Throughout history, when a game becomes challenging, a player adapts his tactics or his training to meet the challenge. A good soccer player, for example, does not call soccer “stupid” for not allowing him to play with his arms instead of his atrophied legs.
Even so, good luck telling mainstream video gamers to improve themselves beyond the purchase of expensive peripherals. When a game relies on extensive use of a feature, or when a game requires methodical advancement instead of twitchy bunny-hopping, the player blames the developers for designing a bad game. This current culture of player entitlement—in which a game that takes a player out of his comfort zone is bad—stems from the trend of current game design in general. It stems from the core of contemporary gaming being the so called “experience” instead of the challenge.
This is not to deny the existence of stupid games, especially when their gameplay has no basis in reality. When a game features pistol-caliber handguns, for example, they should rarely, if ever, have higher damage or accuracy than the game’s medium machine guns. But gamers today value “balance” over reality, so such a handgun would have to compensate for its lower rate of fire with a higher base damage. Otherwise, for many gamers, the “experience” would not be as fun.
For this, you can blame the more serious games like F.E.A.R.—though F.E.A.R. itself does not encourage player complacency. F.E.A.R., specifically, is difficult and rewarding, and while it does attempt to “balance” its weapons, it rarely balances them stupidly. It even includes weapons (in its expansion packs) that are designed to give the NPCs advantages over the player.
F.E.A.R. still hurt the industry, however, because it prioritized the player’s “experience” above everything else. Surely, you would laugh at the opening cutscenes, and you would think to yourself, This game is cheesy—but over time, the game would draw you in. The enemy soldiers would impress you with their intelligence, because they would flank, shoot to kill, and flush opponents from cover. The game’s amateur scares would grow in intensity until the deadly apparitions that you encounter would drive you to question your sanity—as only in the expansion packs would the NPCs acknowledge them. You would lastly piece together the antagonist’s fate from the various messages and files, and suddenly, those opening cutscenes would lose their cheese. When the protagonist’s boss would remark that “Someone’s gonna burn,” you would agree, if you would actually pay attention.
In spite of all of that, F.E.A.R. should never have been a game in the first place. This is because, if a competent studio were to adapt it into a suspenseful yet tightly-edited action film, watching it would fulfill me no less than actually playing it as a game. This contrasts with previous narrative-driven games like Half-Life and Halo: Combat Evolved, because in spite of Halo, especially, feeling like a movie, watching Halo as a movie would never feel the same as actually playing it. Movies are what you watch when you want to distract yourself, but games are what you play when you want to defeat an opponent. The possibly of failure will exist, whether because of continues, bad endings, or rage-quitting.
To appreciate video games that actually feel like games, as opposed to mere toys, simulators, or “choose-your-own adventures,” you must regress to the days before video games existed. I recall an advertisement for the Xbox 360 that joked, “It’s not your mother’s card game,” to which I respond, “To Hell with the Xbox!” The night that I learned Shanghai Rummy from my best friend’s mother—and beat her and her son on my first attempt—was one of the most fun nights of my life, and never did they compalin that Shanghai Rummy was not “balanced.” And if you ever wish to enter into esports, then master a traditional sport that makes you move. The exercises that you perform to condition yourself will physically and mentally benefit you (provided that you train yourself at a sustainable pace), and traditional sports will also teach you better sportsmanship than you will ever be able to learn from the nerds who only defeat you with controllers.
Ultimately, my desire is that we appreciate games for the challenges that they offer. My desire is that we assess our own competence as players before we accuse developers of designing bad gameplay. My desire is that the trappings of narratives, lore, and beautiful graphics continue to find their place in video gaming, but only as the whipped cream on top instead of the cake itself.