FRIDAY FEATURE: The Risky Business of Gaming

Games are great fun, but could you get more out of your games by embracing the risks and mistakes that you make rather than always chasing ease and perfection? Many games don’t let you live with your mistakes, forcing you to keep trying until you succeed. What about the kind that do? I take a little stroll down memory lane and mull over what you might be missing.

I was on a roll, Arsenal against Chelsea in the FA Cup Semi-Final, and my Arsenal were bossing the game. It was 1-1 until a knock on the front door jarred me into conceding a goal. Swearing as I paused Fifa, I went downstairs to let my mate in. I told him what I was doing and that I needed to win this game or it was all over. I sat down again and resumed the game, Chelsea scoring again almost immediately. My mate had broken my concentration! I knew that I could pull it back and assaulted the Chelsea goal in ways that would make the UN step in if they were at all bothered about football. I managed to get one goal back but the game ended with Arsenal losing 3-2. I was annoyed to have lost but I like to think that I had a good head for keeping things in perspective. I can’t remember what name I finally decided to call my mate but he just laughed. He then asked: ‘You going to reload and try again?’ Enough time must have passed for an Indie game to be Kickstarted as I stared open-mouthed at him. ‘What would be the point of that?’ I asked. ‘The game would lose all meaning without suffering the consequences of my actions!’ He just laughed.

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Thinking back on it now, I wonder just what shocked me about it. After all, I can remember when I first got into playing games on the Commodore 64 and Amiga 600, I was guilty of doing the same thing, especially with football management games. In my defence, I was about ten though.

To clarify, I’m not talking about the usual use of save games, to get back to where you left a game, or as checkpoints that the game automatically gives you as a crutch for when your character dies. I’m talking about blatantly reloading to undo something you did that didn’t turn out well, and therefore allowing you to dodge the ramifications of what happened.

Not all games lend themselves to this style of play. Many linear games have binary success and failure states: either you succeed, or it’s game-over. Other games allow you to fail to varying degrees, and to still carry on. These are some of my favourite games, because I feel that they allow me to become much more invested in what is going on. People fail every day in real life, and how they treat those failures is sometimes far more interesting than the story of their successes. Games that allow you to fail and to still carry on playing echo this sentiment. Examples of this type of game are the aforementioned football games, games like the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown remake, The Mass Effect Trilogy and some open world games like Skyrim.

Yes, they may all have a built-in “game over” state, but they also include lots of ways that you can make mistakes and still carry on. You could be relegated in a football game and then have to struggle to get promoted again. You may lose all but one squad member in XCOM and have to rebuild your team after a particularly harsh mission. You may see a branching decision cause many innocents to die in Mass Effect, or fail at a side mission in Skyrim and lose the opportunity to interact with a now hostile or dead character. I thrive on these events, yet some people will be reaching for their save file to force their ideal outcome through.

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In some ways, I suppose it depends on how you approach games. If they are a bit of fun now and then, with no real investment in the story or what is really going on, I’m sure you would think nothing of reloading a save if things went against you. If on the other hand you invest in the game world, the characters, history of events and obstacles, what would you gain by reverting back to an earlier time before you messed things up? I’m not saying your approach to games needs to be joyless and business like, but are you depriving yourself of the full experience by minimising the risks? I think so.

I think that you miss out on so much connection when you use save-points in that manner. What happens to that season where your football team got to the Champions League final and were robbed at the last minute, but who then came back triumphantly the next season and finally got the win? Or how about when you get an accompanying character killed in your RPG of choice, and you feel annoyed and angry and allow it to shape your character’s next interactions with the world? The stories we tell ourselves and the time-lines of adversity we create and scale are a whole rich seam of juicy meaning and grittiness that adds so much to the games we play. Why rob yourself of that extra zesty goodness by undoing it all with quick-saves and perfectionism?

I had another friend (I had a few kicking around), who absolutely loved Half-life on the PC. We played multi-player at his house and had a great laugh with it. While he did other things, he let me play my way through the single-player game. He came over and watched over my shoulder before commenting: “You’re not using the quick-save key!’ I said that I wasn’t. He laughed and said that when he played it, his finger was permanently hovering over the F-Key that triggered a quick-save, tapping it every five seconds or so. I’m not sure if some of the frights made him a bit jumpy or whether he just really begrudged going back too far if he fouled things up. This was a linear game too, with no branching decisions, RPG elements or exploration. If I had witnessed him playing an open world game like Skyrim, I suspect that he would have needed to replace the quick-save key every few weeks.

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My friend’s idea of risk was probably the amount of time that elapsed between quick-saves. Going too far without saving just meant re-treading more of the same old path again, but with a bit more knowledge about what was about to happen. I admit that some games do have absolutely awful saving checkpoints and if given the option, it can be wise to save manually now and then to protect against the likelihood of having to play through twenty minutes of events that you already got through just fine. He was just getting through a linear game the best way he could, without really affecting the outcome that was already set in stone, if only he could just get to the end.

I have another friend (just call me Mr. Popular) who, when playing through the Mass Effect games, reloaded the game every time he got a crew mate killed. He wanted to get to the end with the maximum amount of crew beside him. Of course, trying to reach your own goal when playing through a game is fair enough, but from a narrative perspective, his mind will be filled with the ghosts of characters who died and were resurrected, their part in the storyline forever haunted by their unluckier deceased selves. Maybe I am just a sucker for doing what the game wants me to do, but if I played the game that way, I would find something about that so unsatisfactory, that a feeling of wrongness would grow in me until I lost all interest in the game. As it stands, I played through The Mass Effect Trilogy once, got my story, and will never go back because any further playthroughs would just muddy my own mental narrative of what went on. This is bitter-sweet though, as I did love that universe, its characters and situations.

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I’m not some kind of masochist though, only able to enjoy doing things the hard way. Sometimes, things are just too hard for my liking. I have dabbled with games at the other end of the spectrum, the so-called roguelikes in which every move you make carries a tremendous amount of risk, mainly due to the fact that all good roguelikes take away everything when you die. Spelunky comes to mind in this genre. I enjoy playing it and seeing how far I can get, but when every little thing I do comes with the risk of it all going horribly wrong and having to start again from the start, I can only play a few times before I just get too tired or too stressed to carry on. On the other hand, a game like Faster Than Light creates some great stories, especially if you name your starship crew after your friends. Nothing makes you think more warmly of your friends than when you watch their adopted character save the day and sacrifice themselves for the good of the ship!

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Maybe roguelikes and their ilk are a little different though, as if you are going into them knowing how hard and unforgiving they might be, are you really going to invest too much in you character or how many times they may die? They almost become totally disposable, to me at least, which lessens my concern for their welfare by a large degree. I’m sure the risk ramps up to incredible levels the longer you keep a certain game-run going, but I’m not sure the reward scales in the same way.

Like many gaming issues, this one will come down to the taste and psychological make-up of the individual gamer. I would be the last person who would want to enforce a style of playing on another, and I would never see myself as the arbiter of “the correct way”. It just makes me feel a little sad when some of the best games of recent years are reduced to just another obstacle to overcome, by any means necessary. If games are meant to show you new things, give you super abilities and take you on interesting journeys, it can’t all consist of positive, cheerful fairytale happy endings. If you do play as a save game addict, why not try adding some grit to your gaming experience by embracing the mistakes you make. It might seem strange or harsh at first, but your experiences of games that allow it will stay with you far longer than the white-washed best case scenarios that you might be used to.

Reporter: Casey Douglass

 

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