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High Horse: Get literate

High Horse is a rotating opinion column in which GamesRadar editors and guest writers are invited to express their personal thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.

This is going to sound horribly arrogant, but bear with me: Games rarely challenge me intellectually. 

Wow, that was really pretentious, wasn’t it? Well, unfortunately, it’s kind of true. Other than thinking a bit too hard about my next turn of Civilization V, I rarely spend a whole lot of time pondering the effects of what I’m doing in-game. And even then, my mind is being used for strategy, not for changing my perception of the world, which one could argue is the purpose of art.

I yearn for a game that floors me with its message. Yet my two favorite games of this generation, Left 4 Dead 2 and Super Meat Boy, are enormously simple. The goal of each is essentially the same: You start at one point and it’s your goal to get to another. Their rules are simple: Stay alive long enough to do so. They’re also both really quite difficult, particularly if Left 4 Dead 2 is played on its higher difficulties.

What I’ve realized is that I have a great affinity for difficult games. Please don’t take that as some sort of boast. I’m really quite terrible at games – just ask anyone on my friend’s list. I certainly haven’t completed all of the Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns on Realism mode, nor all the Dark World levels in Super Meat Boy.

I’d love to say that I keep coming back to these games simply because I haven’t done everything there is to do in them and be done with it, but I think it’s an indicator of something a bit deeper than that. I keep putting down games that attempt deeper, more powerful narratives in favor of two of the most sparsely narrated games of this generation. But here’s the thing: Could the difficulty of these titles be the depth I’m looking for?

When coupled with their lack of explicit narrative elements, could that toughness be what I’m looking for? Could struggling through a particularly difficult combination of Special Infected be akin to a dense section of Finnegan’s Wake? More importantly, can it teach us something about ourselves, about the human condition, in the same manner? 

No, I don’t think that these games hold anywhere near the life-altering importance of some of Joyce’s more powerful works. But I do think that the way games treat difficulty could be a step in the right direction. Just as Joyce’s writing requires a working knowledge of literature and its tropes and intricacies to understand, difficult games require a literacy of game mechanics. You have to know what you’re doing in order to complete some of the more difficult sections.

The concept of game literacy is an important one. If a developer assumes that the player has prior knowledge of the way games operate, they need not spend time teaching them the basics. Instead, they can focus on utilizing the already established mechanics to give the player the experience that they’re trying to get across. 

This is all fairly vague and obtuse, so let’s bring it back to the games. In Left 4 Dead 2, players are supposed to feel a constant state of panic as they’re being chased by the undead horde. On the more difficult settings, that fear is palpable. You can hear it over your headphones, evidenced by your buddy’s shrieks of terror and frequent spurts of laughter. It’s a struggle for survival, and it definitely feels like one. Sure, if you fail to reach the next safe house, you’re just respawned right away, but the possibility of success is present until the final moments. 

Super Meat Boy has much the same feeling. Each failure teaches the player something new about the way the game works. It teaches them something new about the way platformers work. Sometimes, it even teaches them where their limits are. It’s not a terribly deep message, but it certainly implies that these techniques could be used to imbue games with meaning through their frustrations. Each time a player dies, they’re forced to examine the game a bit more deeply. It’s inevitable that a profound understanding of the game will be discovered.

So, really, those annoying “hardcore” gamers who constantly complain about how easy modern games have become are on the right path. They’re just complaining for the wrong reasons. Games aren’t getting worse because they’re losing their hardcore edge; they’re simply trying to figure out how to utilize difficulty for the purposes of furthering the experience. Left 4 Dead 2 and Super Meat Boy hint toward what’s possible when a developer is willing to make design decisions that are congruous with their games’ difficulty.

I think these possibilities are really what draw me to the simpler, yet more difficult titles from this generation. They’re games made for the game-literate. You really have to know the conventions of the medium to be any good at them. And that’s valuable. 

Often, the most important art of the media age has been the least accessible, and requires knowledge of the form to be fully appreciated. Why not games? Let games be hard to get into, let them open themselves up to players slowly. Force players to really think about them. Let’s get rough and tumble.

23 comments

  • Mamudo - December 18, 2011 12:19 a.m.

