What a Way to Make a Hobby

Last Friday, Athena Scalzi bravely stated that some computer games are too difficult for her to enjoy. As someone who gets more from the story than from collecting achievements and trophies (does that come as a surprise to anyone in the audience?) I too dislike games that require nigh perfect skill to proceed at all. However, I potentially find it even more irritating when the difficulty isn’t consistent.

I’m currently playing ARK: Survival Evolved, which I’d describe as a cross between a first-person shooter and Civilization with dinosaurs: one awakens on an island filled with dinosaurs and have to hunt, prepare, invent, or manufacture everything one needs to survive and thrive.

I’m not sure if it’s just me or if it’s like, a newer game problem, but: Everything is too difficult.

“Get Gud, Scrub”, Athena Scalzi, Whatever

The game is designed to be a massive multiplayer online game; but it has a setting for hosting the game on one’s own computer with adjusted settings, allowing one to play single-player.

As one might expect from a game where one has to reinvent—albeit at a high granularity—human technology from primitive stone tools upward, the starting hours of trying to make stone tools, weave clothes, build a hut, and so forth while avoiding predators is challenging. Fortunately, if you die, you re-spawn knowing the technologies you’ve already discovered so—while one might need to replace the things one lost—one doesn’t have to keep inventing weaving.

One method for both increasing survivability and speeding resource gathering is taming animals: taming with stone-age technologies is—understandably—difficult and having, for example, a friendly Raptor is no guarantee of survival if one comes across an Allosaurus or other apex predator; but there is an immense sense of satisfaction in achieving it, and a real feeling of greater freedom to explore.

However, when one has advanced to the point of wearing modern composite armour and carrying a semi-automatic rifle while riding a Tyrannosaur that is bred to be a better killer and imprinted on one because one raised it from birth, at the head of a pack of Tyrannosaurs, threats suddenly seem less worrying and—while feeding that many huge carnivores isn’t irrelevant—reaching the point where one is gathering so much meat one literally throws piles of it away to avoid weighing a dinosaur down isn’t that hard.

And the developers have obviously taken on board that certain things make the game much easier and attempted to balance it. One of these methods is resource requirements: certain tasks, for example, making electronic equipment or achieving the best training when raising a young animal, require large quantities of resources, rarer resources, or resources that can only be found in areas filled with danger. This produces a pleasing sense of achievement to begin with (I certainly felt great stepping inside my first stone building, knowing almost nothing could get in to harm me), but once one has the aforementioned pack of powerful dinosaurs, gathering a large quantity of stone ceases to be a leap forward and becomes somewhat of a grind; even going into dangerous areas for rarer resources loses the sense of threat and becomes a series of tedious trips back and forth once one can kill most dangerous creatures.

In addition to becoming safe(r), the game offers both the opportunity for aesthetics (don’t just build a functional hut, build a mansion on stilts over a river; don’t wear leather coloured clothes, dye them fun patterns) and investigating the story behind how you ended up here naked on a beach and where here is (there are notes and ruins dotted around the island, and what seem to be alien care packages dropped from the sky). However, these alternatives to grinding until you are nigh unstoppable have a nasty habit of intersecting the grind: for example, inventing and making clippers so you can shear sheep is a useful alternative to hunting animals for pelts, so—rightly—costs time and effort, but clippers are also the technology required to change hairstyles (an action with no game benefits other than aesthetic pleasure); similarly, some of the information on what is going on requires defeating quite specific threats that are calibrated on the assumption the player can breed dinosaurs for specific purposes, so become either a grind of attempts or a grind to make the right kit and breed/train the right animal companions.

ARK, being a multiplayer game that can be played single-player, is obviously an extreme example of the grind: many things would be much quicker if there were more than one person doing them. But the same variation between dramatic challenge and tedious trudge occurs in single-player games: even games I love, such as Skyrim, include quests that aren’t challenging because of the threats or the puzzles but because they involve doing a lot of something that isn’t effortless.

I understand the balance issue but I play these games to relax not do another job: and, if I do want the achievement of doing the same few things over and over, I could play solitaire.

7 thoughts on “What a Way to Make a Hobby

  1. I’m not playing that many videogames right now (I’m on screen overload from teaching from home coupled with a writing life), but Athena’s article resonated with me, too, and I think you’re spot on about the balance issue in a lot of games.


    1. Yeah; arcades games and the first generation of computer games had a simple “game gets harder, you unlock a few new things” arc, so the challenge increased roughly in comparison to your skill and/or options; however, now systems don’t enforce the same narrow path, games can have (and are now expected to have) much more variety. When it works, having multiple threads one can follow/exploit is a lot closer to the joy of tabletop RPG; but computers don’t have the creativity of a human GM, so there are always those times when the ways the developer thought a problem could be solved don’t overlap with the ways one would prefer to solve it.

      Overall, I prefer modern games to the first home computer games: I don’t think side-scroller shoot-the-enemy games and platformer would keep me entertained if they were the only thing I had rather than occasional low-thinky-gubbins relaxation. However, that general improvement in games does make the times I run into a metaphorical wall all the more stark by contrast.


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