“Fair” and “unfair” get thrown around a lot when discussing video games. What does this mean?
If you love tough games, it’s a wonderful time for you. Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy brings back the controller-smashing levels of our youths, while The End is Nigh presents some interesting new mountains to climb. Even the tried and true Dark Souls III thrives, with its semi-recent Ringed City DLC. Some of these titles can be fun and rewarding, yet they can also feel like difficult, frustrating time-wasters. What exactly nudges a game over this line?
In essence, I believe a game becomes “unfair” when their inherent design choices are disrespectful to the player and their time. Almost every platformer in recent memory is guilty of getting “cheap kills,” whether it’s from an unseen trap or timed mechanic. In small doses, these challenges are fine: they’re what attract us to the game in the first place. However, if every single death occurs from one of these “Ha HA! Can’t believe you died there!” moments, we as players begin to feel like the punchline of some cruel joke by the devs.
Dark Souls III rewards player patience in these rough times. It provides them with an entire area to explore at their own pace, asking them to break off bite-sized chunks and digest as they see fit. The player is free to save the game and spend their Souls at any point, without repercussions. Death is no enemy; Souls are lost, but can easily be picked up. Players aren’t punished for their curiosity, even though they “lose a life”. Rather, they’re rewarded with discoveries: secret items and pathways, which will aid them on their arduous journey.
Crash Bandicoot begins to feel just a smidgen more annoying. While players can take levels at their own pace, they are constantly hounded by a “life counter.” When that baby reaches zero, your progress is over. You’re forced to restart the entire level, even if you could almost taste the exit. Yet Crash also allows for a great deal of freedom in its platforming by adding in a dash of problem-solving. Player ingenuity in the form of crouches, slides, and spin jumps are rewarded with…well, proficiency in the game’s mechanics, and a sort of “do it yourself” shortcut. Many difficult side paths and optional bonus rounds also hand out collectible Gems and extra lives.
However, a recent offender in “feeling unfair” is The End is Nigh, the newest platformer from Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac creator Ed McMillen. The tough-as-nails sidescroller unshackles players from meaningless life counts, and only makes them replay a single short screen/level upon death. Yet these levels usually begin with overly tedious sections involving copious amounts of spikes, only to end in some fast moving enemy that can barely be avoided. This means that players must replay the same difficult, nuanced platforming section time and time again, only to hit an insurmountable obstacle.
“Oh, you can’t see the pattern?” it seems to jeer. “So sad. You don’t have pixel perfect accuracy; looks like you can’t finish this level.”
Some people have the kind of time to run these levels over and over again until they manage to make that final jump. Heck, some people crave that kind of action. I used to. But I can’t quite shake that The End is Nigh stands out from the crowd, in a bad way. It asks you to be just a tad too perfect, and laughs just a tad too much when you can’t achieve its lofty goals.
That’s not to say The End is Nigh is bad, or that Dark Souls or Crash are perfect. Of the three, The End simply has a myriad of moments where its difficult, sneering unfairness seems to outweigh its fun gameplay and aesthetic. Perhaps some of its level designs should have gone back to the drawing board. Perhaps I should just get good.