Scoring and Purity of Form

Frightened? You should be.

Frightened? You should be.

Scoring may seem an antiquated system in the world of modern games. Originally used as an objective measure of one’s skill, the world of scoring became a moot point for most gamers. Score existed as a notion of a different time, when narratives could not provide goals and motivation for the player. The true measure of success comes from the telling, not from giving the player an arbitrary number of points for, say, destroying an enemy or gathering power-ups. Even one of the earliest games, Spacewar!, forced two combatants into tense competitive situations not measured by a number.

And yet, somehow, scoring systems continue to proliferate. “Indie” games, so called, revived this particular brand of accomplishment, either through timed runs or actual scoring systems. Two notable examples come from Super Meat Boy – which ranks your skill by how fast you complete any particular level with a minimum of deaths – and Hotline Miami – wherein speed, weapons, and accuracy increase your score exponentially. These games, however, miss the whole point of scoring through their design.

Super Meat Boy, for example, holds an awful sense of physics. For whatever reason, Team Meat decided to “improve” the Super Mario Bros. model of platforming through giving the player too much control. I find the game absolutely maddening at times for all the wrong reason – overshooting or undershooting a particular jump remains a constant occurence. Surely, one could develop their skills to the point where Super Meat Boy’s physics and level designs become second nature, but would you want to do this? What incentive does the game provide? Super Meat Boy contains a number of glitches at that, most of which make the timer moot (ever see someone complete a level in 0 seconds? I imagine human reflexes develop in a way to make such a feat impossible).

Many early arcade games, while they had glitches, only came from killscreens (i.e., the game works as far as the programmers allowed the level progression to go; beyond that point, the game crashes at the end, hence the “killscreen”); furthermore, to base score on time would make most machine operators assume that a glitch would make said timer moot. Sure, plenty of racing games retain the timer system, but the arcade model makes these games predominantly comptetitive – hence, the realm of scoring enters as a secondary notion to the thrill of mental jousting.

Hotline Miami creeps closer to the original scoring model, but the game carries its fair share of flaws. Frankly put, I cannot understand how it works; I can describe it to you, but I can’t give you how many points you get for any one action. Boldness, mobility, flexibility, killings, and combos all contribute to a top score. For the first, boldness, this measures your ability to place yourself in dangerous situations – for example, running into a room where three guards patrol and all of them see you. Mobility seems obvious enough – don’t stop moving or you lose multiplier in this respect. Flexibility represents the various ways you eliminate enemies on a particular floor (scores seems ranked by floor alone and then added together at the end of a level, but I’m not completely sure on this note). Killings, obviously, comes from the weapons you use – unarmed gets you the most, while guns give you the least. Lastly, a combo forms from a continous and well-planned assault, combining the elements listed above in a flowing and reflex-oriented continuity.

However, and this becomes the greatest problem with the scoring system, usually a good combo on one floor will net the player an A+ rating, guaranteed. When you see how many floors come into any single levels, and the fact that retries come quickly and often, that makes one’s score an easy task to max out. I’m pretty sure (though don’t quote me) that the developers did not bother with a leaderboard at all. The bugs don’t help, either (some players get zero flexibility regardless of their performance; that remains a known bug that continues to plague the game). Further, the random elements of the game (discussed in this podcast) make a consistent score all the more impossible – if enemies appear in different places and different patterns, certain combos and strategies which maximize your score become impossible on playthroughs. Knowing the community of arcade players, I imagine that intentional death (or “suiciding”) isn’t uncommon for those seeking score. This problem also occurs in Super Hexagon; while it may contain the same patterns on each level, they occur at a randomized sequence every time you play the game, making a high score all but moot.

See, scoring exists as an objective measure of skill, as said before. As gaming became a subjective exercise (how do I “feel” when I finish a game), score became a rare commodity in the Western style; the Japanese, on the other hand, continue to jam these mechanics into every kind of game imaginable. Other players can look at a score, marvel at this, and discover video game apathy/inspiration. They tackle the exact same obstacles as the player, surely, but someone succeeded at defeating those seemingly impossible odds. Hideki Kamiya games, to no one’s surprise, contain scoring systems; Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, and Viewtiful Joe rank the player on their performance according to the game’s rules.

This accounts for its lack of power in the West – no one wants a dictator, whether person or game, to control us in Western society. It accounts for the pride in our ignorance (at times; certainly, I’m making a rash generalization here), and the democratization of information bled into game development. Everyone should finish a game became the mantra of the masses, and those with enormous resources of knowledge, reflexes, and skill retreated to the underground. Not the “indie” scene, silly (that’s a whole different movement of self-declared “artists” becoming “gamers” – new article for that one I imagine)! They furthered the move away from score, attaching that particular design element to give them an element of “retro” gaming (whatever that term even means; do you know the definition either?) and possibly a skill-based system. Still, as pointed out above, they never quite capture the same feeling. Western games of the modern era simply don’t employ scoring systems well. That many new games eschew such gaming tropes says more than words could ever say.

In a way, that’s a shame. Not only do such “hardcore gamers’ (a foolish cultural construct if there ever was one; give me another article for that one too!) need to play entirely different games, but there’s no way for them to distinguish themselves among the pack. Quite honestly, the re-emergence of fighting games and shmups in the West astounds me; there’s certainly a market for such games, but the Japanese still keep the secrets of such design. You wonder why Western games don’t sell well in Japan – well, now you might see why. No wonder the Xbox 360 became a haven for arcade shooters, as its FPS library does nothing for a foreign audience used to games with impeccable precision, physics, and flow.

I harp on these issues for one reason: game mechanics remain the foundations of any “video game”. By definition, a game involves structured play; a game has rules and a particular goal. Score, as arbitrary as it seems, provides a clear and distinct measurement for comparison purposes. A story only performs so much of a function to a game; those without narratives still display a purity of form that I love and cherish. Who doesn’t grasp the glories of victories and the agony of defeat? Aesthetics provide the battleground for metaphorical digital conflicts; digital worlds provide a space for the rules to work in a spatial environment. Difficulty and ekeing out the largest score, in that sense, provides the rush of overcoming insurmountable odds while also providing competition. As Michelangelo says in Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy:

Talent is cheap; dedication is expensive. It will cost you your life.

And so it does. In every great video game, the developers give you the tools to survive, but won’t prevent your failure. The seemingly outdated “Game Over” relates to the player, in a tangible way, that they’ve failed. Certainly, I can have all the talent in the world to survive one floor of Hotline Miami, or one short level in Super Meat Boy, but to retain a high score in even one level of Akai Katana? That’s dedication.

Everyone loves the “idea” of being an artist who excels at his craft; the true masters know that craftsmanship, time, money, and effort become the real test of the imaginative palette. A great game designer desires for a player to master, conquer, and defeat a game utterly and wholly. The increasing difficulty of certain niche genres should convince you as such. Games should demand more of the player – I’d prefer it from a narrative AND mechanical standpoint, but the two styles seem to diverge between the East/West line, and who knows whether they will come back together again.

Difficult games immerse you in the game flow; they reveal, at some level, that all things become possible. Much like God makes all things possible and all people good through the birth, death, and resurrection of His Son, we too can take that same dedication and apply it to all areas of life – not just video games. Video games, in a sense, that don’t reflect the real-life sensations of frustration and the possibility of failure can’t inspire genuine joy and accomplishment – they lack, in some sense, a suspension of disbelief (see: Bioshock and Vita-Chambers). Matthew 19 says it all:

16 And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 Then he *said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man *said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?”21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

23 And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

God makes the impossible possible. So it is in video games, so it is in life.

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.