When the nuclear holocaust finally happens, I want to be face the future with a bunker full of gamers. Not just because an end-of-the-world LAN party in an underground vault would be a truly epic occasion, but because gamers are ready for the apocalypse. You see, we’ve been gearing up for it all our lives.
Cast your mind back to the last first-person shooter you played. How did you decide when to expend your scarce, powerful ammunition, and when to try and make do with lesser armaments? As a game progresses, the enemies tend to become more challenging. The player’s arsenal also improves to match them. Half-Life is typical of this – you start off using a crowbar against headcrabs and zombies, before eventually wielding automatic weaponry and a rocket launcher against the military. This matched progression is true for role-playing games as well as first person shooters: Oblivion‘s system, which scaled the difficulty of every enemy to ensure a challenge – making rats and bandits a real threat throughout the game- was controversial because it drew our attention to the expectation of scaled challenge by unintentionally parodying it. In short, we expect our power as a player to increase hand-in hand with the difficulty of the enemies encountered, with neither side ever gaining an advantage over the other.
This progression isn’t always smooth, so we make sure that we’re ready to deal with a sudden hike in enemy strength, without being granted an increase in our own power. We try and imagine what a really tough battle would be like – something of a different scale of difficulty to what we’ve encountered so far. Whilst fighting our way through each game world we begin to build up a ‘worst case scenario’ projection in our heads. We begin to imagine just how tough things could get. So we prepare for this cataclysmic imagining and hoard our resources for it. Gamers are ready for the apocalypse, because the apocalypse is always on our minds.
But this instinct to prepare for a tougher fight isn’t simply an urge to safeguard against the unthinkably deadly pack of monsters that might be lurking round the next corner. Rather, it’s a desire to slowly increase in power relative to the world around us, to move ever closer to a situation in which we no longer have to fear for our safety. We aren’t satisfied with simply staying on par with our enemies – we want to slowly outdo them, so that they can’t hurt us any more.
In order to achieve this, we constantly hoard our most powerful weaponry, and try to avoid having to use it by becoming ever more efficient (and proficient) with our lesser armaments. The gradual increase in player skill over the course of a game that this encourages means that we begin to outclass our opponents without having to rely on new weaponry, irrespective of any increase in enemy strength. In preparation for our imagined apocalypse, we lock away our potions, high-level spells, med-kits, grenades and rare ammunition, scraping our way through the game’s toughest fights in the knowledge that we will use them when we really need them.
Unfortunately, most games don’t capitalise on our apocalyptic dreamings. Most boss battles aren’t particularly apocalyptic, and don’t draw upon the nightmares we’ve been thinking up throughout our play-through. Two particularly disappointing climactic battles are those in the original Bioshock and in Borderlands. What developers need to do is to smash us out of our comfort zone, because when things go wrong and when we’re threatened, is when we have the most fun. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl, I completely messed up my preparations for venturing in to the nuclear reactor at the end of the game. For whatever reason, I went in with a handful of anti-radiation drugs and small number of bandages (which heal a pitiful amount of health). No medkits, and certainly none of the fancy cure-all military-grade kits I’d been hoarding back at my base. Limping through the dark, taking enough medicine to keep crawling onwards; as a wounded lion lashing out at mighty enemies on all sides I was truly alive. I’d fallen off the difficulty curve, and was fighting my way back up from hell. It felt amazing, and the primal might of my triumph was visceral.
Developers could draw upon the way that the player has been preparing for/imagining the end-game, and use it to generate a suitably epic encounter tailored to their needs. This could be done through some sort of AI director, similar to the system employed by Left 4 Dead. Figure out the player’s apocalyptic nightmares, and make them play through them. Say the player’s been hoarding up his shotgun shells and rocket ammunition: make him fight through a steam of armoured enemies and vehicles, until he’s on his knees and out of ammo. Say he’s been hoarding mines and static defences: make him conduct an epic base defence. This kind of sensitivity to the fears and dreams of the individual player would allow developers to give gamers the apocalyptic fights we’ve been waiting for. Anything less is a disappointment.