    I'm just tired of games holding my hand all the time. Just tell me the controls and let me figure shit out. Tutorials are fine when they break down basics but I don't need a tutorial of someone walking me through whenever a new challenge is given to me. I also do think a lot of developers are starting to lose sight of what makes games difficult. Just making an enemy a damage sponge doesn't mean it's a challenge. Punish me when I goof. Show me what happens when I slip up.
  • shawksta - December 17, 2011 10:07 p.m.

    I guess it all depends on the types of games and how they utilize it, some games can just keep building upon itself like Super Meat boy and DKCR, while others can give a decent difficulty for you to enjoy the main game, some with story driven elements, then later have you choose a harder difficulty, like Left 4 dead and The Trauma Center games(FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU). And as Thedigitalg says, Fun comes first, which is exactly what Super Meat boy,Galaxy 2 and others did.
  • Kasjer - December 17, 2011 3:33 p.m.

    Both singleplayer and multiplayer games are easier now than they were ten years ago or so... as a gamer who like challenges, it makes me sad. I just don't feel joy of playing these "more accessible" titles. I'm big online shooters fan. Not COD type, unfortunately (for me...). I played Quakeworld for more than ten years. This game is unforgiving, and very deep in mechanics. It was true challenge to play against good players in duel or tdm. This game require to think and act fast - something i think is missing in new titles. Tiered guns - you can't run and grab any weapon and frag everyone, you need to time and fight over good ones and ammo for them (which is VERY limited). QW require controlling key items on the map to win - lose control of red armor and mega, you may lose match. Timing is important, and "locking down" a map truly hard. It have advanced movement technique (bunnyhop) that isn't easy, but is as much important as good aim. It takes a lot of effort to be a good QW player, or good player in other oldschool shooters: Q2, UT, Tribes1&2 etc. even likes of Enemy Territory, something missing in modern shooters. It started with CS, and from then they are all about the same - "realistic" setting, start with loadout, short rounds, no item or map control, insta-hit guns, slow movement and gameplay for people who are better at pointing mouse than thinking. They are simply boring. Even Quakelive is dumbed down in comparison to Q3 - they made all guns almost equal in strength, and weaker too, only way the damage is delivered is different - it doesn't really mean what gun you use if you are good with it. Singleplayer games have difficulty crisis too - literally EVERY "mainstream" game i played in last few years were too damn easy. I tend to jump on hardest difficulty right away, and there weren't many games that "killed" me more then few times during entire play through. For example i haven't died even once in PC version of Gears Of War and Fallout New Vegas. NOT ONCE. I heard there are more challenging console games, but i don't own a console. Man, failure in game is luxury nowadays :(
  • dodex1k - December 17, 2011 11:34 a.m.

    Just sayin, the book by Joyce is called "Finnegans Wake." The diddy from which it gets its name is called "Finnegan's Wake." I liked the article, though.
  • Gene - December 17, 2011 1:44 a.m.

    "A dense section of Finnegan’s Wake" is a tautology.
  • comaqi - December 17, 2011 12:16 a.m.

    Love it! Keep high horse coming!
  • ninjaemperor - December 16, 2011 6:42 p.m.

    Has every edition of High Horse either been written by Cocke or Houghton?
  • phoenix_wings - December 16, 2011 5:40 p.m.

    Ehh, nope - this article sounds totally egotistical. Not to diss gamers or anything, but writing over the intended audience's heads is a surefire way to do that, too. Personally I'm thinking that Left 4 Dead is so enjoyable because it doesn't try to bog you down with excessive dialogue or complicated game mechanics. Both of those games are relatively straight forward. If you were to try to figure out, say Fallout 3 without any proper instruction, you'd be a ticked off - the game wouldn't be as fun because it didn't give you any kind of idea as of what you were supposed to do. However it's agreeable that the amount of hand-holding in many modern games is a turn-off for the hardcore in me. For instance Super Mario Bros 3D Land - err, whatever it's called. If you fail enough times, the game pretty much plays itself. There's no reward for you to finish the level you skipped, but there's no penalty either.
  • Hobogonigal - December 16, 2011 10:54 p.m.

