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Real Games Have Curves: Welcome to the Competence Zone

Let’s make a graph. The horizontal axis is player skill. On the far left is no skill - just random button-pushing. On the far right is perfect video game godhood, always doing exactly the correct thing at the correct time in the correct way. The first time you play a game, you’ll probably be somewhere in the middle - farther right if you’re a veteran gamer, farther left if you’re a novice. As you play the game, and learn its mechanics, you’ll trend right as you get better.

The vertical axis is performance level. At the very bottom is complete failure - game over as quickly as possible, not achieving any of the game’s goals. Farther up is the passing line, separating failure below from success above. The line itself is a performance level of just barely passing a challenge - surviving the boss fight with one hit point left, clearing the race course just before the clock runs out, and so on. And at the very top of the axis is absolute perfect performance - winning by the largest margin possible.

Now we can chart the performance levels achievable with a particular amount of player skill: the “skill curve” for a given challenge.

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When the Oldies are Not Goodies: The Questionable Legacy of Nostalgia

Game Over Photo copyright Mykl Roventine - original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/myklroventine/3210068573/

Game Over Photo copyright Mykl Roventine

Once upon a time, people didn’t buy video games. They went to an arcade, and bought playtime in twenty-five cent increments. How much time a quarter bought was completely dependent on the skill of the player. An unskilled player would find their progress barred quickly, and need to supply more quarters. A skilled player could proceed much longer, and was thus rewarded for the time, effort, and money poured into gaining their skill. The public nature of the arcade also rewarded the skilled player with the opportunity to show off in front of others. This provided the unskilled players with something to aspire to and suggested that it would be worthwhile to keep feeding the machines with quarters, so that they too might someday bask in similar glory. So it made a great deal of financial sense for arcade games to feature limited lives with more available for purchase.

Eventually video games moved from the arcade to the living room. Here it was much harder for a player to compare themselves to other local players, and there was no need to keep the quarters flowing since games were purchased outright. The reasons to limit lives had vanished, and barring the progress of unskilled players now served mainly to disrupt the experience and prevent those players from seeing all the content of the game for which they had already paid. This limited the games’ potential audience - why buy a game you can’t expect to make it through? Financially, it made no sense whatsoever for games played in the home to feature limited lives.

But that didn’t stop them from doing it anyway. From the original Super Mario Brothers on the NES all the way up to New Super Mario Brothers on the Wii, mainstream games have still not completely shaken off the limited lives trend. Why?

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The Choice Is Not Yours: Why Prince of Persia Has The Best (And Worst) Ending In Modern Video Games

WARNING: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS FULL SPOILERS FOR PRINCE OF PERSIA.

The game is called “Prince of Persia.” But it’s not really about the Prince. (He doesn’t even seem to be a prince this time. We call him “the Prince” because he has no name.) Really, the game is about (legitimate princess) Elika.

Princess Elika

As the game opens, the Prince is lost in a sandstorm, calling out for Farah. Franchise veterans will recognize the name as that of the love interest from the Sands of Time trilogy - but it is soon revealed that Farah is actually the name of this Prince’s donkey, laden with the riches the Prince has recently looted.

It’s a nod to the previous games, but it’s also a dig at Princess Farah’s characterization and gameplay role. She was little more than a pack animal. The Prince, lost in the storm, is trying to reconnect with her, trying to return to that simplicity. Instead, he finds Elika.

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Love By Proxy: Relying on Fake Relationships

I have a cold today.

I could feel it coming on yesterday, and it sent me early to bed, but today it is full-blown. I’m not gonna lie - I’ve always kind of liked being just a little bit sick. Sick enough to guiltlessly stay in bed playing video games all day (punctuated by naps and plenty of fluids) but not so sick that I can’t enjoy it.

I could play Prototype - the game I’m lately live-tweeting. But when I’m sick, I want a game that takes me to a happy place. Prototype may be a hell of a lot of fun, but it is sure not happy. Alex Mercer’s New York is a hellhole and his life is horrible. I may have a great time behind the controller, but he’s having a terrible one on the screen.

The whole point of escapism is that you escape to a better situation, not a worse one. Prototype is great for blowing off steam, but if I want to bury myself in another existence for a while, to forget about this one and the runny noses that come along with it, I play a game like Star Ocean.

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