The Path of LEAST Resistance?

There’s a wonderful Robert Frost poem, something about the road less traveled by. It’s a heartfelt and florid plea for you to live your life exceptionally, and not to just be the next lemming off the cliff of doing what’s popular. There are probably about four people reading my blog who actually know what the heck I’m talking about, but then again, there are only four people who read my blog. 100% Success! Anyway. This idea is applicable, of course, to more than vague, non-specific life choices! And unless you think this is a blog about poetry for which composer Eric Whitacre was sued for, then I guess we’re talking about video games.

See, Robert Frost likes the one on the left.

 

So what about video games? Am I being philosophical, and saying that video game developers should “take the road less traveled by”? They should be novel and new instead of creating another first-person shooter? Not at all, go for it! What I’m talking about is for the GAMER. No game is EVER perfectly linear. The very idea of gaming implies a choice between different options, whether it is to try to get the cherry in Pac-Man, or to go down the pipe in Mario, or to merely reflect the ball vs. trying to spin it on the tip of the paddle in Pong. That’s the wonderful thing about video games! They are full of choices. Of course, as video games have progressed, so have the choices. What began as “do I want to go down the pipe?” progressed to “do I want the feather outfit or the fire flower outfit?” progressed to “do I want the frog, fire flower, feather, raccoon, giant boot, pink evening dress or yellow spandex outfit?” in Mario (guess how many of those are actual outfits you can wear). But also, you get choices for endings. You could save the animals in Super Metroid. You could get married (or not) in Harvest Moon. You began to see tons of different options for loyalty, gameplay, relationships, storyline, endings, allies/enemies, and sidequests. It’s magnificent and (if you play games by BioWare) you can see the effects of that change today.

While that’s all wonderful and I’m pleased as punch that games have taken a turn toward the customizable, I really just want to talk about the gameplay aspect of these choices. And really, what is there besides gameplay in a game? Everything that happens in the game is caused by a choice you make (which, in lame-and-mundande World, we call those choices “playin’ the frickin’ game”). But, even more specifically, how your gameplay choices affect the rewards you receive! We have been conditioned as gamers to understand the golden rule of gaming: the more difficult it is to achieve, the better the rewards are. Hence, true to the title of this post: The path of least resistance is for wussies.

 

Moving on. Resistance is a funny term. We use the phrase “path of least resistance” without actually thinking about what the word means. Resistance is a measure of the difficulty of the obstacles the gamedevs put in the way of some goal that the player is trying to achieve. In Mario, it’s Goombas, Koopas and bottomless pits of death and agony. In Metroid, it’s Space Pirates, indigenous flora and fauna, and the occasional bloodsucking Metroid (it IS the name of the game, I suppose). In Final Fantasy, it is puzzles and battles, both random and scripted. But the gamedevs put these things there to present a challenge. However! They serve another purpose.

They tell us where to go. (Ka-blam! That was the sound of your mind being blown.) In the game Diablo (which I love to reference a lot), enemies do not respawn. So, logic quickly follows that enemies = someplace I haven’t been yet. It’s the simplest explanation for what I’m trying to illustrate, but it works. The resistance that the developers of these games put in place for us is a SIGNAL to us that this is a direction we should progress in. The LEVEL of that resistance is another signal to us. Is it higher or lower than what we have previously encountered? Is it easily avoidable or placed squarely in your main means of progression? These are subconscious clues to us as gamers that give us an idea as to where we MUST go, where we WANT to go, and where we want to really, really stay away from. They are wordless bits of information that the game developers place in the game to nudge us in the direction of advancing through the game.

The way I see it, there are two end goals in mind when the level of resistance changes in a game. The first kind uses difficult fights and tasks to serve as a benchmark to your progress through the game. Think “boss fights,” people. To get to the end of the level (and progress to the next one), you have to beat the King Slime! You have a choice to go through the main path and fight the King Slime, or you can go down this other path full of mini-slimes. In these games, what does going down the side path usually yield? (All together now!) TREASURE! Goodies, equipment upgrades, gold, potions, things that help you to die less in the inevitable altercation with the boss. For example, try this delightful little gem: Epic Battle Fantasy 3. It’s quite like Final Fantasy (which certainly provides a lot of the kind of resistance I’m talking about here), but it’s free and you can play it on your computer. At least get through the first boss! You’ll see what I mean.

The three animesque (it’s a word!) protagonists. And a star thing.

The other kind of resistance occurs in games where the main goal is simply to progress through a level. Think Metroid, or even Megaman (minus the bosses). The level is set up with pretty manageable challenges of dexterity, battle prowess, and puzzle-solving abilities. But then, there are areas of EXTREME puzzling, impossible feats of jumping and dashing, or incredibly tough baddies, stuck in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. But there IS an apparent reason! TREASURE! (It’s always about treasure, isn’t it?) This seems exactly the same as what I said before, only in this instance, the easier path is the MAIN path, and the only time you encounter any true survival difficulty is when you go for that missile tank or that extra armor. The main path requires you to freeze some enemies and jump on top of them, whereas the energy tank upgrade requires arduous wall-jumping and crazy Samus backflips that would make my yoga instructor jealous. The big difference in these games is that your “treasure” is permanent. That upgrade stays with you for the rest of the game, so the gamedevs nudge you to AVOID getting it, as opposed to nudging you TOWARDS it to prepare you for some other altercation. A perfect game to show this is called Endeavor. It is a platform RPG, and that’s all I’ll really tell you. Notice how hard you’ll have to try to get some of the upgrades you seek.

It’s about a dwarf. Don’t ask me.

 

So there are many kinds of resistance, it’s true. Some lead you to explore new areas of the game, some discourage all but the most dedicated gamers from venturing near. But resistance, in itself, is an awesome tool that game developers use to guide the user through the game, and encourage a certain course of action (while perhaps rewarding the gamer if their encouragement is ignored). You see? As if we needed more proof that the Borg are a little off in the head: they keep saying, “Resistance is futile.”

 

~Another Gamer

 

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About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on June 22, 2012, in Classic Games, Flash Games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is a long shot, but is that picture of the two paths from Long’s Peak in Colorado? Sorry to comment on the actual content of the post!

    • You know, I honestly have no idea. I’ve used all of my google-fu to try and locate where the picture was taken, but it’s used about 9 million times for “2 paths” posts, and I can’t sort through all the muck to find the actual photographer/location.

      Sorry!

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