On Games That Play Themselves

Written for Dedicated To Gamers

Last year, within weeks of each other, two videos emerged on YouTube featuring major game releases being successfully played with either little or no input from the player.

One of these is arguably the biggest release of last month, Call of Duty: Black Ops, where one gamer demonstrated that the entire Cuba mission can be completed on the ‘Hardened’ difficulty without firing a single bullet. “It’s basically just a movie,” he narrated as the pre-scripted action unfolds in front of him, “all I’m really doing is just watching things happen.” Two weeks later, another gamer uploaded a video of Kinect launch-title Joy Ride, this time with picture-in-picture evidence that he could rank 3rd (narrowly missing out on 2nd) while holding his arms perfectly still.

Obviously these are to be taken with a pinch of scepticism. The former admits that the impressively named ‘Hardened’ is not actually Black Ops’ highest difficulty, and assures us that the blood splatters on the screen ‘won’t actually kill me they’re just there for looks’ while taking cover throughout. And in the case of the Kinect offering, while the auto-steer and level design are possibly overly forgiving all that is actually achieved is someone placing in a less-than pole position on a casual game whilst having no fun whatsoever.

The question these cases raise is nevertheless a legitimate concern: what degree of interactivity do we expect from our games? How far are we prepared for the demands publishers make for cinematic and casual-friendly gaming to pull control from our hands? Perhaps the resulting experience in Black Ops is akin to a well-executed magic trick, where the bliss of ignorance allows us to enjoy the rabbit’s appearance from the hat even if we still have a nagging feeling the means of its arrival are less impressive. The same could be said for Joy Ride, as its family friendly remit makes ease-of-use an integral part of its accessibility, so calling foul on its gameplay is a no more noble pursuit than scoffing at the difficulty level of Junior Pictionary.

Nintendo has long battled with delivering simultaneously accessible and challenging games to cater for both their young converts and hardened NES veterans, and the debate of self-playing games is nowhere more poignant than in their controversial ‘super guide’ feature. When activated, this mode completes difficult levels for the player, allowing them to progress, if only without the collectibles they would have accrued by playing themselves. It has now reared its head in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Donkey Kong Country Returns, while the delightfully nicknamed ‘girlfriend’ mode (where a second player can jump in for some convenient handholding) appear in the same titles – as well as Kirby’s Epic Yarn, a game where it is already impossible to die.

This is however a somewhat fabricated criticism, overlooking the fact that, aside from Kirby, you’d be a fool for describing any of the above as easy games. The super guide feature only signposts the challenge involved, acting to prevent the most frustrating levels from restricting a player’s access to the rest of the game. Couple this with the depth of replayability offered by a generous splattering of collectibles and enhanced levels, and one could argue that rather than playing themselves these games are allowing you to set the bar before jumping over it.

Difficulty levels will always be a hot topic in a medium where being challenged and having your skills tested is a clear by-product of its interactivity. Having to commit to a difficulty level before experiencing a game is happily becoming a thing of the past, and personally I find myself opting to play games on easy so I can experience more of them in the time I have – even if it means sacrificing a degree of challenge in the process. What is clearly important then is that games developers continue to cater to the differing resources of time and ability in their increasingly varied audience. Elitism is fast becoming a useless concept in the industry and therefore games should be designed to be accessible to all, even if at only a basic level. Since we’re paying for games and the pleasure of their company it’s fair that we can expect them to adapt to us, which shouldn’t mean getting games to play themselves, rather, it’s more a matter of making sure they’re not playing us.

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