ImRage: How ‘Dumb’ Is ‘Dumbing It Down’?
In the beginning, there were games… and they were incredibly hard. If you consider the era of the original Sony PlayStation to be the starting point of where gaming entered the mainstream, then you’ll remember that gaming wasn’t really for everyone. It wasn’t widely accepted and I don’t like to believe that it was because gaming was ‘hipster’ or for ‘no-life losers’. In fact, I think a more likely cause was that games in general from that era were so prohibitive. Take a look at the best games on the PS1 such as Metal Gear Solid, Gran Turismo 2, Final Fantasy 7, Tekken 3, Soul Reaver, Resident Evil 2, Tony Hawk’s 2 and Castlevania and then compare them to their modern day incarnations: the games of old were not only more difficult to play, complete and enjoy than their successors but also more difficult to learn too. In today’s column, I’m going to discuss the change in focus of modern games from being prohibitive to being accessible and give a few thoughts on the topic of ‘dumbing games down’ for modern audiences.
So fast forward a decade or two and we’re in the PS3/360/Wii era where gaming has changed drastically from its humble roots. Technology has improved, the industry has become as lucrative as the movies and gaming has become a common and mainstream form of entertainment for teenagers and young adults. Some gamers who’ve been playing for years will tell you that gaming is better than it’s ever been: we’re long past technical limitations and some games look better than real life. More cynical gamers from the old days would argue the opposite: that gaming has deteriorated into a shallow mockery of its former self and, like the superficial characters from Gossip Girl, games nowadays look impressive from the outside but are hollow and devoid of substance on the inside.
As is usual with a topic of widely conflicting opinions, the truth is much harder to discern. Games nowadays have certainly become a lot easier than their ancient counterparts. They’re easier to play and easier to learn and the buzzword here is that they’ve become more ‘accessible’. And what happens when things become more accessible? Well more people access them of course! That’s certainly what the intent has been and that’s probably one of the main reasons that gaming has grown so much in the last two generations: it doesn’t take a genius to figure them out or enjoy them anymore. Few can deny that gaming reaches a much wider audience than it previously used to and this is probably the main driver of gaming’s progress in the last decade or so.
But the flip side of that, of course, is that making them easier can remove the challenge or, in some cases, diminish the worth of the game entirely. As much as marketers would love to simplify everything into an easily-sellable concept, sometimes it just isn’t possible. Sometimes, the beauty of something lies not in its simplicity, but in its complexity. Take Neverwinter Nights for example: NWN is awesome because of nearly limitless character customization options. It’s awesome because you can be anything from a dual-sword archer to a fire-balling cleric and, within those customizations, there’s even more room for individuality still. The game is great fun when you’re on the gravy train and you’re a sorcerer who can morph into a fire-breathing dragon but there’s just as much chance that you botch up your character irreparably and, twenty hours into the game, you have to start from scratch because you messed it all up and are getting killed by weak lizard-men. That’s probably the reason why games like Neverwinter Nights are dead; relegated to the annals of history to collect dust along with Crash Bandicoot and his ilk. The closest thing to another NWN or Baldur’s Gate in the last few years was Dragon Age: Origins and even that, which was already a much simplified version of a classic RPG, got neutered completely in its sequel and became a mediocre hack-and-slash. No, the modern day RPGs such as Mass Effect are nowhere close to the complexity of old and odds are they never will be again.
So making things simpler and more accessible isn’t always the most elegant of solutions. You only have to take a look at the disappointment surrounding Diablo III this year. Diablo II is widely considered to be one of the best games ever made, being played for over two decades since its release. Diablo III, on the contrary, has managed to bore its fanboys in under a year. Is it then, a mistake for games to become simpler? No that doesn’t seem to be the case either. Relics such as the lives system, save points and complex inventory management are game elements that are better off dead. That’s not say that it’s all bad either. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 still retains all of the intricacy, if not more, from its previous incarnations and it happens to be one of my favourite games but have you ever tried teaching someone to play it? It’s easier to teach someone about the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Physics (I know, I’ve tried to do both). TTT2 is perfect as it is and any attempt to simplify it would probably ruin it (more tutorials couldn’t hurt though) but the downside is that a game like that will only really be played by a small niche in today’s environment and games of its kind seem to be getting fewer and fewer as the years go by.
It really is a contentious issue this whole ‘dumbing down’ business. On the one hand unnecessary complexity prevents a game from being enjoyed like it should be. Take Gran Turismo 5 for instance: the controls for that game are so involved and complex that you’d have a more fun time driving a real car. But then on the other hand, removing the complexity can kill the soul of a game entirely. Dragon Age 2 is case in point in this regard. A nice balance is, of course, ‘Easy to learn, hard to master’ but most games seem to miss one of these two elements. Either they’re easy and stay too easy or they’re hard and not easy to get into. Few games have managed to get the balance right although two that come to mind are God of War and Street Fighter IV.
So what should actually be done about this? If you’ve got any ideas, tell me below. As for me, I look forward to playing the new DmC quite soon and seeing just how far they’ve managed to ‘dumb down’ my favourite action game. I’m looking forward to beating the entire game by repeatedly mashing one button…
See you in two weeks time…