Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Closer Look at How the Game Genie Killed Difficulty in Modern Gaming

This is your password, good luck!
or “Why Modern Gamers are Sissies”

In my day video games were hard, seriously ball-busting hard.  We didn’t have endless continues.  We didn’t have fancy memory cards or hard drives.  If you were lucky, and I mean really lucky, your game MIGHT have a battery back-up, but most likely if you were going to be able to save your progress for later play you were going to have to enter a code and chances were damn good that said code was going to be roughly 45 characters long and the game programmers were wise-asses who used goofy-ass fonts that meant you had NO way of telling the difference between “0” and “O” and you better hope like hell you didn’t get confused and switch two characters, because if that code wasn’t exactly right you were screwed.  And most games didn’t have codes anyway so when that screen said “GAME OVER” you hoped and you prayed that they gave you at least one continue so that you could see what was on the next level.  And even if you did get that continue, you were going to have to start back over at the beginning of the very level that killed you.  But it was even money that “GAME OVER” meant “START OVER” and that you were looking at chucking another half hour into levels that you had already struggled through just to get your ass handed to you again by that same boss that just ended your run.  And furthermore this was a common occurrence since the difficulty of games was insane.  Lots of games had cheap, one-hit kills, hit points were a fairly new innovation and not at all easy to come by.  Level designs were insidious and usually ended in a boss fight that required near perfection to win.  And we didn’t have fancy internets or millions of strategy guides either.  If you couldn’t beat a game, you had to hope like hell that your best friend’s older brother was better at the game than you were and would tell you how to use the super secret attack to get past the final boss.  That was it.

But, at the end of the day, when you beat a game, YOU BEAT A GAME.  It was yours, you owned that game.  Why?  Because you invested hours, days, weeks, into that game.  You played every level inside and out, upside down. You beat every bad guy every way possible; you learned every secret, every trick.  You earned the right to say you beat that game and no one can say otherwise.  Beating the game meant something because it was something that required work, effort, and time.

Then came the Game Genie.  Apparently, the lazy, unskilled kids out there were getting bored with video games because they were too hard and they weren’t talented or patient enough to see the harder games through.  The result was the Game Genie, an insidious little device that latched onto your video game and went with it into your console.  Once inserted it would allow you to enter all kinds of nifty codes that would give you access to invincible modes, unlimited lives and continues, unlock all the weapons/items in a game, allow you to select which level to start at, and on and on.  Now the entire game was at your command, nothing would stop you from seeing that ending screen now!  And best of all, you didn’t even have to be good at video games, you just had to know which code to enter!


When the Game Genies hit, they seemed like incredible master keys that could unlock the secrets of the video game world!  They were uber-cool and all the uber-cool kids had them.  And I have to admit, they were a curious little novelty.  Had they remained just that there wouldn’t have been a problem.  But we couldn’t see it then.  We didn’t realize that the Game Genie had also latched on to the soul of video games and was slowly leeching the very life out of them…

FLASH FORWARD!  The year is 2010, twenty years after the infernal device was birthed by the joyless people of Camerica. Things are a mess.  Video games are easy, there is no challenge.  Most games have endless save opportunities thanks to memory cards and internal hard drives.  In addition to the ability to save, most games feature infinite lives and/or continues, and in many games it is even impossible to lose at all.  The GAME OVER screen is all but gone, and where it still lingers it is meaningless.  If you “die” in game, chances are good you will start right back up where you died.  If not, the worst you’ll suffer is a restart at the beginning of the level/area you were in when you died.  But chances are good, death/losing is not in the cards anyway since games are now littered with power-ups, extra lives, health items, and other helpful things to keep you playing.  Level design has become simplified and formulaic.  And in the case of the rare instance where a game actually poses a challenge, there are endless ways around that as well.

Can’t figure out how to get to the next level?  No problem, just run over to and some other nerd who is better at video games than you, or at least better at cheating, has probably already written a complete walkthrough and will hold your hand all the way to the end of the game if you like.  Need something more tangible?  We can also do that.  Your local video game store will gladly sell you a strategy guide for your game at roughly half the cost of the game itself.  Inside that guide, you’ll find a complete breakdown of every last bit of fun to be had in your game carefully dissected and laid out in plain sight so you don’t have to worry about needless things like the fun of discovery or exploration.  “Where is the Hat of +5 Endurance? Oh, it says here that you get it from the Hideous Crone in the Forest of Despair, I’ll warp over there with my Tachyon Flute…”  Oh, fun.

But wait, the insults don’t stop there!  Nintendo, the company that originally fought a long and ugly legal battle to keep the Game Genie from ever seeing the light of day, has embraced the laziness culture in a way that a gamer of twenty years could never imagine.  In their two smash releases New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2, franchise cornerstone games mind you, they debut an all new feature guaranteed to keep these fine games from being difficult in any possible way.  Suppose you get stuck on a level that is just tough as spit.  No matter how many times you try, you simply cannot get to the end.  Never fear, the game will actually show you how to beat the level by implementing a demo mode that plays the level for you!  Just sit back and watch as the CPU proves its superiority over you. And this feature is available on any level, not just the ones that might cause fits.  There is no need to ever struggle with a video game ever again!  It has long been chided that video games are just becoming glorified movies that ask you to press a button from time to time.  Not to be an alarmist, but seriously, how is that not prophetic in some way?
A heaping helping of Insult to go with that Injury of yours?

