Digital Punishment

“There’s no comparing the games of yesterday to the games of today” – a brash opening statement.

The 3D world has arguably been fully realised with the 8-bit soundtrack being replaced by a philharmonic orchestra and the multiplayer experience extending way beyond the other end of your sofa (Provided the controller cables actually stretched that far). Not a day goes by here at that we’re not all sidetracked into conversation about the games of our youth, reflecting back on the days where the only way to go was right and if a game ever became too difficult, you had no other choice than to simply get better at it. It would seem that in this era, games have become a great deal more forgiving and a lot less punishing to those not up to the challenge. But for those of us that are up to the task, why is it that we are forced to complete the game before we are then able to select the hardest difficulties? Many could argue that we have all simply become more adept at games and that the 3rd Generation developer are unable to challenge us anymore, or on a more pessimistic note, that the publishers won’t allow them too. Allow me to now demonstrate how I believe the modern game has degenerated into ensuring everyone gets a patronising pat on the head for turning up to the party and how we could all benefit from a little Digital Punishment now and again.

If your Uncle asked you to fly a plane, would you say no?

The very first time I realised I’d bitten off more than I could chew (I actually don’t put too much stock behind that saying, there’s very little I can’t bite off and subsequently chew. Except maybe if I were to bite a Wookiee, I don’t imagine the hair makes for a nice texture, though quite why I’d bite a Wookiee is beyond me) appeared on the Sega Mega Drive with Disney’s Quackshot. By no standards was this a game that challenged you in the same ways that the Contra series or Megaman titles ever did, Quackshot was a fairly standard and straight forward platformer for its time. It was however one of the longest platformers on the market at the time and would require the gamer to dedicate almost two hours of their day (everyone was pressed for time in the early 90s and they all had digital watches to remind them of this fact) in order to see out the game through to its wonderful credit sequence. Two hours may not sound like an awful lot in an age where a game less than six hours long keeps our £39.99 firmly in our pockets, but this was two hours of straight-play gaming, no quicksave, no passcodes. Imagine the frustration felt when in the final few levels of the game, you just could not make that jump or could not beat that boss. Even with Disney providing unlimited continues, not being good enough really did try your patience in a manner that would normally have you reaching for a quick fix of satisfaction on another title. But with the 16 bit-cartridge setting you back £10 more than you would pay for a game today, failure taught you to be better, not to play something else.

They show extraordinary intelligence, even problem-solving. Especially the big one. We bred eight originally, but when she came in she took over the pride and killed all but two of the others. That one... when she looks at you, you can tell she's working things out

Skip ahead to the CD generation and we’re finally given the tools to keep that form of rage at bay with Tomb Raider: one of the first titles to feature mid-level saving on the consoles (along with being the first game to make you want to crush your own hand in a vice). Like Quackshot, Tomb Raider was your average platformer, with substantial technical advancements of course. The jumps could still be missed and the enemies you’d killed a hundred times before with relative ease could still surprise you, though with the safety of the save crystal and the switch from the staple ‘3 hearts’ health system to a full size health bar, Lara Croft’s punishment was less harsh than Donald Duck’s . The challenge in Tomb Raider wasn’t the sodding great T-Rex (Video Games greatest ‘WTF’ moment) or the packs of wolves chasing you down the narrowest corridor, both were perfectly capable of killing you repeatedly but with the advent of the 1MB memory card, you could always just turn it off and walk away if it ever got too much -safe in the knowledge you could re-load when you were ready to try again. The Digital Punishment in Tomb Raider was far more sinister in that it would often throw you into a room, all alone with no enemies to kill and just leave you to rot whilst you tried to figure out how the hell you were supposed to get out. Generally speaking, there wasn’t many time constraints on the puzzles, you really were free to take as long as you needed to solve them. The only problem was, so few of us knew where to start. Unless you had access to a guide book, a 28.8 kb/s connection to the internet or Dr. Henry Jones for a father, there was no other way to advance in the game without spending a punishing number of hours pulling levers, dropping switches and throwing yourself at ledges seemingly out of human reach, all in the hope that what you were doing was hopefully the right thing to do. Whilst the puzzle genre was nothing new (Games such as Monkey Island, Simon the Sorcerer and Myst had us all scratching our hat stands long before Tomb Raider challenged for the crown), this certainly was the first of many to break into the mainstream and the first time many were forced to face the possibility that they weren’t up to the challenge Crystal Dynamics had produced.

Let’s keep with the chronology and move on to the ‘2nd Generation’ of the console era; the age of the autosave. With Microsoft entering the fold and bringing with them their years of experience of PC architecture, it was inevitable that the introduction of the Hard Drive would see a change to the way our tempers could be tested. Leading the charge was Bungie Studios Halo: Combat Evolved, one of those lesser known titles that like Tomb Raider, you’ve probably never heard of. Ignoring the technical boundaries that the Xbox’ HDD allowed to be pushed, the ability to save quickly, on the fly and without requiring a series of confirmation menus to click through kept you well protected from the frustration of having to fall back to content you hoped you’d completed 30 minutes ago.

