While surfing the interwebs today, I came upon yet another video from Extra Credits.

While I'm not going to get as passionate as I did about their analysis of the Blue Shell in Mario Kart 8, I feel that there is a valid point in their attempt to analyze what players remember from their gaming experiences.

Some Introductory Questions
In the comments section, EC has some questions. For the sake of argument, I will repost them and ask you to actually attempt to answer them. Seriously, please try it.

  • How many times did you shoot in the third room of the last FPS you played?
  • How many enemies were in the fifth encounter of the second level of the last action game you played and what moves did they use on you (not what moves do they have)?
  • In the last RPG you played what specific enemies did you fight to hit level 22?

Do you have your answers yet? Need more time? It's OK, this is a blog post. I can wait.

...Right so now that you've got your answers, what are they? Can you not remember? If so, that's OK too. That's because there's something critical that I feel Extra Credits is fundamentally missing in this episode.

I feel Extra Credits is ignoring the fact that as humans we have a few key directives hardcoded into us all directly. Among them:

  • Survival
  • Reproduction

These are the two most base aspects of humanity, that we've spent millenia creating rules to harness in a constructive way (e.g. civilizations! And not the ones from Cid Meyer.) We need to have resources to live, we need to be safe from danger, so that we can reproduce and keep our neighborhood populated. For the purposes of this article, higher needs like self-actualization are ignored in that list, but they will figure in later.

Back on the subject of those three questions, if you can't remember, I have some new questions:

  • In what situations is it necessary to know how often you have fired your weapon, in an FPS?
  • In a given encounter, is it necessary to know how many enemies there are and their movesets, in an action game?
  • Is it necessary to know how many enemies you must defeat to advance to the next character level, in an RPG (western or eastern?)

I bet you don't have to think too long on these. In fact, as a gamer I bet I can predict your answer.

In a FPS, you sort of keep a background tally of how much you've used your weapon in a firefight, because ammunition is a finite resource. You have a weapon counter to ease this process, of course - it's salient tactical data.

In an Action game, it's often easy to see how many enemies you have to deal with in a given encounter. If you don't know their movesets you're at a severe disadvantage, but chances are a game designer wouldn't force you to face a bunch of new enemies with new moves or completely different moveset dynamics that you've never dealt with in a pack, the first time you meet them...unless they're really weak!

In an older RPG, yes, because they're tough and you need every character level, because RPG designers were total dicks back in the day! In a modern RPG, no for various reasons, including the fact that completing quests rewards experience. Chances are good that you can do a minimum of combat to attain even an intermediate level (such as Lv.22 from the EC question.)

There's a common theme in all of these answers to why you would do the sorts of behavior that EC is asking about - it's all down to relative challenge.

What if we weren't playing a Modern Military Shooter (MMS, a subtype of FPS) - what if we were in the American Civil War instead? There were no ammo counters back then period, weapons had horrible reload times, prior to the automatic repeating rifle, which if my history serves was introduced in the later days of the war. You'd walk into a stage with a known number of bullets. You'd be forced to keep a mental tally.

What if we were playing a new Battletoads? Most modern gamers have never experienced the delightful ease of Battletoads. Let's go a step further - what if it was a modern adaptation of Battletoads with dudes with firearms (ineffective of course; in a beat-em-up, why would we want the players to die in one hit? Oh...yeah. Battletoads. You know what, forget that for the time being...) or other projectile mechanics? I'd be willing to bet players would be defeated before realizing the new mechanics in play, and it would be minorly upsetting (because, Battletoads.)

What if we were playing a the successor to World of Warcraft? We still wouldn't care, because modern RPGs, as noted above, have been dispensing with 'grind' scenarios in favor of more varied sets of challenges.

But, that may be a bad example; let's try another - Dragon Quest? That's better; DQ is a more traditional Eastern RPG series, where spells cost, there are no Phoenix Downs (actually they're Yggdrasil Leaves). Now we're back in a grinding scenario again, but DQ games aren't known for being pushovers - they're actually hard!

Shall we try a Final Fantasy, assuming Square Enix wants to start creating JRPGs again? That's better - grinding, easy, no quests that yield XP. No, you wouldn't pay any attention to the number of monsters, for any reason except that they're between you and Point B.

So...why do we forget our gaming experiences
Simply put, they're just not challenging enough. There's certainly things worth remembering (awesome multiplayer moments...awesome boss fights...close shaves against what should have been an easy opponent), but really the reason we forget what's in our games is it's just not challenging enough.

This isn't a bad thing; there has to be valleys between peaks of challenges. We need time to experiment with new player-facing mechanics. We need breathing room to be honest (those emotional needs are finally creeping in!)

But, why are we answering those super-geeky questions from Extra Credits?
That's the best question I've read all day.

Just because it's theoretically possible to recall fine details of an experience, doesn't mean it's necessary. Why should we recall how many enemies it took to grind to Lv.22? Who cares!? We need to be stronger because there's a T-Rex with special attacks that involve lasers coming from its eyes!

My answer, is that EC has the wrong general idea. They're mistaking that for videogames to be considered seriously, that they must be processed in the same way as books and television and other established media. This is wrong; videogames offer a completely separate type of experience.

But why are we, the audience retaining so little? Are games worth less than traditional media?

No. The answer is that parts of the media in question are worth less. You have useless mooks who, charitably put, are there for target practice (in a speedrun, you just skip them.) All of the reasons you wouldn't care about the fine details of your game...comes from faceless mooks, actually.

So, Faceless Mooks Ate My Memory?
If we want to create memorable games, we need real challenges, even on easy difficulties. The reason we remember Mega Man for being great, is because nothing was handed to us on a silver platter. We died - time and again - to learn a Robot Master's attack pattern so we could defeat it with our mega buster and the sliver of health we had. Conversely, the reason we forget Final Fantasy XIII is long narrow hallways filled with useless mooks and no freedom to choose anything.

Faceless Mooks did eat your memory. Now, let's stop designing faceless mooks as the go-to option for adding filler to our games; let's create true, memorable challenges for our players to overcome.