What a Simple Man He Was
I have become something of a simpleton. I came crashing into this conclusion over this past weekend as I dove unabashedly into Defense Grid: The Awakening and lost most of two afternoons to what amounts to little more than a glorified, highly refined, tower-defense game. As tiny rows of creepy-crawly aliens navigated the fiery gauntlet I had laid before them, and I watched largely passive, only occasionally bolstering the variety and severity of the deadly assault with a lackadaisical button click, I wondered when exactly this had become the kind of game that I am inclined to play.
I recall with fondness having to learn an entire keyboard’s worth of commands and controls associated with some of the great space-sim games of yesteryear. I remember games coming with keyboard overlays, and woe be unto he who tried to go without. Books of instruction manuals 70 pages long, dense with rulesets, were required reading, and the idea of a game's mechanics being simple enough to compact into a meaningful in-game tutorial was the kind of thing best reserved for arcades.
These days, a game requiring controls that cannot be mapped to less than a half-dozen buttons seems like the makings for an unappealing boondoggle. It’s possible, I readily admit, that with age comes cognitive entropy and the inevitable march toward mental dysfunction, but I actually feel like there are more forces at play than the dulling of my wits. I have this nagging feeling that over the years I’ve been trained not only to expect less from my games, but to want less.
When I put it that way, it sounds awfully sinister. I could have just as easily put that pre-bump sentence a different way though, take a little of the drama out of it by suggesting that modern games have become a more refined experience often focused more on fun than complexity. It's possible even that as the technology and theories of game design have improved, so has the distillation of the experience. After all, more complicated doesn’t necessarily mean better.
I am told, though it is not a philosophy to which I subscribe, that the best writing is often the most succinct. Action verbs and economy of words can create prose that engages the reader more directly, or so say countless writing instructors in countless institutions of questionable learning. Perhaps some sort of similar statement can be made about games that reduce down experiences into densely packed and uncomplicated forays. Perhaps action sequences and economy of design is the easiest path to a great game.
I realize this philosophy will be anathema to many, particularly that class of gamer that seeks genuine accomplishment from games and loves the sense of overcoming serious challenge. To many people, dense and impenetrable games are a badge of honor, some deeply held adherence to the ways of the old gods and a direct repudiation of the cavalier laziness of modern games.
I watch with horrific interest, for example, as many of my friends dig deep into the Sisyphian torture chamber of Men of War, a game that appears to be the equivalent of a voluntary Kobayashi Maru scenario. As far as I can tell by watching the social-media cries for help in the wake of a gameplay session, this is a game that cannot be won by mortal men. I’m not certain whether it is the complexity of the mechanics or of the tasks given the player that makes it such a devious beast—I’ve only observed it from afar and never stared directly into its eyes.
What flummoxes me, however, is that the people playing this game continue to come back for more, again and again taking the brutal beating of an unrelenting, robotic beating machine. I've no doubt that my response would be a quick and furious uninstall followed by an extended dose of something nice and simple like World of WarCraft.
I suppose I am using two forms of the word “simple” synonymously here. After all, a game can be mechanically simple and at the same time deviously difficult. Spotlight on Super Meat Boy; another in the class of games that enjoys broad appeal to my complete befuddlement. No, when I say I’ve fallen in love with simple games, I mean that in all contexts.
It’s not to say that I want no impediment whatsoever to success. It is to say that I don’t want to play something that is complex or difficult just for the sake of complexity or difficulty. And I feel like this has been a glacial but irrevocable change in my gaming style, born as much from my own ever-shifting desires as from a fundamental change in my lifestyle that leaves much less time to solve the unsolvable.
So I hesitate to make any big presumptions and really nail down the theory that a simply delivered game is a better game. That's something I'm actually not prepared to say. Just as I’ve never wholly subscribed to the idea that the best writing is that which uses the least words to say the most, I understand that sometimes the reward is found in exploring a game's complexities, subtleties and deeply twined agendas.
Fact is, as I sit there dead-eyed, clicking into place yet another turret in my simple man’s game, that I’m a little jealous. I wish I had the time, the temerity and the fortitude to embark on something grand and epic from my gaming. More, I wish I even had the desire to do so.