Shadowgate: Difficulty, Defeat, and Resignation

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There’s nothing quite like the difficulty of old school adventure games. Of course old games in general tend to be quite hard, from finicky NES platformers like TMNT to overbearing arcade beat’em ups like, well, TMNT arcade. There are a couple of reasons why this was the case. Arcade games were made excessively challenging to string gamers into dropping more quarters into the slot. NES games were often made with shoe-string budgets by small teams on time (and technology) constraints who didn’t put much effort into fine-tuning the fairness of their game. Sometimes, they were just created by crazy people like David Crane who thought that if a game wasn’t a grueling Sisyphean exercise then the gamer wouldn’t be getting their money worth. But nothing out of the pool of retro games really compares to the inscrutability of old school adventure games with their insanely cryptic puzzles, pixel-hunting, and often opaque and impenetrable logic. Sometimes solving these puzzles felt like you had to expand your mind to higher dimensional planes.  Of course, you could take the easy way out and gather the solutions from someone else, but in the age before the proliferation of internet access that was not necessarily easy.

My mind had slowly and mercifully forgotten about how puckishly bewildering these games could be until the recent release of Shadowgate on Steam. This new Shadowgate is a sort of expanded remake of the original Mac/NES game and another product of the Kickstarter nostalgia funding craze. If you wanted a faithful but modernized recreation of the old Shadowgate, then you’re probably going to be pretty pleased with this latest release. The new version possesses three difficulty levels with slightly modified puzzles for each, but from what I’ve played, all difficulties maintain Castle Shadowgate as an utterly baffling enigma. In other words, this game is old-school hard. To my knowledge, I’ve never played the original Shadowgate, but this new release basically falls in line with some of the adventure games I remember from that era. The game requires the player to pixel hunt (there is no convenient feature for highlighting interactive objects as is common in modern adventure games), puzzle over the uses for a particular item as it is often unclear (if it has any use at all, and sometimes you find yourself testing every item in your inventory on a feature of the environment in the mad hope that the solution will simply emerge), and finally, to top it all off, the game has a time limit by way of your dwindling torch. The torch goes out after you do a certain number of actions and if you don’t have a replacement torch, its game over. I find that progress in the game has entirely no momentum. After being stuck in the game for the better part of an hour, I was delighted to find a secret passageway behind which I thought I would find all the items I needed to solve the puzzles I was stuck on. That glimmer of hope was pretty short-lived, however, since all I found were more puzzles and no apparent solutions back there.

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Recently, I’ve undergone a major transition in my life. I completed my doctoral dissertation and left school in February, but I didn’t start my new job (which has required a cross-country move) until recently. (I started this blog back in April as a means to maintain sanity during the months of unemployment.) The move to a new city and a new job has gotten me in a mood where I’ve begun to question a lot of things in my life, my interests and past-times included. Video games have been a pretty big part of my life ever since I started gaming on the NES at the age of 4. I know there have been a lot of negative things going on in some circles of the gaming community lately, and some people have expressed that freely admitting to having a deep interest and appreciation of the craft of video games is appalling and embarrassing, but I can’t concur. Some people may find it a shameful waste of time that could have been devoted to more worthwhile interests, but is it any different than being deep into a favored sports team or being hooked on the latest fashions or dying to see the latest superstar in concert? These are, after all, interests that millions of Americans and millions upon millions more in countries beyond possess. During my introspection, I’ve come to realize that I’ve seen a lot happen and a lot change in the sphere of gaming during my life, starting from fuzzy, pixelated, bleep-bloopey NES games to polygonalized PSX games with redbook audio and from arcade dominance of multiplayer gaming to the arrival of the internet-connected arenas and fantasy worlds of the late ‘90s. And that’s just scraping the surface of the evolution that I’ve seen take place. From such a perspective, it’s hard to think of the craft of video games as something that isn’t worthy of appreciation. But gamers can differ pretty wildly in what types of games and what aspects of games they appreciate. I personally try to keep an open-mind toward everything, but there are definitely elements of what I play that I value more than others.

One thing that I do value highly is a well-designed challenge. I think a lot of gamers, particularly older ones with children, prefer games that they can quickly beat because they are only playing for the “experience” and aren’t interested so much in mechanical depth, which is fine for those people I guess. I also know that some believe video games are merely supposed to be “empowerment fantasies” which make the player feel like a larger than life hero, and a challenging difficulty level is not conducive toward that effect. I’m a little more dismissive of this latter viewpoint. I don’t really see how playing a game where you fight an army of pushovers is supposed to be empowering. Any victory achieved in such a game feels empty to me. Rather, I feel empowered by successfully honing my skills toward mastering adversity and challenge that is presented to me. I’ve always found Megaman games to be a perfect example of why I find challenge important. With each new level you enter, you struggle as you hone your skills, but eventually with patience and attentiveness, you’ll be able to reach the robot master and deliver unto him the beat down he deserves. And after besting such formidable bosses and levels, there’s always that wonderful feeling of catharsis in knowing how expertly you overcame it all. I also feel that challenge is important to making a game memorable. Easy games tend not to be particularly memorable to me, because it just sort of feels like I’m going through the motions to reach the end credits roll. Appropriate difficulty, on the other hand, necessitates a closer relationship between the player and the game as a greater effort must be effected toward understanding and paying attention to the game.

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While I personally deeply appreciate challenge, I have limits, and Shadowgate tests those limits with the severity of its puzzles. When I give up on a game, it tends to be because I find it boring, but Shadowgate is the first game since the Megaman Zero Collection on DS that I’ve thought about giving up on because it was just too hard for me. Contradictorily, I keep playing the game simply because it vexes me to the point that I refuse to let it defeat me, and, consequently, I’m hooked on the game even though I’m not sure if I’m actually having fun, and this makes me question whether spending time with it is worthwhile.

Clearly Shadowgate is stimulating to me, since I keep returning to the whole grueling ordeal, but is it a meaningful kind of stimulation? I’m very quickly starting to feel that it isn’t, as I’m just not achieving much satisfaction from play. I don’t feel the same catharsis that I feel after taking down a robot master. Any progress I make in Shadowgate doesn’t come with the joy of accomplishment; rather it is tempered with full realization of my cluelessness regarding all the other tests that are left unsolved in the castle. As I said, there’s little momentum in this game. It truly is old-school hard, as advertised.

Since I find the game too hard, I’m confronted with a few options. I could just simply give up. That seems too easy, and, as I’ve said, I want to appreciate games and that would rob me of that goal. I mean, someone out there must appreciate this game, or it wouldn’t have been Kickstarted back from the grave, meaning there must be something worthwhile here. I could abuse the overly helpful, hint-dispensing sidekick character and coast through the rest of the game, but that would rob me of any feeling of personal achievement and, as I’ve discussed above, closeness to the game experience. Instead, I think I’m going to do something that I’ve always ridiculed others for. I’m starting over in easy mode. That way, I still get to gain some appreciation without having to have my hand embarrassingly held through the whole experience. And I have a feeling that easy mode in this game is still pretty hard.

So there you go, a rare admission that I suck at something and I’m totally knocking it down to baby mode. Shadowgate has truly humbled me. Next thing you know, I will no longer consider those who shirk away from Dark Souls to be a bunch of casual hardly-cores. Truly, a new day is dawning in my life.

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Posted on September 9, 2014, in Essays and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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