These days videogames tend to be fun, breezy little experiences. They are grin-inducing diversions that leave you feeling like a winner. Do the slightest thing, however banal, and suddenly the game is beeping and booping all over the place and raining virtual confetti down upon your laurel leaf-crowned head.
"Well, now! Look at you!" games seem to say. "What a spectacularly gifted human being you are! I know that you and I barely know each other, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a guess that you, Handsome Face--is it OK if I call you Handsome Face?--are something of a gaming savant. Aren't you? Come, now--no need to be humble. Now, go ahead and accept this oversized check made out in your name. And enjoy another four or five happy little ditties along with all these glorious rainbows shooting all over the f---ing place! IT'S ALL FOR YOU, CHOSEN ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
But there was a time, not all that long ago, when games weren't afraid to be cruel exercises in dark agony (Cruel Exercises in Dark Agony = the title of my grad school poetry thesis); when they'd ask you to perform impossible task after impossible task and, upon completing said tasks, after dozens upon dozens of game-over screens, you'd be given the most meager of rewards for your effort. Games once said to us: "Hey, guess what? After all that bullshit you just went through, it turns out that the princess is actually in another castle. Oh man, if only you could see the dumb expression on your face right now. This is what you look like: 'Dur, dur, dur, dur, dur.' " Games said: "Every doubt you've ever had about yourself? About you sucking at everything and being a huge loser? All of that shit is absolutely f---ing true."
The reward-to-effort ratio these days is, by my far-from-scientific estimates, around ten to one. In other words, gamers typically get around 10 cutscenes, 10 door-opening keys, 10 Achievements Unlocked or 10 variations on a confetti shower for every sole bit of effort that they invest into a game. During the '80's and '90's, the opposite was true. Gamers had to invest 10 times the effort and time into a game in order to squeeze out the smallest, stalest bread crumb of encouragement. (Stale Bread Crumbs of Encouragement = Another solid title for a graduate school poetry thesis.)
To be clear, I'm not waxing poetic for a golden age of thumb-busting gaming here. I'm not saying that one is better or worse. All I'm saying is that most of us are walking the earth thinking that we are better gamers--and, perhaps by extension better people--than we actually are.
Over the last five years or so, games have gone from being a niche hobby to having mass appeal. Part of the reason that the medium has achieved this kind of commercial success is that game makers have become incredibly savvy when it comes to making everyone--including your mom, a.k.a. the very person who once chastised you for playing games--feel like winners. In other words, if you build it, and you create a cleverly designed feedback loop that makes them feel awesome, they will come.
Exhibit A: Game Over screens are an endangered species these days. Think about it--when was the last time you saw a Game Over or You're Dead, or in the case of Bayonetta, the "Witch Hunts Are Over" screen?
Imagine if you could pleasure a lover--a complicated task, as most of us can attest--simply by touching her on the very tip of her nose. One little tiny tap--boop!--and suddenly she is in the throes of passion. Seeing the results of your tap-boop, you would no doubt think, Surely I must be counted among the world's most skilled and gifted lovers. Or, imagine if you merely wrote your name at the top of your SAT only to have an entire marching band suddenly enter the testing hall along with a bald man in jacket and tie offering you a full scholarship to any university--any school in the world--that you'd like go to. Or, imagine if you invested a mere $10 in the stock market only to have--well, you get the idea.
If these things actually happened, the direct result would be an over-developed and undeserved sense of confidence in one's self. Egos would be inflated to Macy's Thanksgiving Parade-balloon size. People would walk the streets thinking, I'm hot shit, even when they are in fact not even remotely close to being hot shit.
That's what's happening in videogames these days.
One of the first games with mass appeal was 1984's Tetris. Blocks would descend from the top of the screen, Russian MIDI music would play, and everyone--even casual gamers--had a high old time. It's interesting to note that there was never any sort of "winning" in Tetris; all you could do effectively in Tetris was stave off inevitable failure. Because no matter how skilled you were, every Tetris player on the planet is eventually overwhelmed by the bricks. If anyone technically wins in Tetris, it's not the player; it's the bricks.
Compare Tetris with 2007's Peggle, which requires minimal, if any, skill, and is nothing but winning. Fire a tiny ball into a row of dots, watch it bounce from dot to dot, then bask in the glow of the message "EXTREME FEVER!" appearing onscreen while Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" blares in the background. If you're feeling a little low today, take in a couple of quick games of Peggle. Peggle can turn your day around right quick.
Peggle marks the beginning of the Pablum Era in gaming. The bulk of what's offered to gamers these days, with rare exceptions, is sugar-coated and dumbed down and already chewed. Few games, if any, dare pose a bona fide challenge for fear that someone might find the game too challenging and stop playing. Games are inherently insecure entities. They show up in our lives all smiley and smelling good, hoping with all their hearts that we really, really like them.
Whenever a game does come along that's not afraid to make a gamer question his or her self-worth--examples include From Software's Demon's Souls, Retro's Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden games--said game garners a reputation as a "hard" game, or as a game that would appeal exclusively to "old school" or "retro" gamers.
I'm not against games that make people feel good about themselves. As I've said many times through the years, I play videogames to feel like a winner and a hero; I play games because I want to see things and do things and experience things that I can't see/do/experience in my regular litter box-scooping, bill-paying, laundry-doing life.
But when I play something like the acclaimed Jetpack Joyride, which everyone on the planet seems to be playing today, a game which requires me only to tap repeatedly on the iPad's touchscreen--no, it does not even matter where I tap; just tap anywhere--only to receive glorious explosions, spinning slot machines, and more coin-jangling sound effects than an Atlantic City casino for my "efforts," it's difficult sometimes not to feel like Pavlov's dopiest dog.