Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism


Ian Bo­gost takes com­fort in the fa­mil­iar­ity of videogame se­quels

Maybe it’s time to drop the pre­tence: we like our games ba­si­cally iden­ti­cal to their pre­de­ces­sors

Videogames have a strange re­la­tion­ship with time, rep­e­ti­tion and value. For one part, play­ers gripe end­lessly when a game is too short. Imag­ine, for ex­am­ple, pay­ing £14.99 for a game such as Gone Home that you can fin­ish in an hour – and that re­sists re­play. What a waste!

But then play­ers also eat up end­less se­quels. Gears Of War is ap­par­ently old enough that its new se­quel can be clas­si­fied as a re­boot, while Me­tal Gear Solid V: The

Phan­tom Pain is the saga’s fifth en­try in name only. No­body tires of th­ese, nor all the

Bat­man: Arkham What­ev­ers. Of course, a se­quel is al­ways a dif­fer­ent and os­ten­si­bly new game, ex­cept also it isn’t. It’s a re­turn, a rep­e­ti­tion with vari­a­tion.

Then there are re-re­leases. Con­sole cy­cles of­fer ex­cuses for th­ese clever work­arounds, a pop­u­lar late-gen game on the con­sole just ren­dered ‘old’ find­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a re­mas­tered edi­tion on the new one. The Last

Of Us en­joyed this treat­ment, for ex­am­ple. Capcom’s sur­vival-hor­ror clas­sic Res­i­dent

Evil has been re-re­leased too many times to count since it orig­i­nally ap­peared in 1996.

Re-re­leases have their place, of course, and it’s a place fash­ioned pretty much di­rectly out of the planned ob­so­les­cence cre­ated by con­sole gen­er­a­tions and op­er­at­ing sys­tem up­grades – con­di­tions that en­sure new au­di­ences have to pay to play older games. Back­ward com­pat­i­bil­ity is said to be too dif­fi­cult to sup­port (that is, costly), or unique hard­ware makes it pro­hib­i­tive. And in truth, the same forc­ing func­tions push us to re-pur­chase other me­dia, such as movies, for DVD, then Blu-ray, then iTunes, and so on.

But there’s some­thing dif­fer­ent about games, where re-re­lease is of­ten por­trayed as nov­elty. A while back, I was anx­iously await­ing de­liv­ery of the lat­est An­i­mal

Cross­ing ti­tle, Happy Home De­signer. Even the hard­ware cre­ated a su­per­flu­ous re-re­lease itch in need of scratch­ing, and I am both proud and ashamed to ad­mit that I was lured into ac­quir­ing the spe­cial-edi­tion Nin­tendo 3DS XL re­skinned with vil­lager Is­abelle, even though I al­ready own a work­ing 3DS XL.

Ques­tions wafted through the house as we awaited de­liv­ery. “I won­der if any­thing in the game is go­ing to be dif­fer­ent?” my daugh­ter mused. The hope was yes, I guess, but with an un­spo­ken el­lip­sis: …isn’t it the same­ness that makes one An­i­mal Cross­ing game as ap­peal­ing as the last? Af­ter all, this is a game about lit­er­ally do­ing the same thing play ses­sion af­ter play ses­sion. Any time some­thing’s changed in An­i­mal Cross­ing, it’s only seemed to change for the worse. Re­mem­ber the ter­ri­ble city in An­i­mal

Cross­ing: City Folk? Or the stupid, point­less is­land in New Leaf? Who needs th­ese ex­cesses, seem­ingly added only to tick the box of nov­elty?

To some ex­tent, when we play games we want com­fort and fa­mil­iar­ity rather than nov­elty, even though our mouths and typ­ing fin­gers say that we want nov­elty. Games are ap­pa­ra­tuses as much as they are me­dia ex­pe­ri­ences, and much of what we want from ap­pa­ra­tuses is in­creas­ingly re­fined op­er­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, the 2007 smart­phone whose cel­lu­lar tower tri­an­gu­la­tion method for ge­olo­ca­tion is re­placed in 2009 with one that uses GPS. In Happy Home De­signer, the nui­sance of push­ing and pulling fur­ni­ture around your vil­lage hut is re­placed by a saner and more ef­fi­cient drag-and-drop dec­o­rat­ing mech­a­nism. But this too quickly re­veals it­self to be as un­wel­come as the city or the is­land: the point of An­i­mal Cross­ing is slow­ness and labour, and cou­pling that labour to the lit­tle avatar you con­trol in the game.

Many teeth have been gnashed over the rel­a­tive virtues of com­puter games as a kind of game ver­sus folk games and ta­ble games and other more an­cient ren­di­tions of the form. Go and chess and backgam­mon are thou­sands of years old, un­changed and un­chang­ing, and yet they re­main ap­peal­ing nev­er­the­less – even be­cause of – this same­ness. But th­ese ar­gu­ments also of­ten rely on ap­peals to me­chan­i­cal emer­gence. Go is math­e­mat­i­cally enor­mous, and no hu­man could plumb its depths in a life­time.

In­fin­ity is ap­peal­ing, but com­puter games rarely tou­sle its hair. In­stead, they tend to pre­fer the more or­di­nary sort of rep­e­ti­tion: the kind that en­tails do­ing the same thing over and over again. Maybe it’s time to drop the pre­tence: we like our games ba­si­cally iden­ti­cal to their pre­de­ces­sors. There’s no shame in this. What other me­dia em­braces same­ness with such re­silience? So go ahead, play your se­quel or re­boot with aban­don.


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