Sinan Kubba talks about saving Mirror’s Edge and delivering a sequel. I’d love a sequel to that game, but then again I wanted a sequel to Portal and came away wondering if the original was diminished by its descendent. Portal 2 is not to Portal what Half-Life 2 was to Half-Life. But Sinan is right about the title; I never liked “Mirror’s Edge” and there’s a weak attempt to justify the name in Faith’s dialogue. I don’t know if it’s down to Rhianna Pratchett or down to the marketeers. Either way, I’ll find out your address, hunt you down… and offer you a cup of Earl Grey, hot.
I was pants at the time trial though. Getting three stars for any run was diamond hard; I think I got the gold for the first trial and then gave up. There’s a lot of puzzle in there, in the sense that you have to find the most optimum route connecting the checkpoints. To pull off these outrageous solutions, you need a veteran understanding of the Mirror’s Edge playground. Which means repetition, lots of.
But with the emphasis on reflexes and movement combos, it was the kind of game that made me feel old. I worry about that. It’s common knowledge that games are getting easier with modern design methodology eating away at the hardcore punishment of our formative years. The first Sonic the Hedgehog, for example, is the hardest of the entire Sonic series on the Megadrive (Spinball excepted). I can defeat Half-Life 2 in my sleep, but Half-Life still requires patience and TLC at certain points.
When I played the time trial mode in Mirror’s Edge, I just didn’t sense any gradual improvement in my skills. Some of those super-ace moves involving a wall hop flowing into a reverse vault and a cat leap were beyond me. I understood what I had to do in my brain. But there was a disconnect somewhere along the wire between brain, hand, mouse, CPU, graphics card and monitor. I’d better go defrag my hard drive just in case.
So are games making me feel old? Is this my cue to step away from rockhardcore gaming?
Oh, it’s a long long time from May to December
And the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
And you ain’t got time for the waiting game
Whoa, whoa, whoa now. I’m not in the September of life. I’m still hanging in there in my thirties. By my fingertips, yes, but still hanging in there. Maybe I need to get more sleep to improve my brain-Faith coordination, because I just don’t get enough sleep these days. You know you’re in trouble when you doze off in the middle of a Portal 2 puzzle. Look, I’m still good with muscle memory and super-reflex because I got every damn trinket in VVVVVV. I… actually VVVVVV is a bad example.
VVVVVV has its challenge modes and the Super Gravitron. I am terrible at both. For a long time ten seconds was my limit in the Super Gravitron and not through skill but through luck. It was luck that enabled me to increase that to twenty seconds several months later but the most important thing was this: my skills had not improved. VVVVVV had circumscribed my limits, dividing the world into things I was and was not able to learn. Was it age? Or was I always like this?
There were many games in my Atari 8-bit days so crushingly hard that the endorphins in my brain simply packed up and left for greener pastures. There wasn’t enough incentive to persevere. Then again, I got through some awesome insane crazy hardcore torture on the Megadrive. Probotector (Contra) was ruthless and brutal but I played and played again until I saw most of the endings. I never completed Treasure’s Dynamite Headdy, with its wanton surreality and narrative story tricks. The final boss, Dark Demon, demanded watertight reactions, forcing me to depend on luck. But luck was never enough. In a world without saves, a game in which most players rely on randomness to win will lose its audience well before the final cut scene.
Sometimes I wonder why I bother. Jonathan Blow tells us that most games are worse than slouching in front of the TV, encouraging behaviour that has no physical benefit and feeds us mental dross somehow worse than The X Factor (sorry, X Factor fans but, well, no). It’s pretty damning really. If it’s just a drug for the head, maybe I should be taking it in moderation.
Zero Tolerance is one of those games you regret in hindsight. As far as I recall, it was one of only two FPS games available on the Megadrive, pushing the hardware to its limits (the other was Bloodshot/Battle Frenzy although there was also something called Cybercop/Corporation which I hated). I was desperate to play a first-person game – my only other 3D exploring experience was Paul Woakes’ landmark Mercenary – and Zero Tolerance had been given a thumbs-up in the reviews. But it was more repetitive than watching rolling news on the day of the Royal Wedding. Enter room, aliens race towards you, shoot aliens.
Some over-careful play was necessary to extend your life span, which made the game tediously long. As I neared the end of the game, slogging through the utterly boring basement levels, I found myself running out of ammunition. The only way to resolve this was to go back and replay a couple of floors, optimising my shooting to give my guns longevity. What drove me onwards was the fact I knew I was near the end. I had to take down that boss.
You can see where the comparisons to addiction come from. Games are gambling machines. They entice you with disco lights and candy but by the time you see the reality of the game for what it is – whether it be a mindless shooter or pointless trinket hunt – it’s too late. You’ve paid in too much time. If you throw in a bit more, maybe you’ll finish the experience and all that time you frittered away will have been worth it. But some games just don’t know when to quit. They go on and on like a racist taxi driver who thinks the blacks have ruined the neighbourhood. Just shut up already.
And maybe that’s what is behind my failure to improve, a lack of dedication. With great age comes great responsibility, if I remember my Spiderman correctly. Games become compartmentalized and you start to see through the bait-and-switch of the disco lights for the gamble of grind. Score, prestige or achievements – they’re all design illusions, trying to paint a sense of worth over actions that are provably worthless. But it just doesn’t work any more, because time is too valuable to waste on something which is empty and unrewarding. You see the whole damn lie for what it is.
And that is why gamification will not change the world.