GAMES I AM NOT MAN ENOUGH TO PLAY
Look, at the end of the day, you have to know your limits. You have to know when God lays a gentle hand on your shoulder, shakes His massive head, and says, "I’m afraid not, my child." Sure, when you boot that new game up for the first time, the possibilities seem limitless. You’re going to get every achievement, you’re going to play the single-player twice, you’re going to make a difference, damn it! But then that level about three quarters through the game pops up. You know the one I mean: the lava world where every block you step on crumbles beneath you, that turn that the AI cars all take perfectly, maybe even the spider boss who hits you from every side no matter how fast you run. Your morale flags, and you notice that "Mythbusters" is firing a frozen turkey through a cockpit windshield at this very moment on the Discovery Channel. Before you know it, you withdraw from the competition.
I’m not here to judge you, Dear Reader. It happens to me all the time. The more I play videogames, the more I realize I am simply not in it for the challenge. I like a satisfying learning curve, but at the the end of the day I expect a game to pat me on the head and tell me how great I am. That’s what I’m paying them for, and that’s all that makes sense to me; you wouldn’t hire a prostitute to politely turn down your advances (or maybe you would, Dear Reader, you weirdo). This would be all well and good, except there’s a whole network of type-A gamers who thrive on punishing difficulty, and several sub-genres dedicated to giving them all they can handle. I am constantly around these people, and they are constantly making me feel like a freaking nancy. What’s worse, it seems to be almost in-born: my Latin teacher in high school–who had never played a video game in his life–picked up "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" on a whim, and conquered it on the hardest difficulty his first time through. It took him weeks, but he casually accepted the challenge: "Might as well do it right." As he spoke those words, the memory of my aborted attempts to complete "Banjo Kazooie" twisted my insides. I wanted to sink behind my copy of "Ecce Romani I" and never reappar.
I am a pansy, there’s no two ways about it. With rare exceptions (most notably "F.E.A.R." and the "Left 4 Dead" series), I am simply not the stuff that legends are made of. I don’t eat my Wheaties in the morning. Be advised, game designers, that my will can be broken, my spirit is not beyond the grasping talons of your malice. I go quietly into the night. I am a coward. Presented below are the various games that taught me that lesson. Almost all of them are great games, and my doomed relationship with them in no way reflects on the acumen with which they were produced. Still, they are the interactive bullies that took my lunch money and sent me packing back to mama:
-God of War. When I first booted up "God of War," the game’s developers cunningly manipulated me by dropping Kratos into a little stage by himself. A cursory pressing of all the major buttons on my PS2 controller revealed that I was the greatest "God of War" player of all time. I mean, did you see those blades fly half way across the room on fire? I swung them so hard that time slowed down, I can make it rain out here! But then the actual enemies started pouring across the screen, to say nothing of that infuriatingly clunky dodge (can’t you roll any faster than that, dude?), uncomfortably triggered by the squeaking, high-action, spring loaded shoulder buttons on the top of the controller. Somewhere around the bajillionith cut scene that required me to press X thencirclereallyfastdoitnowyoumissedit! I just clocked out. It’s one thing to lose a boss battle over and over, but to fall prey to the unwashed masses that populate the midway point of each level is a sign of something wrong.
-Project Gotham Racing. Any of them. Name one, and it applies. At first all is well: I’m taking corners, learning the courses, adapting to pressure and keeping my cool. Then somewhere around the midpoint of the career, my opponents become bullet trains riding on tracks that cut every corner tighter than physics should allow. They don’t sweat under pressure, they don’t make mistakes, and they seem capable of deflecting my attempts to pass them while simultaneously threading a needle with their front tires through a hairpin turn. Too proud to knock down the difficulty, I simply walked away from my lucrative racing career, and the wound did not heal until "Need for Speed: Shift."
-Counter Strike. I’m going to say this once for the record: everybody who is good at "Counter Strike" can bite me. I hate you. I hate you so much, with your little sniper rifle and your preternatural ability to fire off a headshot before I can even blink. And if you’re one of those guys who has a team that plays like a unit, watching each other’s backs and calling out when you move to the next room, I hope you catch pneumonia and die. I was an innocent child when I logged onto CS for the first time, and you peed on my dreams. My only comfort is knowing that I will always be better at sex than all of you.
-Guitar Hero/Rock Band. I can play actual guitar and I can’t handle this crap. I can make music like nobody’s business, but what I can’t do is correlate the arrival of a bright pink rectangle in an arbitrary space on the screen with a beat. Rhythm is something you hear and count, you don’t use spatial reasoning to meter it out. Also, using these plastic abominations teaches one a lot about the wisdom with which real guitars were designed. Using hammer ons, pulls offs, slides, picks and up/down strums, I can squeeze dozens of notes out in an incredibly short amount of time, and that’s brilliant. In these games, each sound you make requires two complete motions that hardly distinguish between a soft pick and a staccato power chord. Hand me the microphone, though, and I’ll show you how that crap is done. I was Javert in "Les Miserables," sucker. Step off.
-Battletoads. I don’t want to talk about it.
-All stealth games. Never underestimate pressure’s ability to make you panic, run out from your cover, and sprint into a stream of bullets as thick as a fire hose. Whether it’s trying to act natural as the spy in "Team Fortress 2," or knocking out a torch with a water arrow in "Thief: The Dark Age," I just don’t have the composure for this. I will forever be grateful to Rocksteady games for the loving caress with which they rendered the stealth elements of "Batman: Arkham Asylum." I am the biggest Bat-fan in the world, and if I’d had to endure that humiliation while fulfilling my Dark Knight fantasies, I might have drank myself to death on cheap whiskey from Ralph’s. You saved a life, guys.
-Ninja Gaiden. I avoid this game, and any in the series, like the plague. It is a masterpiece of action game design, and every time I slip into it, it feels so good I can scarcely contain myself. And then the game starts playing, and I remember that with great power comes great responsibility. Ryu Hyabusa may be the single most powerful avatar I have ever controlled in the video game medium; others have been assigned more destruction, but Ryu feels more powerful than anyone else. He has limitless stamina, can turn on a dime, he seems to respond to your very thoughts before you have them. But because you play as a minor god, the game feels obligated to be so bloody impossibly soul-crushingly hard that any death-dealing joyride is quickly a distant memory. For me, it’s just not worth it.
-Super Mario Bros. You laugh, but if you made a game today where one (maybe two at best) mistakes force you to retake an entire level, you’d be dragged out into the street and shot. And with good reason. There’s a delicious irony in the fact that a lot of the older generations who look down on modern gaming because they grew up with this stuff are actually far better gamers than I will ever be. I pick up a Mario game for about twenty minutes before the precision required to complete it overwhelms me and I back out. I have precious little recreational time, and I don’t intend to spend it being crushed by the same ill-placed goomba a dozen times. It’s not just that the games are exacting, it’s that there is zero room for creativity; do it right or it’s over. Watching a master play this stuff is quite a thing, because their brain has mapped the game so accurately that the experience is reduced to a series of perfectly molded twitch responses. I’m in awe of it, but that’s as far as it goes for me.
-Tetris. THERE’S NO PLACE FOR A CUBE!