When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say about who we are and the world we live in.
Because I write about games, people often make the mistake of assuming that I am skilled at them. When I play skill based games like Tetris, Super Meat Boy, Trials, or even Bejeweled, I generally play until it becomes clear to me that progress would require more time than I can realistically commit. The type of games that I am more drawn to, however, are not mere skill games. And I submit that the more heavily a game relies on story, the more careful that game should be in raising the bar when it comes to skill. In fact, narrative-heavy games do gamers a disservice when they require an inordinate amount of skill from them.
Games that highlight narrative certainly can and should require skillful play, but if these games want the average player to experience the story that they worked hard to create, such skillful play is best taught to the player gradually over time. Additionally if the game gives the player multiple skill paths to take, those skill paths should be honored throughout lest the game deceive the player. That is exactly what Deus Ex did to me.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution gives the player options–you can play stealthily or boldly, you can kill enemies or subdue them non-lethally. The player improves upon his ability to carry out these various options as he progresses by spending skill points on abilities that help him improve in these realms.
I chose to play the game stealthily and non-lethally, in part because I enjoy a challenge. Playing stealthily requires patience and creativity both of which appeal to me because of their tendency to be absent in action games. When I first started playing DX:HR, I would constantly save the game so that if I made a mistake and was seen by enemies as I snuck around levels, I could would have a fail safe to go back to. After playing for a while, I realized that I was taking some of the fun out of the game by doing so. Part of the fun of games is learning from the challenge they present and I was not learning from DX:HR because I was constantly protecting myself from failure.
Thus after playing Deus Ex for several hours, I determined not to rely so heavily on fail safe points and to approach each level carefully, thoughtfully, and patiently. Before too long I was traversing a massive office complex sprawling with guards, cameras, and robots without being seen by any of them. I even managed to hack the office’s computer system and shut down cameras and reprogram the robots to attack the guards. In short, I had learned to play DX:HR skillfully and was thoroughly enjoying it. Though I am not a skilled gamer–DX:HR succeeded in making me feel like a pro.
My delight in skillfully playing DX:HR was shattered when I encountered the game’s second boss battle. Given the game’s narrative, it makes sense for some enemies to be more difficult to deal with and I don’t mind the game occasionally forcing me to take lethal measures. What I don’t appreciate, however, is when a game essentially punishes you for taking a route that it encouraged. The second boss battle required skills that I had not developed and play mechanics that I had not, up to that point, utilized. It was so frustrating that I very nearly gave up on the game altogether. I put the game down for a few days after which I picked it back up and defeated the boss. Guess how I did it? Creating fail safes … a lot of them.