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The Death of “Secretive” Games – How ‘A Boy and His Blob’ and ‘Black Ops 2’ are keeping a sinking style afloat

Posted on January 19, 2013 by (@NE_Austin) in Features, General Gaming, Podcast Stories, Wii U

The birth of the internet has brought about the death of “secretive” game design, but what is it, and can a few developers keep it on life support long enough for a resurgence?

Author: Austin

It might be the most common legitimate complaint among game-players this side of DLC being exploited to high heaven: Games nowadays are just too easy. We used to live in a golden age of toughness, and now our hands are held through even the most simplistic of tasks. We used to spend weeks or months trying one particular part in a game before we beat it. We used to get satisfaction from figuring these things out. Now you never spend more than half an hour on any given task before looking up the answer online and continuing on with the game. After all, anything that gets in the way of you having fun right this second is bad for the game, right?

Maybe. There’s no use starting off on a tirade about how easy games are bad, or how games built for constant stimulation are degrading the industry. There is then, similarly, no use in preaching the power of difficulty, or making the falsely “bold” claim that every game needs to be as hard as Mega Man 2. They don’t, and they aren’t. Any declaration of any type of game being intrinsically superior to any other type of game should be– though usually isn’t– ignored in lieu of fostering somewhat more positive discussion about a hobby and/or passion most of us share.

No, the problem is not that ridiculously easy games exist. The problem isn’t really even that ridiculously hard games don’t exist. The problem is that ridiculously hard games don’t exist in the same way that they used to.

Old school games were better.

Dark Souls exists. Super Meat Boy exists. ZombiU exists. Many games like these games exist, and they are all unforgivingly difficult, forcing players to die tens if not hundreds of times before completion. Only the ill-informed would try and make the claim that hard games as a generality have died. They may have become something of a niche genre, but they are not gone, and they are the exact same type of “hard” as many old games are.

With the slow aging of the video gaming industry we have, however, lost a different sort of hard. Not the kind of hard where it takes a million tries to get from point A to point B, such as with the three aforementioned games. Not the kind of hard that has you scratching your head at a specific puzzle, such as is the case with games like Professor Layton and Portal. The type of hard that has died is the “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.” sort of hard that comes before you even get to the really hard puzzle or the dangerous attempt to get from point A to point B.

It’s the kind of hard where you don’t even know where point A is. Hell, the kind of hard where you don’t even know if there is a “point A”. You just know that you have a set of skills and you’re “somewhere”.

“Now go figure it out.”

I brought up two games in the title of this piece. The first was A Boy and His Blob, perhaps the most wonderful example of this sort of difficulty. When you start that game, you’re sitting on a dark city street. You’re a boy. There’s a blob next to you. You quickly learn you can throw jelly beans and make the blob transform. You can also whistle to make the blob come to you.

And that’s all you know. Walking left or right allows you to find a few new locations, but every which way appears to be a dead end. There are no waypoints or arrows pointing you to your objective. There isn’t even an objective at all. You’re just a boy with his blob, hanging out in a town. You’re certain there is an objective. There has to be, right? It’s a game, after all! But the game won’t tell you what it is, or even if it is.

Now, this lack of knowledge can do one of two things:

1) You get frustrated and quit in favor of playing something with clearer objectives like Super Mario Bros. or that one really expensive NES sports game.

2) The curiosity takes you over and you come back every day to search for what might be hidden behind the nothing.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with whichever way you go– some people just don’t like the way these types of games are designed, but a lot of people do. And where are these games now?

Well there aren’t very many of them. Now, there’s a second game mentioned in the title up above: Call of Duty, which is perhaps at first glance the epitome of straightforward game design. There’s actually a second reason it’s listed right next to that beautiful, blobby NES adventure though. You see, for all of the criticisms one could have about the series– it’s mindless, it’s easy, it’s repetitive– one third of the Call of Duty-making trio of developers took it upon themselves to add in a new mode to the shooter. That developer, of course, is Treyarch, and that mode “Zombies”.

These two games– A Boy and His Blob and Zombies— have more in common than someone who’s spent not much time with either might see. This is a tough comparison for people to understand though, because the craftsmanship behind Zombies is extremely well-hidden behind this guise of being just another silly game mode where you fight zombies alongside your friends until you die. (Which, on a side note, is actually a really clever way for Treyarch to make something with mass appeal and this old-school secretive difficulty.)

But the similarities are easy to catch when you think about it. You begin zombies in a place, with a set of skills you quickly learn. You can shoot. You can buy weapons. You can repair barricades. That’s all you know. As you keep playing you realize everything you do leads to death– that is to say, every direction is a dead end. This lack of knowledge about the game world can do one of two things:

1) You get frustrated and quit in favor of playing something with clearer objectives like Call of Duty: Black Ops II (oh, the irony of multiple game modes!) or that one over-priced Wii U sports game.

2) The curiosity takes you over and you come back every day to search for what might be hidden behind the nothing.

And though the semblance of being just another mindless game mode is clear, Zombies instantly rewards you for your curiosity. You suddenly find “parts” with which you can build, disembodied voices talk to you through loudspeakers, underground research stations get discovered, and the rabbit-hole goes ever-deeper, with the secrets continuing to pile on the more you play. Only the most astute players will piece together the storyline, and only the near-superhuman will figure out the final secrets and how the events piece together without consulting the internet. (on a side note: There are still major secrets that have yet to be figured out by even the mighty internet– a testament to the mode’s depth)

So the concept of “secretive” games is not lost entirely– and it is perhaps the most ironic thing in the industry that one of these games is hidden within the box of a Call of Duty title– but they are certainly a dying breed. That feeling I got when I first played A Boy and His Blob is one I cherish, and not one I want to lose, but unless developers stop treating the idea of “hard” games as a one-dimensional concept where increasing the times a player dies constitutes making it “harder”, it may be quite a while before we start to see these sorts of things return.


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