Gaming Degenerations Part 2: Self-Indulgence Contra Super Mario Bros.

Moving past an examination of satire, let’s take a look at some more concrete examples that really drive the point home. How about a whole genre? The FPS genre’s degenerated since its inception, and it is definitely because the games themselves have lowered in quality. This applies more to single player, of course. They became slow and now rely on hit-scanning rather than dodging bullets. As Michael Lowell says about Halo:

…Halo was designed with the limitations of the controller in mind.

Much like Counter-StrikeHalo limited the player to a pair of firearms and some grenades. It was a means of preventing skilled players from acquiring an arsenal of weapons to deal with every situation. Halo was overrun with niche weapons: The Shotgun was only useful in close situations, the Assault Rifle was designed for medium-ranged combat, the Covenant’s energy weapons were effective for cutting through enemy shields. Controllers don’t have enough buttons (or a scroll wheel) to cycle through eight weapons with any efficiency. Therefore, “two guns per player”. This ultimately reduced the diversity of gunplay, as players responded to the niche weapons by ignoring them entirely and gunning for the more versatile weapons, namely your accurate hitscan weapons like Pistols and Sniper Rifles. And because of that, Halo: Combat Evolved may be the only game in the history of its genre where a pistol is viewed to be unanimously superior to a shotgun. Halo‘s rebuttal to the weapon-juggling deathmatch days was less-than-outstanding. And just to further ensure that no man or woman would try to play “superstar basketball” (carrying the team on one pair of shoulders), the game played half as fast as Counter-Strike. There would be no “dodge the bullets, stupid”. For all the hubbaloo about the badass side of Master Chief, he’s the ultimate paper tiger in video games. He’s slow, he’s vulnerable. That’s a very bad combination in a game with lots of guns. So, what’s your option? Rely on your teammates, hit with superior numbers, punish any player who stepped into a line of fire. This was very new ground. Microsoft and Bungie were selling a new type of shooter to a new type of audience and it succeeded.

I even remember this. I didn’t understand why the Pistol was the best weapon; you could maintain an extreme accuracy with a pistol that has a sniper scope attached to it. It didn’t make sense, but a lot of video games didn’t make sense. Now, though, we can see that making the player character worse encourages team work, but it also devalues individual skills. But you already had team play like that in earlier FPS games, so what’s the difference!? Money, duh!

Hitscan

Man, they ARE everywhere.

Just play Doom relative to any modern shooter and you can see a different level of skill is required. The designers aren’t forced to make the challenge fair or interesting because, hey, the consequences for death are minuscule at best. Load the game back up and win. Is that fun? Is that even interesting? It’s poor game design all around, caveats made because the guys can’t think of some interesting, unwritten, or intuitive way to present their challenge. A load of shooting doods and QTEs does not a great game make. Nor does storytelling or decisions in and of themselves.

Hard modes in modern games usually amount to a bunch of unfair bumps to enemy damage and such. They don’t constitute a true challenge designed for the player, just mindless repetition (not the good kind!). Many don’t even bother to OFFER a difficulty level for fear of alienating a player or turning them off from the game. PlatinumGames is a notable exception to this rule, as they design each difficulty with lots and lots of care to make it different, a fair challenge, and SATISFYING given the things you learned in previous difficulties.

This is not nostalgia, or wishful thinking, but an observable phenomenon. There’s a clear downturn from an emphasis on skill, and more on the overall experience. Just for argument’s sake, lets compare a modern game with an old one. Call of Duty seems as good a paragon as any to dissect. Let’s place it along Super Mario Bros. and see how it fares. Perhaps we can compare apples to oranges, hm?

Even by reduction, we could compare Call of Duty to Super Mario Bros. The goal is aesthetically different, but similar: get from point A to point B. The big different is how you get there through the mechanics each game presents. Call of Duty wants you to use your gun, run, use cover to avoid obstacles (i.e., enemies), etc. Super Mario Bros. requires you to run, jump and avoid obstacles, etc. It’s all semantics at a point when you look from this perspective. Super Mario Bros. simply does a better job at it than most modern games.

Super Mario Bros. is pretty intuitive. The screen is clear, the objectives are clear, and there’s only two buttons. You could figure out what each one does with just a little bit of experimentation. Modern games require a host of different buttons for much the same problem, sometimes even multiple! They ply these buttons on, some useless and some not, because increased power of systems gives developers increased freedom. Unfortunately, without limitations, they don’t know what to put in the game and what to keep out. The objectives of the game get muddied by all these extraneous elements, and they hope that giving the player so many options (making the game impossible to balance correctly) will make up the difference.

Maybe Contra’s a better comparison – even Contra probably beats Call of duty in intuitiveness! Guy with gun, jump button, shoot button, enemies, and don’t fall into pits. It’s pretty simple stuff. How does a person know to control dual analog sticks intuitively? It’s not; that has to be learned. Same goes for mouse and keyboard. A cross pad corresponding to several directions like a compass with two buttons? Not very difficult.

NES Controller

Seriously, look at this. How intuitive could it possibly get?

One could make the case that people weren’t that familiar with Supe Mario Bros.’ mechanics. Sure, we could say that Donkey Kong and its sequels did that, but I imagine most children of America weren’t in the arcade long enough to gain a good grasp of their platforming mechanics. Remember, the video game crash of 1983 or so made the market nonexistent in America, so this was a whole new generation of people wandering into video games. More than likely, they would have had vague memories of the arcade at best. The NES was a smash success for the mass market, not just the people still going to arcades. Seemed like plenty of people were interested in it without any background or any prior experience. Super Mario Bros. got people INTO gaming in large numbers; that’s the key here. Something obviously changed from one end to the other.

It really comes down to self-indulgence on both ends: the market for designing stuff so accessible and easy that no one resists, and the gamers for choosing cultural acceptance and accessibility over the challenging games of yore. The form was copied, but not the soul; that has already left the body, and the stalwarts that remain will fall if we don’t support them. When Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, then, it’s none too surprising that He criticizes them on the basis of self-indulgence and appearance rather than true, lived faith (Matthew 23):

6 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ 17 You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18 And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ 19 You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering?20 Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.

I guess that’s what happens to every medium over time: human sinfulness enters the picture as our cultures decide that, when God blesses us, we no longer need Him. Art becomes crass, base, mass appeal trash. What was once beautiful must now be compared to the lowest of the low. Christian art becomes postmodernism. The problems appear different, but the issues remain the same. So does the answer, as the name of this blog will tell you.

Be careful and examine, for your gaming choices aren’t as innocuous as you think. Your “free time” isn’t either. Why would you not want to better yourself through entertainment? I simply cannot see why desiring excellence is a bad thing in all things; we’ve been brainwashed to think differently. It is high time we did our best for God, rather than indulge in whatever fleeting fancy comes our way.

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.