Friday, June 29, 2012

Deep Thoughts: Peaks and Valleys

Thursday is the night scheduled for Amanda's D&D sessions and she even lets me play. It's a night I look forward to every week because not only is it fun to play with my friends but I get to see the creative geek side of my wife. Far from romantic, as the Dungeon Master (should it be Mistress?), Amanda's goal is to almost-kill the party of heroes made up by our friends and myself. It's this 'almost-kill' that always seems to be the high point of our adventures and, in my humble opinion, the high point of any video game or movie.

When I talk about 'almost-kill', I don't necessarily mean the whole low-health-tunnel-vision stuff that games throw in to create 'immersion'. I'm talking about that serious challenge that you actually have to wonder if you'll survive. While it's possible for games to create this challenge with higher difficulties that increase enemy health and damage, that doesn't quite cut it. There has to be a sense of story or reason to it. For instance, if you were to play a singleplayer campaign on a 'hard' difficulty, you would have that same level of difficulty throughout the game, along with it's peaks and valleys, the same ups and downs that I would find if I were to play on an easier difficulty. It's those peaks and valleys that are important, not the actual difficulty itself.

The way I see it, when you break those barriers, that's a bit of a turning point in the game. Just like when you find the special item in a Zelda game, like the hookshot or the bow, all of the sudden, those enemies that were difficult and aggravating suddenly become almost trivial. It's an uphill fight to get there but once you've mastered whatever challenge is before you, you get to feel awesome for a while. A good game needs to have these points where you feel awesome because when the difficulty starts to build again, a new level or a new dungeon, you know that satisfaction lies at the end. This rollercoaster of emotions and challenge is what urges me toward the end of a game.

It might be the emphasis on multiplayer that is hurting singleplayer games but I'm wondering if singleplayer games without this rise-and-fall of difficulty are actually causing the focus to trend towards multiplayer. It feels like any singleplayer campaign I start playing through is a slow upward climb that ends in a big climax right at the end of the game. To this day, I remember working so hard in Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past to get the three pendants and the Master Sword. I can still remember where I was when I got the Master Sword (My mother was telling me to go take a bath, so it was a long time ago.). I was elated, I think I even did a little dance. Then I realized I had more to do, I had a boss to fight (not to mention the whole of the Dark World, which I didn't even know about). I swung my sword and out shoots a disc of energy. My world was blown, this changed everything. No longer did I have to scrounge for arrows or use my boomerang, I could just swing away.

Where are my games like that? Am I missing them? I know there's hope for more of this in the indie sector and unrestricted creative games like Dungeons & Dragons but when will the mainstream bring back my rollercoaster?

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