Video games are, for all the debate about “art” and “not-art”, games. Profound, I know! What does that mean?
A quick and dirty summary of different theories can be found, of all places (surprise!), on Wikipedia. For the purposes of this article, let me define a game this way: an independent system governed by rules and regulations with a defined objective or criteria for success/failure. Depending on the game under consideration, competition between players both can and cannot be present. In the case of “traditional” games (other than the ubiquitous Solitaire), competition is the rule rather than the exception.
When it comes to video games, however, technological limitations have made frequent competition against other players a relatively new phenomenon. Without adversarial multi-player, then, a game is a competition against the rules of the system itself (which are hopefully, but frequently not, internally consistent). Completion of a game nets a certain emotional satisfaction–but games are meant to be beaten. A video game whose system couldn’t be beaten would be a rather broken game.
So what does ‘winning’ really mean in the context of games–if winning is all but assured within the system’s structure? Instead of considering video games as games to be ‘won’, I think we should talk about them in terms of ‘not losing’.
But, since win/loss is a dichotomy, doesn’t winning equal not-losing? It may come off as mere semantics to claim ‘not-losing’ is somehow different. To try and make the case, let’s use the term in context of an actual game.
Halo 3: ODST (single player, mind you)
Winning equals beating the game and watching the final cinematic. You get your nice little achievement and you can move on to the next game. Mind you, there are a number of potential routes to the end–after all, the game is technically 4 different sub-systems defined by the four difficulty levels.
Not-losing. You reach the end–but what happens on the way? Not-losing in purest form would mean you got to the end without ever dying, but the idea is that you experience the narrative and gameplay in relatively unbroken form. An average Halo player (like myself) might ‘win’ the game on Legendary, but the experience can be quite frustrating. I haven’t actually ever thrown a controller, but there have been moments when I caught my arm in mid-chuck.
(As an aside: I did see a keyboard get thrown, though, when I was watching a friend way back in the day try to beat the level Truth and Reconciliation in Halo:CE where you board the ship on Legendary. He would kill, one cloaked Elite, then the second would kill him. Third. Fourth. Fifth. Sixth Seventh! . . .)
Still, the game can be ‘won’–but what does that ‘win’ get you. Some satisfaction, perhaps, but was the experience really the ideal? ODST has great gameplay, sure, but the story is what should draw us in the most–and experiencing the story in herky-jerk fashion by constantly dying and respawning is far from ideal. I’d rather play the game–at least the first time through–by not-losing. Much more satisfying than merely winning, and certainly more memorable than being able to say you struggled against a system (that’s meant to be beaten, mind you!) to *finally* achieve ‘victory’.
This isn’t to knock people who enjoy a challenge. I’ve enjoyed beating a few levels of scattered Halo games on Legendary myself, but I never play them through the first time on such a painful setting. I’d rather not-lose my games than merely win, thank you very much.
I used Halo as my only example here for the sake of simplicity, but I hope to expand this concept of ‘not-losing’ to a broader analysis of difficulty settings in games. Check back later!
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