I’m quite happy to go against the grain and say that Halo was nothing more than a run of the mill shooter at the core that without the opt-in challenge of Legendary mode was otherwise fairly straight forward in terms of difficulty. The punishment in Halo didn’t lie in dying, where that occasional mishap off of a cliff simply reset to the instant reload to the checkpoint only 30 seconds back. Where Bungie got you was in Death itself. The ‘Groundhog Day’ situation, where you keep repeating the same challenge over and over again really is one of the worst punishments to endure in any game. For PlayStation 2 users, this was even more frustrating as with most titles they were often forced to sit through a loading screen in between the re-incarnation process, adding an extra patience testing minute to the cycle, giving you the time to calm and collect yourself or be pushed from the couch and out into the big scary world outside. With Halo’s auto-save came the console quick-load and a far more relentless punishment as now you could die once a minute instead of once every two. Even Bill Murray got a lie-in every now and again.

There's nothing worse than having to hear Sonny and Cher every re-load

Which brings us up to our current state of affairs. The trinity of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all provide the developers with all the tools they need to go for challenge over frustration, but are they willing to test us gamers anymore? Modern Warfare 2’s Veteran mode is much more forgiving than its predecessor and Lara Croft’s adventures have become more of a Prince of Persia Redux platformer than the puzzle game that tested our Vulcan side over a decade ago. It seems that anything that used to challenge us doesn’t even try to anymore and the games that try to break that mould fall into the trap of testing patience rather than skill. Occasionally a game like Ninja Gaiden 2 comes along that strikes a balance between the two, offering the ability to learn the techniques you need to master in order to overcome the obstacle, but too often are we subjected to the grind of Lost Odyssey where the only challenge is keeping sane long enough to level up high enough in order to stand toe-to-toe in the games boss fights.

But do we even want to be punished anymore? For many of us, games are too expensive and our time too limited (I don’t even have time to put on my digital watch anymore) to engage in a sadomasochistic exercise where we’re punished for the smallest mistakes, time and time again. The little pat on the head we get from the Trophy and Achievement systems provide us with that extra spur to chase down those end of game credit sequences so that we can all feel better for having actually finished a game before the next game on your list is released. It seems to be that the challenge today lies in working through a games single player campaign, picking up all the skills you need and then taking it all online. Though with the current level of intelligence in the online field being comparable to a Giraffe firing pickles out of its nostrils in an attempt to become the Sahara’s ultimate predator, I’m sure that many of you will agree with me that Multiplayer these days really is just another extension of the patience test. We’re ready for a challenge whenever you are developers.

Last five articles by Adam



  1. Samuel The Preacher says:

    Interesting read… though I was surprised to see you mention Tomb Raider’s puzzles as being particularly tough. I found them quite spectacularly simple. All the blocks were the same shape. The level design wasn’t that inspired and the real challenge presented in getting from one switch to another was the awful camera getting in the way. After playing Zelda and point and click games for years, Tomb Raider was a piece of piss. The only thing that was new about it over those other games was that it was in 3D (Zelda wouldn’t go 3D until 2 years after Tomb Raider’s original SEGA Saturn release).

    Forgive my pedantry, but the XBox was part of the 6th console generation, heh.

    Still, an interesting read, and I agree mostly with gaming having gotten simpler in some ways. I haven’t felt that same sheer bloody-minded satisfaction from completing a game after endless deaths and restarts that I felt after completing Mega Man 6 since. I still haven’t completed half the Sonic series or most of the Mario platformers, after nearly 20 years of trying. Any satisfaction I get from completing a game now tends to be as a result of finishing one with a really good story, like Assassin’s Creed II or Mass Effect, in the same way that I’m satisfied after reading a really good book, or watching an absorbing film.

    On a side note… did you really just use a Deep Blue Sea quote for a caption to a LEGO T-Rex, Mark? For shame! Jurassic Park is right there, sobbing at being over-looked for intelligent dinosaur quotes. Heh.

  2. Samuel The Preacher says:

    Forget that… I just remembered it WAS from Jurassic Park. They stole it and paraphrased it for Deep Blue Sea, d’oh.

    Hoisted by my own petard. Again.

  3. Victor Victor says:

    The Preacher made a mistake in his sermon. Great blog, Adam. I have to say that I am glad that developers have decided to challenge us in different ways now. I don’t think I’d be playing videogames as much now, if games followed the same design template you described in Quackshot.

    I mean, I never completed Super Probotector in single-player mode. Never completed the first Tomb Raider game. Did manage to see the dinosaur though. The challenging games are there, for people that want them. But you are right that it is a bit ridiculous to hide the highest difficulty until you have completed in on a relatively easier difficulty.

    I am too much of a gaming wuss to even look at the highest difficulty in games any more. Master Ninja on Ninja Gaiden 2? That is the videogaming equivalent of performing your own C-section. Without anaesthetic. on bed of nails. Listening to the Spice Girls.