It would seem that the idea of a video game being difficult is dying off.  The idea of completing a video game as an accomplishment has slowly been replaced with other goals.  Modern games are so easy now, that they are often beaten rather quickly (with the exception of some RPG’s…).  The new challenge is to unlock all of the hidden extras that the game has been stuffed with.  This new challenge does show lingering specters of good old fashioned difficulty, but with the wealth of resources available both within and without the games themselves, unlocking everything is more a function of time than ability.  For instance, I beat Ultimate Alliance 2 for the Wii in about 12 hours, but I didn’t unlock every character nor did I beat all of the challenge modes.  Those accomplishments will require several more hours, but since I have beaten the game, and I am pretty much old school, chances are good the game is going on the shelf and I’m moving on to something else.  To me, these new accomplishments are a natural result of the death of difficulty.  Since games are becoming easier and easier to beat, there needs to be some reason to play the game again.  Games that end too quickly are viewed as a poor value and not worth buying.  So to extend game play time, programmers began to pack the game with stuff to unlock by playing the game multiple times.  Sure, the game would be easy to run through, but in doing so, did you unlock the third alternate costume for that character that you only use in level 5?

I guess what we have to do is redefine what it means to beat, or complete, a game.  Back in the good old days, beating a game was beating a game.  If you reach the ending screen, you beat it.  Oh sure, occasionally there was the maverick game that had multiple endings and the one you get is based on how well you played the game, but a win was still a win.  Nowadays, it seems that beating a game means unlocking everything the programmers have imbedded in the game.  Actually reaching the end of a game probably won’t take too long at all.  Oh fun.
Before the Game Genie, this screen meant you were pretty damn good at video games!

How did we get here?  It used to be so simple.  You played a game, it was hard, but you worked at it, you played it, eventually you mastered it, and then you beat it.  Once beaten you could brag about it to your buddies and lord your knowledge and mastery over them.  Simple.  How did we fall so far from grace?  We can trace it all back to that blasted Game Genie.

While it was a quirky little novelty when it debuted, it soon grew into a phenomenon whose effects would resonate for decades to come.  The Game Genie, whether it meant to or not, fed into a fledgling culture of slovenliness and instant gratification.  Rather than asking gamers to learn how to beat a game by working at it over time, the Game Genie just asked gamers to input a code and the game opened up to them instantly.  Instead of rewarding time and effort, the Game Genie just handed you everything you wanted.  That kind of access was easy to get used to, and after abusing enough games the Game Genie way, why would you ever bother to play a game the old way ever again?

After enough years of Game Genie coddling, video games that posed even the slightest difficulty were rendered inert.  Thus the impetus for game developers to create games that were challenging to complete began to wane.  If a game could be completed just by entering a code into your Game Genie, why bother making the game hard to complete?  Instead, new ways of making the game fun and worth playing had to be created.  Fortunately, this development was occurring at the same time that gaming platforms and technology were improving at an alarming rate. Bigger, better, systems were being created that allowed for games with broader scope and more depth of content.  This allowed developers to explore new avenues of game play and new ways to reward gamers.  It was no longer about if you could complete the game, but how you completed the game or how much of the game you completed.  (It was around this time completion percentages became a normal feature)

From that point forward, difficulty became less about how hard it was to complete a game and how much of the game you completed.  The culture had embraced the idea that games were not meant to be hard, they were just meant to be played.  Some may argue that this created an ideal gaming environment where games were to be enjoyed for the sake of playing them, an environment where any game was accessible to anyone.  And I agree, it certainly sounds appealing, but it is really good for gaming?  Not to deviate too far from our topic, but how do we feel if we expand our view beyond video games and apply it to culture in general?  What would our society be like if there were no challenges in life?  If everything you wanted came easily, without effort? Would those things really be worth having, would they have value?  What would happen to our socially held values if we remove one of the principles that defines their values?  Part of what gives something meaning is what we have to endure or give up in order to attain it.  If we do not have to endure or sacrifice anything to attain things, what meaning can they have?  What would we value?
Why does my wife keep playing the Sims?

We do not have any easy answers to these philosophical and ethical questions at present.  Our society remains based on a value systems that needs challenge.  Why should our video game culture be any different?  Video games need to be challenging.  Historically, this has meant difficulty in completing the game, but thanks to the Game Genie and our instant gratification culture, beating a game no longer holds any challenge.  We are now in a period of transition wherein we have to redefine what makes video games challenging to us.  Modern games are no longer difficult to complete, programmers are seeing to that, but there must be some reason we continue to play.  I argue that it is not currently clear why we continue to play games.  Old schoolers like myself still seek refuge in classic games to relive the glory days of difficulty while still searching for a real challenge in modern games.  Modern gamers are blazing the trail toward a new definition for meaning in playing video games.  They must be fun, we still play them, but the why and how of that enjoyment, I would argue, isn’t entirely clear.
But the main thing to remember is that we are only in this predicament because of that damned Game Genie.  I call upon all of you who own that infernal device to cast it down, destroy it, and free yourself from the slavery of placating video game peripherals!  Take back the difficulty!  Earn that “THE END” screen!  It is up to you!
Get THIS without your precious Game Genie!

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