The Hard Problem

The Hard Problem
Unfinished Games

John Scott Tynes | 13 Aug 2009 17:00
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There's a driving sequence early in that game after you escape from the first building. It's a really glorious sequence, a big-budget cinematic adventure in which you race through midtown Manhattan while the streets erupt, buildings collapse in front of you, and so on. (Watch it here starting at 4:45.) The problem is that it's a bitch and a half to play. I suspect the highly choreographed art, animation, and effects were so elaborate that reworking the level to solve the difficulty problems was just too expensive. Which is a shame, because it's the last level of that game I bothered to play.

Why? Well, it's what got me thinking about this issue in the first place, many months ago. I've got too much gamer pride to skip the sequence, even though the game encouraged me to do so, because I wanted the achievement for beating it without skipping. At the same time, I really wanted to experience the sequence because it was so visually impressive. And a Miyamoto-style prerecorded walkthrough would have taken away the visceral enjoyment of being in the experience. But after attempting it a dozen or more times, I just couldn't get the timing down of all the fast turns and I gave up, put the game on the shelf, and there it sits to this day.

So what's a possible answer here? Scalable control schemes.

I stole this idea from Forza 3. In that racing game, they include a super-easy difficulty setting where about all you do is steer and floor the gas. The game brakes for you, like an intelligent cruise control, and it gives you a guide line to steer along. You get to enjoy the race, and you can still screw up, but it's so much simpler that it's easy for a novice to take it for a spin.

What if instead of it being a separate mode, this kind of half-auto-pilot control scheme was something that could simply activate during play? And rather than think of it as half-auto-pilot, think of it as something else: Guitar Hero. The game takes control of the joysticks and prompts you on-screen with buttons to push at the right times. Almost any game could turn into a pseudo beat-matching experience.

In an action game you suck at, for example, the game would take over moving and aiming. As the reticule lines up a headshot, the button icon appears on screen. You've got a half-second to tap the right button and BAM - tango down. In my example of the driving sequence from Alone in the Dark, the game might control steering and gas but prompt me to apply the brake for drifting through turns, slowing to avoid obstacles, and so on.

Does this sound like gamer blasphemy? Maybe, but let me ask you this: are you ever going to learn to play "Through the Fire and Flames" on a real guitar? No? Then why not play it via beat-matching in Guitar Hero? And for that matter, why not enjoy some Gamer Hero instead: take these crazy hard games that go on forever, have ridiculous boss fights, and give you checkpoints at all the wrong times and turn them into a simple beat-matching, almost Dragon's Lair-ish, experience. You can still give achievements for playing it straight to keep the hardcore happy and the rest of us would get to finish those levels that are otherwise kicking our ass. And when you didn't need the assist, it would just play normally.

There are plenty of games I'd have finished if I could have flipped on Gamer Hero mode after my third failure. (Hello, Mass Effect Krogan Battlemaster fight, you jerk!) And there are great moments in games that I'd love to share with my wife, if she could just pick up the controller and have a quick, fun experience without slogging through the six hours of learning curve that preceded something cool.

Does that make me a wuss? A Gamer Hero? Fine. At least I'm not throwing half the purchase price down the drain when today's blockbuster release becomes tomorrow's dust-gathering shelf dweller. Give us a chance - or a beat - and we might actually finish the darn things.

John Scott Tynes is ashamed to admit he never finished Braid because when he got stuck near the end, he had too much respect for the game to look up a walkthrough.

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