    I totally agree with what you are saying. Left 4 Dead 2 is a team-based multiplayer game and it wouldn't be fun at all if it was packed full of story and complicated techniques. Don't agree with the comment about Super Mario 3D Land though, Nintendo built it to be accessible by everyone so the difficulty is whatever you choose. Newbies can use the Tanoobie suit to get past the easy story mode whereas the more experienced gamers can try to complete everything in the game which is a lot more difficult, especially towards the latter special levels ( I lost 50 lives in one level, drove me insane...) Basically instead of having an easy, medium, hard difficulty choice, you can choose anywhere inbetween.
  • ObliqueZombie - December 16, 2011 5:34 p.m.

    Another great piece slandering the name of modern games, without ever getting all pretentious and saying they're "bad games." I've read sooo many things about how modern games need to go back to their roots of "hey, here's the game, no go figure it out." And if we're talking about literacy, I'm currently playing SWTOR, and I have to say, being literate in the English language is a must to enjoy the dialogues fully. Again, fantastic read.
  • ChaosEternal - December 16, 2011 5:21 p.m.

    I really enjoy reading High Horse! The articles are always interesting and bring up good points. Keep up the good work with them! ;)
  • D0CCON - December 16, 2011 5:21 p.m.

    One problem is that since games are mostly easier today, I'm not sure new generations of gamers would be willing to try this stuff. I replayed Super Mario Bros. and I found that to be quite a challenge as I went along even though I beat it when I was six, so I feel that I've been weaned into easier games (although Super Meat Boy is freaking spectacular for me, so there is still hope. Maybe it's just that I like my hard games to be platformers).
  • cL7oud hero - December 16, 2011 4:27 p.m.

    High horse is much more enjoyable than kotakus weekly (or more) sexism articles. IMO gameplay is the same thing to games as plot is in a movie so perhaps that explains your feelings
  • firelegendmush - December 16, 2011 9:18 p.m.

    I think that there are two types of games. There are games that are made for the purpose of gameplay and the experience that one has while playing it (L4D2, etc. ). Other games are used predominantly as a storytelling method, in which the purpose of the game is the narrative and the themes expressed in it. Not all games need a complex and deep story; L4D certainly doesn't. At the same time, a game that attempts to tell a story shouldn't need to occupy itself with gameplay difficulty as much because that isn't the point. Sure, gameplay is still important as it is a game but having challenging gameplay is unnecessary to tell the story. In general, games should, like other media, work the hardest on what the focus of the game is and what will best highlight it.
  • firelegendmush - December 16, 2011 9:20 p.m.

    Sorry, for some reason it replied to you :/
  • Lionzest7 - December 16, 2011 4:22 p.m.

    I think egoraptor said it best, introduce the game mechanics slowly and let the user figure them out. I think of it like Megaman X or Super Metroid, if the game told you everywhere and everything to do it would be awfully boring.
  • FOZ - December 16, 2011 4:41 p.m.

    Something that Nintendo has forgotten. Skyward Sword is absolutely awful with this. It assumes everyone playing the game is barely literature and has never played a video game before. Today I got the Sacred Water. After using an empty bottle and getting the "You got the Sacred Water" dialogue, what happens? Fi jumps out, and not even exaggerating, basically says "There is a 95% chance this is the water we were looking for." Wow Nintendo.
  • stevethetree - December 16, 2011 5:58 p.m.

    I agree, Fi's "help" in Skyward Sword was almost so redundant it's as if Nintendo was trying to be funny by making the helper interruptive, irratating and not helpful. Maybe it was an incredibly drawn-out Navi parody? That's what my guess is. Who knows, Nintendo may actually be that dumb.
  • shawksta - December 17, 2011 8:02 p.m.

    Its understandable where your coming from but thats the point.In a sense, there's nothing more simpler to say than "This is the water" its obviously how Fi is, the type of character she's protraying does that to sound calculating especiallt when its nonsense at stupid times.
  • Thedigitalg - December 16, 2011 4:18 p.m.

    Disagree mainly. I hate that a lot of gamers seem to think if a game doesn't throw a metric ton of fucking difficulty at you, it's a bad game. It was my understanding games are meant to be entertainment first and foremost, and the reason 'casual' games sell so well is because they are fun. I deny anyone who says they played Wii Sports or a Mario Party game with family and didn't have fun. Hardcore games are good, but fun comes first!

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