Puritan Work-Ethic, How I Loathe Thee
Most video games are a rip-off.
Nearly every video game since "tank pong" has buried its best content behind layers of work. Unlike any other retail product I can think of, when you buy a video game, the chances that you will actually get what you paid for are infinitesimal. I can't think of a single game I've played where I am confident that I've seen every single level; unveiled every coveted secret; unlocked every whatsit and pretty and soundtrack left like kipple by the designers in the dark corners of the code.
I bought it. I want my game.
When I buy a book, the only thing that stands in the way of completing it is the page count. And I know the page count going in. I can read the last chapter standing in the bookstore. If I find Chapter 56 too cumbersome, I can skip it entirely and move on to the better parts of Moby Dick (there are better parts, trust me).
Sometime about 10 years ago, we started measuring video games in terms of "hours". A game that gave you 5 hours of gameplay was somehow a ripoff. A game that proffered 100 was some kind of opus. But the reality is that most gamers play a small fraction of even those 5 hours. Let's face it, a lot of games suck. I buy the game. I play it for an hour or two. I see the pretty. I hear the boom. I go "cool" at the twist or the plot or the theme that made me want to buy it in the first place. Then back it goes into the GameSpot "used" bin.
Some genres are bigger offenders, bigger overall ripoffs, than others.
From Doom to Halo, first person shooters have propagated the evil concept of levels. I'm playing level 12. Level 12 sucks. I suck. I've killed random demon #212 and I'm 5 minutes past the last save point. But I have to get through level 12 to play level 13 where the giant pretty monster of death awaits, and that's supposed to be the coolest thing ever. Excuse me, I bought the game. I'd like to go directly to the pretty monster of death.
Zelda, Oblivion, and all the role playing games in-between take this curse of Calvinist suffering and at least attempt to justify it through story. If I want to meet the Grey Fox I've got some thieving to do first. These games are marginally more palatable and feel like less of a ripoff, because at least the barriers to the content are logical. But as a capitalist consumer, they still keep me from getting what I paid for without an additional investment of hours and hours of time.
But by far the worst offenders are MMORPGs. Oh how the hours have drained from my life as I've made cloth caps or shot rabbits solely to get to the shiny I've ostensibly already paid for with my $14.95. Even highly refined and otherwise excellent games like World of Warcraft, or more recently Guild Wars: Factions, suffer from this curse. Hey, at least with the offline offenders I can spend half an hour with my friend Google to find a magic "cheat" that gives me the hollow satisfaction of sneaking out what I paid for in the first place.
I play games to escape. To go somewhere else. But our industry has so ingrained this concept of "earning" our fun that the best is somehow always saved for last. Like modern day Puritans, we've convinced ourselves that we are not worthy of that for which we've already paid. Sinners in the hands of an angry god, we don't deserve our fun until we pay in blood.
But verily I say unto you all is not lost. I think we might--just might--be in the midst of a rebellion. Increasingly, developers realize that to be successful they must treat the consumer with respect. Most FPS titles are now designed for content-leveling multiplayer from the ground up, or at least contain enough plot and story that they break the "level" mentality. Even Battlefield 2 with its unlocks doesn't systematically leave the casual player subject to the eternal boot-licking scorn of the cheese-eating high school student. The Grand Theft Auto series, while maintaining some traditional story-based barriers, is popular precisely for the sense of freedom it evokes. There's still content below the surface, but you feel like you can go find it if you want it.
Real Time Strategy games, which are often conceived entirely as competitive multiplayer experiences, have dropped their content barriers as well. A few hours with a modern RTS title and most players will have seen the full spectrum of what the game has to offer, and can focus on (heaven forfend) actually playing the game. Sims (all kinds) break the very mold of the problem. In Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight (FS9), you can fly any plane, from any location in the world, at any time, in any conditions. All that stands in your way is your own competence. Sandbox games like Spore (we hope!) and Second Life replace the very concept of levels with building and evolution--violent and competitive evolution occasionally--but not illogical puritan denial.
Perhaps this curse of puritan work-ethic is easy to understand. Games are supposed to be challenging. When the opponent is simply a machine, there needs to be some reason to keep playing, a goal. The only coin the game can offer is what it can hide in the bits and bytes of the game itself.
But you know what? Real life is hard enough. Give me back my game.