Call me old and jaded but I firmly believe gamers have things easy nowadays. The internet has given the masses instant access to an incredible treasure trove of knowledge and answers, which we now utilise regularly without even thinking about it. The whole process of using search engines has become second nature to us. We use them to purchase and order our games, music and films; to check up on each other via numerous social networking sites and more often than not, to find the answers to universally significant questions: How long does it take to boil an egg? Is Kirby a boy or girl? The kind of knowledge we simply can’t live without.
These same tools are now available to assist us whenever we get stuck during a video game. Only the other day, I was playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, desperately searching Faron Woods for the last remaining and infuriatingly elusive Kikwi. After a good hour or so I was losing patience with myself and the game. I could feel the rage growing, like a fire engulfing my insides. I continued to scour the maze-like wood, visiting the same areas which had gone from being beautiful and tranquil to repetitive and annoying, all because of one Kikwi! I tried my best to resist temptation but my laptop was calling to me, like Sirens to a wayward sailor. Soon enough I was gorging myself on the first walkthrough I could find and within minutes I was moving on to the next part of my quest. However, there was no feeling of triumph, no rush of adrenaline, just a mundane, sickly sweet sense of guilt and monotony.
Now, I fully understand that there are gamers out there blessed with skill and perseverance, for whom the very idea of using a strategy guide or an FAQ is truly unthinkable, but I am not one of those people. I wish I was; I truly do. As a father of two with a full time job, the time I have to dedicate to games is sporadic at best. When I do get the chance to sit down with a game, I have neither the time or inclination to spend that time making little or no progress and I do utilise online guides…frequently. My point is simply that I do so at a price. The sensation of achievement and wonder is often removed from the experience and sometimes I yearn for the days when I had no choice but to let the rage consume me; when controllers were thrown across my bedroom; when whispers in the playground, the occasional magazine and a weekly episode of Games Master were all we had to rely on. When gaming was pure.
I can vividly remember when Super Mario Bros. 3 was released. The hype had been building for me ever since I had watched The Wizard starring Christian Slater, Beau Bridges and (most imortantly) Fred Savage. The climatic unveiling of the aforementioned game made it a release everyone wanted to play and for good reason. I had subsequently been experiencing the game at a friend’s house due to the fact that I had asked for a Sega Master System for Christmas, a decision I still regret to this day. My friend and I had been progressing through the various levels, stomping on goombas, obtaining the various power-ups, the usual Mario fare. Then one day at school, a bizarre rumour swept through the population like wildfire. Notes were passed in class, arguments and fisticuffs were had in the playground, and as we sat down with our Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle lunch boxes, the school canteen was a hive of excitement and anticipation. When the bell rang to signal the end of the day, we ran to my friend’s house to see if the impossible was about to become a reality. The NES was fired up, we went to the first stage, crouched on the now legendary white block and waited. When Mario dropped behind the scenery our jaws dropped; seconds later the warp whistle was ours.
When we were kings.
For me, this was absolutely magical. In our naive minds it was like we had discovered a secret that not even the game developers were aware of, like we had actually cheated or tricked the game itself. We felt like gods because we were riding the wave of discovery. The information required to uncover this secret (I still refuse to believe that anyone actually found this out by chance) was not easily accessible at that time, which only served to heighten the excitement. I am not so sure that this sense of wonder and discovery can be replicated in an age during which the internet has served to demystify all forms of entertainment. In the gaming world today, we know the majority of a game’s content before it has even been released and the same goes for every Hollywood blockbuster, every highly anticipated album and to a lesser extent, the written word.
Moving on a console generation, I found myself playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I loved it and desperately wanted to progress with Link’s epic quest as soon as possible. I wanted to be a hero, but I couldn’t because I spent countless hours just trying to figure out how to get inside the bloody Desert Temple! I was a failure plain and simple, not even worthy to walk in Link’s diminutive shadow. Again, the rage built within me, my hands trying to crush the controller, before smashing it on the floor repeatedly. I had no laptop to answer my cries; no walkthrough to draw upon and my parents certainly wouldn’t let me call any of the extortionate games helplines that used to populate the advertisement section of my latest games magazine. It was the summer holidays and I was all alone. Eventually, totally by chance and borne out of pure frustration I charged Link into a bookcase in the House of Books and almost wept with joy as the familiar Zelda Chime rang out. Finally obtaining The Book of Mudora was a wonderful moment; one that has stayed with me ever since. I know full well that if this situation were to replicate itself in my adult life, I would succumb to the temptation of an online walkthrough. I’m not proud of this fact; nor am I able to deny it, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to recapture the joys of my youth when it comes to playing video games. I concede that I may well be looking back at this time through rose-tinted glasses; but I also believe that the way in which we experience these games has intrinsically changed.
As the use of the Internet and online strategy guides becomes second nature, I fear that only the truly dedicated and hardcore will be able to retain a sense of achievement and autonomy through playing games, especially in the case of younger generations of gamers, who seem to thrive on immediacy and accessibility. Whilst the prevalent use of search engines, social networking sites and forums has undoubtedly increased the sense of community amongst gamers, I can’t help but feel many are missing out on the basic joy of playing games as a result. They may never know the challenge of playing games in total isolation, with only initiative and pure determination to sustain them. One only has to view some of the numerous ‘rage quit’ videos on YouTube to realise that many young gamers are not blessed with an abundance of patience. Imagine asking these poor souls to sit down and complete Mega Man 2 on the hardest difficulty setting, without assistance. I would fear for their young lives!
Cutesy? Yes. Hard as nails? Definitely.
The increasing popularity of retro gaming, as well as the release of games such as Mega Man 9 and 10 point to the fact that truly challenging games are still demanded by a certain section of the gaming public. However, the introduction of Miiverse means that Nintendo are now fully embracing the social networking aspect of gaming. We will now be able to communicate with and assist one another, even whilst playing single player games. We no longer feel that primal sense of trepidation when experiencing a particularly difficult section of a new game, because we know we have an ever present online database of tips and advice to draw on. Strangers from around the world are now always readily available to assist us with our next quest and hold our hands when things get too much. Has the immense challenge and reward that comes with beating a game using only one’s own ingenuity and skill been consigned to the annuls of gaming history? Indeed, will true single player gaming challenges continue to exist on a significant scale in the future?
I fully understand that search engines, forums and social gaming networks are here to stay and in many ways, I am fascinated to see how they will continue to play a part in the continuing evolution of video games. However, my concern as the next generation of hardware looms on the horizon, is that the joy of a true single player challenge may well fall by the wayside.