Press X to Do Something Cool
When is the last time a video game made you think? More specifically, when is the last time a big-budget title really put that mass of grey matter in your cranium to work?
I’ve been playing the 2013 version of Tomb Raider (prepare to see this sentence again, because the game has given me plenty of material to write about), and what’s struck me the most are the puzzles. Or rather, the lack of anything really resembling one. There’s no real solving to be done, just a set of tasks to be performed. This even extends to the optional tombs, which are a set of tasks to be performed in a particular order with the right timing.
This is something of a symptom of late, particularly within the realm of big-budget, AAA titles. Your brain is completely superfluous: modern games, developed, of course, for a more mature, sophisticated gamer, operate on a much simpler wavelength that demands you identify colors and shapes and press a button in time with them, sometimes repeatedly. If the concept sounds familiar, perhaps it is because you remember it from a much earlier point in your life:
The ‘quick time event’, as these puzzles are commonly referred to, is nothing more than a child’s busybox programmed into a digital world. The player hammers away at the color or symbol, in reality accomplishing nothing, but feeling like they have because they repeatedly hit a button very quickly. This is a way for games with aspirations to the cinematic to pretend the player is actually playing the game instead of watching it. Of course, the typical player is smarter than this and is rightfully annoyed by it.
Now, one thing that I have noticed is that games that are heavy on quick time events tend to be light on puzzles. This is where the idea that you’re playing a sophisticated game for an intelligent audience falls apart. These portions seem designed for the players that want to win with the least possible effort. It feels good to finish a game, and for some it doesn’t matter if that victory is a shallow one; handed to you while you lounge on a beach having your shoulders massaged by a sexy-type person with a pleasing accent.
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I come from a time in the far past when puzzles were often an important selling point. Whether it was an adventure game, of the text, graphical, or first-person Myst-alike genre, or even one of the more notable action franchises like The Legend of Zelda, we expected puzzles. We fully expected to spend several hours stumped, and, in the case of Roberta Williams’ moon logic puzzles, we expected to take every item in our inventory and rub them in vain against every surface in a room to see if that solved it. Could it be tedious? Absolutely. But when you finally figured out what you were intended to do, the satisfaction was palpable. You could be proud to say you solved a cryptic riddle.
In Core Design’s original Tomb Raider series, the games were essentially puzzlers with an action-adventure disguise. The levels were focused on making you explore them and unravel one mystery after another while making sure Lara Croft didn’t break her neck in a botched leap from one column to another, or fall into a pit of spikes. The puzzles were built entirely around the player character’s provided skillset, and each entry in the series added a new move or two to add an additional fold to the level puzzles.
The 2013 Tomb Raider‘s levels are more pedestrian in design — no switches to flip or keys to dig up; just hold the analog stick in the direction of the waypoint marker, occasionally jumping and grabbing, then shoot holes in people’s heads. Superficially they’re very similar, but the experience in practice is very different. Neither mastery of the game’s controls, nor any deduction or exploration, is required. You simply move from one place to another until the developers see fit to reward you with a gold star and a juice box.
It’s easy to forget that puzzle-solving in some form was an important part of the foundations of most video game genres. First-person shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D required searching for keys and switches while maintaining an itchy trigger finger. Early roleplaying games like Ultima and Final Fantasy placed emphasis on discovering where to go next, rather than on level-up perks or loot-drop systems.
So why, when our technology is so great, are our games becoming simpler? How long is it until games just come with a difficulty setting that lets you watch someone else play the game for you? The technology that is available to developers affords the freedom to create rich worlds, intricate characters and detailed plots, as well as the exciting action gaming has offered since the beginning. We’ve increased our visual and emotional connections to games, so why not increase our cerebral connection as well?
Chad Morelock is a contributor to The Baer Report and a liability waiting to happen. You can follow his Twitter @cmorelock …if you dare.