High Horse: Get literate

High Horse is a rotating opinion column in which GamesRadar editors and guest writers are invited to express their personal thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.

This is going to sound horribly arrogant, but bear with me: Games rarely challenge me intellectually.

Wow, that was really pretentious, wasn’t it? Well, unfortunately, it’s kind of true. Other than thinking a bit too hard about my next turn of Civilization V, I rarely spend a whole lot of time pondering the effects of what I’m doing in-game. And even then, my mind is being used for strategy, not for changing my perception of the world, which one could argue is the purpose of art.

I yearn for a game that floors me with its message. Yet my two favorite games of this generation, Left 4 Dead 2 and Super Meat Boy, are enormously simple. The goal of each is essentially the same: You start at one point and it’s your goal to get to another. Their rules are simple: Stay alive long enough to do so. They’re also both really quite difficult, particularly if Left 4 Dead 2 is played on its higher difficulties.

What I’ve realized is that I have a great affinity for difficult games. Please don’t take that as some sort of boast. I’m really quite terrible at games – just ask anyone on my friend’s list. I certainly haven’t completed all of the Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns on Realism mode, nor all the Dark World levels in Super Meat Boy.

I’d love to say that I keep coming back to these games simply because I haven’t done everything there is to do in them and be done with it, but I think it’s an indicator of something a bit deeper than that. I keep putting down games that attempt deeper, more powerful narratives in favor of two of the most sparsely narrated games of this generation. But here’s the thing: Could the difficulty of these titles be the depth I’m looking for?

When coupled with their lack of explicit narrative elements, could that toughness be what I’m looking for? Could struggling through a particularly difficult combination of Special Infected be akin to a dense section of Finnegan’s Wake? More importantly, can it teach us something about ourselves, about the human condition, in the same manner?

No, I don’t think that these games hold anywhere near the life-altering importance of some of Joyce’s more powerful works. But I do think that the way games treat difficulty could be a step in the right direction. Just as Joyce’s writing requires a working knowledge of literature and its tropes and intricacies to understand, difficult games require a literacy of game mechanics. You have to know what you’re doing in order to complete some of the more difficult sections.

The concept of game literacy is an important one. If a developer assumes that the player has prior knowledge of the way games operate, they need not spend time teaching them the basics. Instead, they can focus on utilizing the already established mechanics to give the player the experience that they’re trying to get across.

This is all fairly vague and obtuse, so let’s bring it back to the games. In Left 4 Dead 2, players are supposed to feel a constant state of panic as they’re being chased by the undead horde. On the more difficult settings, that fear is palpable. You can hear it over your headphones, evidenced by your buddy’s shrieks of terror and frequent spurts of laughter. It’s a struggle for survival, and it definitely feels like one. Sure, if you fail to reach the next safe house, you’re just respawned right away, but the possibility of success is present until the final moments.

Super Meat Boy has much the same feeling. Each failure teaches the player something new about the way the game works. It teaches them something new about the way platformers work. Sometimes, it even teaches them where their limits are. It’s not a terribly deep message, but it certainly implies that these techniques could be used to imbue games with meaning through their frustrations. Each time a player dies, they’re forced to examine the game a bit more deeply. It’s inevitable that a profound understanding of the game will be discovered.

So, really, those annoying “hardcore” gamers who constantly complain about how easy modern games have become are on the right path. They’re just complaining for the wrong reasons. Games aren’t getting worse because they’re losing their hardcore edge; they’re simply trying to figure out how to utilize difficulty for the purposes of furthering the experience. Left 4 Dead 2 and Super Meat Boy hint toward what’s possible when a developer is willing to make design decisions that are congruous with their games’ difficulty.

I think these possibilities are really what draw me to the simpler, yet more difficult titles from this generation. They’re games made for the game-literate. You really have to know the conventions of the medium to be any good at them. And that’s valuable.

Often, the most important art of the media age has been the least accessible, and requires knowledge of the form to be fully appreciated. Why not games? Let games be hard to get into, let them open themselves up to players slowly. Force players to really think about them. Let’s get rough and tumble.

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