I ran into a fascinating blog post by an 18-year-old who’s going back and playing video games older than him: http://gamesolderthanme.blogspot.com/2010/09/contra.html.
“Now compare this to any modern game and tell me if you have played anything even remotely this difficult recently. You know why? Because today’s generation of gamers don’t like to die in our games. We don’t like the difficult games that make us practice levels again and again until we finally get it right, just to go die at the next level and have to start all over…
“And after retrying for about an hour, I finally was able to beat the first level and I felt this odd feeling. It was a sense of accomplishment that washed over me and, to my surprise, made me keep playing this game that I kept dying in…”
You should read the whole article, but the game he played, Contra, was not actually that hard. Although you could ‘cheat’ and get 30 lives, it was entirely possible for someone with my moderate skill to beat the game with the standard 3 lives. Today’s gamers are happy to be challenged by complex and demanding games. As I recently found out playing Call of Duty 4, the precise timing and strategic decision-making required in modern games are equal to or greater than what we needed to beat Contra.
The issue is not really one of difficulty: dying after getting shot once is just too inconvenient for the kids these days. But that sense of accomplishment at having put a game’s logic into your muscle memory – which takes days no matter how you slice it – was in the center of the gaming experience back in Contra’s day. Dying all the time was part of the frustrating journey from incompetence to competence. That journey hasn’t changed – even new “casual games” are satisfying to the extent that you figure them out. The Trophies for Everyone approach doesn’t actually increase your self-esteem, nor should it.
Making the game more convenient is an attempt to make your unavoidable incompetence seem less unpleasant. But incompetence is its own punishment, and competence is its own reward. Anyone who beat Contra will tell you the ending credit sequence wasn’t what made it worthwhile… and as the credits end, you continue playing from the start of the game, from a narrative perspective having accomplished nothing! In its laughable disdain for the trappings of accomplishment, Contra actually sets up an environment where you can feel competent. If I can’t feel bad at something, why would I bother getting good? I want to practice! In the end, of course, this is a useless competence to have, but then, nobody gets a swelled head about being good at Contra.