but the game doesn’t hand the game to you for free; if you want to see the end, you need to work just as hard as the hero to see it through. It’s that sense of accomplishment that makes the task worthwhile in the end, and makes the events a meaningful interactive experience. You invest the effort, you get the ending.

So why is playing a segment repeatedly a bad thing? How many shmups require repetition and memorization? How many fighters require a great amount of practice, reflexes, and memorization in order to succeed? How many real time strategy games require intimate knowledge with their faction/race of choice to the very build order of units, building, and map structure? How many multiplayer FPS games require a keen spatial awareness and speed to both dodge bullets and to make perfect headshots while in motion? How many RPGs, both Western and Eastern, require actual strategy to defeat certain battles (the former more than the latter, but the point is made) to obtain victory over an overwhelming force? How many visual novels requires certain responses and sequences of events, difficult to predict, to get the desired ending?

Whatever its form, difficulty is inherent to video game experience, like it or not; if you want the game to play itself, why not watch a movie? I don’t see why the game itself is flawed simply because it tries its best to kill you over and over again. The enemies in MP3 are smart; they’ll flank you, they’ll pop your head if you pop out to blindfire at the wrong time, and they certainly won;t die easily unless you take a headshot (or first knock their helmet off). Crying and whining about difficulty is like whining about words in a book – it’ll always be there, and taking it out removes something essential.

That’s become a problem in recent years because of a cultural shift. Things shouldn’t be hard for anyone, right? Why should I be expected to overcome a challenge – everything’s right, after all. It’s hard to associate with a video game protagonist’s plight when everything’s relative. Life should be easy, without hardships of any kind; the government should give me everything I desire, and I shouldn’t have to work for success at all. It’s been a subtle change, and while it hasn’t affected everyone, the slow climb has been evident in the EU’s recent problems. If you foster a culture where conflict is avoided at all costs (even as it continues to fester), that corruption creeps through society. It’s a dismissal of the long term learning process and discipline for the short term gain, the temporary gratification of my present pleasure receptors.

That’s why I find it interesting that Hebrew 12 says as such:

 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “ My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6 for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

It’s difficulty that helps us remember moments in our lives, more often than not. How many people think they would be who they were if not for a challenging life event? I’m not saying this in the video game sense, but in the trials that one goes through in life. If there’s no fire to forge us, then what can we be but a piece of scrap metal among the heap? I’d rather be in the Lord’s purifying fire than sitting around doing nothing but fulfilling my own desires.

12 Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.

All I know is that the removal of difficulty from video games isn’t a boon, but a foul omen.

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.