Easy games are the most challenging of all
Like most of you, I’ve been playing videogames for a very long time. The Commodore 64 was my very first computer (I’m not that old, I was just that poor!) and games like Dizzy Prince of the Yolkfolk, Wizball and Green Beret were the games I grew up enjoying. Eventually I scrabbled together enough coins to get an NES, and then a Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis, if you prefer), and quickly fell in with the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Shinobi. Many so-called “hardcore” gamers complain that the titles of yesteryear were a lot tougher than the games of today, and looking at my own history, I can’t necessarily refute it. I still remember an era without checkpoints, where one hit meant the loss of a life, and Battletoads was considered acceptable entertainment and not some brutal form of child cruelty.
Fast-forward to 2010, and one of my favorite games released this year is also one of the easiest ever made. Kirby’s Epic Yarn, despite being an intensely charming platformer full of clever ideas and truly inspiring level design, has been shot down by many gamers for being too easy. You cannot die in the game, and this lack of “challenge” has caused the game to be written off by those calling themselves “real” gamers. Instead of applause, the game is derided as a “kiddy” or a “casual” game, not fit for consumption by the hardcore crowd and best left for the soccer moms and infants.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn is an “easy” game, but if you look past the rather shallow point that you cannot die, you’ll find that this title is actually one of the most difficult titles ever — because it challenges your very idea of what “difficult” in a videogame actually means.
To those of us who grew up with games, we already know that challenge = death. If a game “kicks your ass” and kills you more times than you can remember, then it’s a classic example of a “real” game with “real” challenge. This is what most of us think when we imagine a hard game, and given our wealth of experience with interactive entertainment, I cannot blame anybody who has difficulty divorcing the concepts of difficulty and death. Epic Yarn, however, tries to do something different, to be challenging in a far less established, threatening way. It presents its challenges in a way that demands we leave our outdated preconceptions behind and that, right there, is one of the hardest things anybody could do. It was hard for me to do, until I finally “got” it.
Epic Yarn’s myriad traps and enemies do not kill you. Yes, you can walk from point A to point B, take as much damage as you like, and get to the end of a level through sheer attrition. However, to do so would be to miss the point of the game entirely. Epic Yarn’s challenge comes not from survival, but from mastery. Surviving is a moot point, it’s not something you have to worry about. Completing a level with a gold medal, however, is where Kirby’s Epic Yarn throws the gauntlet, and it’s your prerogative to pick it up. In order to gain gold medals, you have to collect — and keep — the gems scattered throughout each level, while also finding hidden treasures. Taking damage means losing a number of gems, thus decreasing your score and your chance for a medal. Bosses even throw in platinum medals, which ramps up the challenge.
Despite not killing you, this makes the enemies and traps of Kirby’s Epic Yarn more dangerous — that is, if you allow your brain to bend that way and go with what the game wants to do. In my own experience with Epic Yarn, each hit I took from an enemy felt like a stab to the soul, and I was constantly fretting over ending the level with enough points to get that gold. My completion of the level was never in question — that was inevitable — but whether I would beat the level with my arms raised triumphantly or my head hung in shame was the real issue.
Another of my other top picks for Game of the Year is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. This, too, is a game often despised for its ease. Enslaved features many climbing and platforming sections, but unlike the environmental shenanigans found in Prince of Persia and Uncharted, these sections have not been designed to test the dexterity of your thumbs and the measure of your patience. In fact, barring some later sections of the game, it’s practically impossible to die in these sections. Protagonist Monkey effortlessly swings from poles, clambers up ledges and jumps over chasms, with no risk of failure. Monkey safely stumbles rather than falls off cliffs, and if you mistime a jump, he simply won’t attempt it.
Your “real” gamer struggles with this scenario, unable to find enjoyment from a climbing section that doesn’t present the risk of failure. Once again, however, this is missing the point of Enslaved. Enslaved would rather have you feel confident and empowered rather than frightened. I love Prince of Persia games but it’s often hard to appreciate the flowing elegance of the platforming when you’re carefully lining up jumps and are afraid to make jumps without first pondering where to leap without getting killed. There is certainly nothing wrong with that type of game (Sands of Times is one of my favorite titles ever), but it’s not the type of game Enslaved is. Enslaved is a game that wants you to take in its beautiful environments and pay more attention to the fact that you’re looking and feeling absolutely awesome, like a muscular ninja, as opposed to slipping down chasms or being too worried about circular saws and pits full of spikes to enjoy yourself. You can’t die — but you can be distracted by some of the most gorgeous post-apocalyptic environments that a videogame has ever had. The enjoyment isn’t to be found in dying, it’s to be found in simply experiencing a world.
One recent game that has really typified this sense of experience is The UnderGarden. Released just last week on PC and Xbox Live Arcade, The UnderGarden is a game that, like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, presents no life-threatening harm to the player character. The aim of the game, at least the only real aim that the game deigns to infer, is to make each level bloom with plantlife by spreading pollen around. Although there are environmental puzzles, they exist purely to keep you busy rather than impede your progress. None of them are very hard. One of the game’s loading screen messages reads, “Sometimes it’s just fun to float around”, and it actually is. Once again, however, it’s easy to write the game off as a dull casual title that’s far too easy. As always, you’re missing the point.
Getting 100% of the plants to bloom in any level, not to mention finding each stage’s hidden crystal and secret flowers, is a lot harder than it looks. The only major difference between these tough tasks and a “hardcore” game is that The UnderGarden doesn’t force you to do anything. You don’t have to find the crystals or the flowers. You don’t have to get all the plants to bloom. You don’t have to do anything. But if you set yourself the goal of doing more than floating around, then the game will put up a fight and make you think.
And this is where I claim that so-called “hardcore” games are easier than so-called “easy” games. It’s easy to play a game that throws tons of bullets at you and call yourself a hardcore gamer. It’s easy to get into something like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden and have your challenges mapped out in front of you, telling you exactly what you need to do. What’s hard is to pick up a game like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Enslaved or The UnderGarden and take them at more than face value. It’s incredibly difficult to restructure the entire way you view challenge in games. The UnderGarden never tells you what to do. It never spoon feeds you instructions by demanding that you must perform X action Y amount of times in order to proceed. It tells you what you can do, not what you have to do. It’s up to you to decide how much work you want to put in.
Twenty years ago, videogames were limited in the scope of what they could do. Nowadays, we have thousands of different games doing thousands of different, wonderful things. A videogame is more than just a challenge now. It’s more than just dying, and conflict, and trial-and-error. Sometimes it’s about exploration, it’s about emotion, and it’s about challenging yourself, rather than letting a game do it for you. Appreciating, understanding and embracing that is more difficult than Demon’s Souls could ever hope to be.