When the going gets tough ... let the game play itself

by Brian Crecente

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

14 October 2009


Like many younger brothers I had a contentious relationship with my older brother. We butted heads, fought, lied, accused each other of unimaginable atrocities and genuinely despised one another — while secretly caring deeply what the other thought.

But there was one thing that always brought us together: Difficult video games.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the heyday of gaming’s explosive appearance in homes and arcades, playing a video game with your brother usually meant taking turns. Or, if you were the younger, less-skilled brother, it meant asking for help, learning from your older sibling.

It was, at least for us, one of the few ways we could bond openly.

Nintendo’s latest innovation in gaming, the Super Guide, could throw all of that out the window by enabling the game console to take over the role of big brother, big sister, father, mother and role model and play the game for you, virtually holding your hand when things get tough.

The Super Guide will make its first appearance in November when Nintendo releases New Super Mario Bros. Wii for its console. In the familiar game, players run and jump through the Mushroom Kingdom, avoiding pitfalls and cartoon enemies on their quest for the perpetually displaced Princess Peach.

One of the twists (the game also introduces the ability for four people to play the game at the same time) is that if you get stuck, failing at a level eight times, the game will offer to play through the level for you via the Super Guide.

If you accept the offer, the single-player-controlled Mario is replaced with a Wii-controlled Luigi who then plays through the level on his own. The play-through will actually be a recording of a developer’s imperfect, survivable play-through of the game. At any time the player can take control back from the guide, but once they do they can’t relinquish control again without starting over.

Ian Bogost, associate professor at Georgia Tech and author of several books on games, most recently “Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System,” likens the Super Guide to the video game equivalent of fast forwarding a movie or skimming a book.

“Games are long, too long perhaps,” he said. “Designers have combated this problem partly through shorter games, like casual games and minigames, particularly on the Wii. But such games also can’t carry the sort of long-form spatial or narrative experience that we’re used to from games like Super Mario Bros.”

The problem, though, is that it undercuts one of the things that make video games unique as a medium: how interactive they are.

“It certainly makes a game more passive. It does violence to the experience. It strips out the challenge and accomplishment that characterizes some games,” Bogost said.

This first implementation of the Super Guide seems stripped of some of the potential found in the original patent filed for the system back in January. The patent also talks about the ability for gamers to save and share their own play-throughs of the game, making the hand-holding a bit more communal. It also allowed a gamer to bring up on-screen hints and skip to specific scenes of a game to play.

Developer Kellee Santiago, co-founder and president of ThatGameCompany, calls the concept an interesting potential solution to a problem that continues to plague the industry: How do you make a game that satisfies the increasingly separate groups of hardcore and casual gamers?

“There have been some rumblings from the hardcore community that games have gotten a little too easy as they’ve attempted to gain a larger audience,” Santiago said. “It makes me think of watching a horror film and closing your ears and eyes during the really scary parts. Personally, I don’t know why people would do this — I watch horror films because I like getting scared. If I didn’t like it, I’d probably just not go see horror films. But there are people that still want the experience of sharing the experience of watching a scary movie with friends, and so they ‘cheat’ by tuning out the really terrifying parts. It’s possible there’s a gaming audience who will also enjoy playing hard games, and just skipping over the actual interaction of the really tricky sections.

“My concern as a developer is that this could lead to some lazy game design. Instead of addressing what could be some serious design flaws, they could rely on this system to simply show the player what to do.”

Bogost raises the same concerns. And, he says, the Super Guide could be considered the byproduct of what philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer termed the culture industry, essentially popular culture mass produced to pacify, not enlighten or intellectually stimulate, the masses.

“I do believe that dynamic difficulty adjustment in general undermines the art’s ability to produce unfamiliar and disturbing experiences in favor of giving the player just what he wants when he wants it ... It’s a computationally automatic version of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of the culture industry.”

And would beating a game with something, not someone, playing for you, be as fun?

At least when I handed the controller over to my big brother I got something more then a false sense of accomplishment out of it. And I’m not sure how much I want to bond with my Wii.


Brian Crecente is managing editor of Kotaku.com, a video-game Web site owned by Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at kotaku.com/tag/well-played.

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