  4. Kat says:

    I lolled in numerous places!

    I want easy settings, I want saves all over the damn shop and I want pats on the back :D I never used to see the end of games as I’d get stuck and annoyed halfway in. Now I get to complete them so that makes me a happy gamer.

    Fear the giraffe.

  5. Pete says:

    I fear the Giraffe….. I hear it sounds like David Schwimmer! :o

  6. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    Actually Preacher, Adam takes the time to source his own images and write his own captions… I just select which of the four for each image makes me smile the most, hence the Jurassic Park quote. I do love catching pedants in their own nets though, it makes me chuckle endlessly :p That’s two in as many days now, I wonder if I can manage to sustain my pedant safari for the rest of the week?

    Feed the giraffe.

  7. Kat says:

    He sources his own images? Gah! And I wanted to be teachers pet >.<

    Feel the giraffe.

  8. Adam says:

    Pedant Catching is fun :D

    I used ’2nd Generation’ (with an ‘emphasis’) as a bit of tongue in cheek. For many, PlayStation was the market birth and it’s successor, the Playstation 2 was the heralding of a 2nd Generation. Its why Xbox didn’t name its successor Xbox2 as it would have made it appear that it was a whole generation behind the Playstation 3, the 360 gave them that muscle to use in the market.

    It’s scary to ponder what developers would be doing now if Games had to get harder with each release. I fear we’d all be playing stood atop dance mats with nunchuks around our necks and the controllers behind our ears just so that they wouldn’t have to address the issue. I really can’t play a game unless I know its on the hardest setting, but mainly thats just because I don’t fancy having to make a 2nd playthrough for another achievement. Still, I find that if you do take this approach, you struggle for the first 45 minutes of the game and then the rest just seems to get easier.


  9. Lorna Lorna says:

    I’ve often bemoaned the fact that modern games are nowhere near as hard as the ‘retro age’ but then, as others have pointed out, woud we all still be playing them if they were. With the original gaming generations now all grown up with jobs, families, and responsibilities, you can’t have games with no save points anymore. We don’t have those endless uninterrrupted summers where we can throw ourselves full tilt at a game for endless hours, through lives and continues. For some, this may constitute the game being easier, but it is just reality and practicality coming to stay.

    There are still a few devilishly hard games out there and because of the trend to dumb down slightly, they come as a smack in the face when you find them. XBLA games like Flock and TrialsHD have had me screeching in anger. Mirror’s Edge was tough as fuck. Perhaps that is why so many moaned about it because the skillset of moves that had to be learned in order to progress and reach certain areas was tricky…mapping them into muscle memory in order to fully appreciate the flow of the game and actually get anywhere easily wasn’t simple but if you stuck with it, it was incredibly rewarding. You couldn’t just stumble through in many areas, you had to get good, otherwise you’d be stuck at the bottom of the stormdrains in perpetuity.

  10. Victor Victor says:

    When a certain game grabs me, I will go through it, as difficult and time-consuming as it may be. Take Batman: Arkham Asylum, for example. The Freeflow Perfection achievement stands out as the achievement I found hardest to achieve, out of all the ones I got in 2009. A simple, complete an uninterrupted combo with every single move that Batman has. That is it. Unfortunately, there is no on-screen prompt to remind you which moves you have employed or not. A perfect combo takes about 180 seconds, give or take. But the failed attempts take the time I spent on getting it well past the 20 hour mark.

    Let me repeat for emphasis. It took me 20 hours of practice, spread over a weekend, to complete an action that took about 3 minutes to complete. If all games were like this, I would take my obsession and apply it to train-spotting.

  11. Lorna Lorna says:

    I hear the pain, Victor. Some of the Mirror’s Edge speedruns, were less than 7 minutes or so, but the time I poured into practicing and failing was staggering and the Time Trials were worse. The time limit for three stars was terrifyingly short on all the trials and I spent months working on them all until I had reached the heady heights of 90 accumulated stars and then all 9 speedruns. Still the hardest that I have ever worked at a game but easily the most satisfying and proud achievements that I have.

  12. Samuel The Preacher says:

    Yes, gentlemen, I boobed. I concede defeat on this occasion. Considering I realised myself just 10 seconds after submitting the comment, I could hardly get defensive over this one. Ironically, the two people who mentioned enjoying pedant hunting are both eternal pedants themselves, heh…

    Good luck with that safari Mark. I’m not saying a single potentially self-defeating fucking word until at least next week. Not getting me a second time. Or third. I’m not sure if I was the first or not… And why would I source my own images if I can have you do it? You’re much better at it than I am, I can admit that. If you showed me the pictures in advance though, I could easily do my own captions. I real good at the word things and the writing of the word things, me is.

    Buh… good thing I can laugh at myself. Of all the silly ways to embarrass yourself online.

  13. Lee says:

    @partwelsh Quack shot took longer to finish than 2 hours. it must of. we played the hell out of that game every weekend for years!!! i only remember finishing it once. i think you hat to fight pete at the end in a mine or something

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