Saturday, October 3, 2009

Time Trials

One doesn't often encounter the words "Time Attack" in video games anymore. A time trial mode just wouldn't carry the same heft as "Campaign," "Co-Op," or "Stage Creator" on game's main menu these days, and that's probably for the best. I am glad, however, that the concept of time trials hasn't been lost completely, but instead integrated into modern games in new ways. Super Mario Galaxy let players attempt speed-runs on certain levels for stars, for instance, and 2008's Prince of Persia included an Achievement for finishing the game's story in less than 12 hours. As another example, I have been known obsess a bit over the incremental improvements I make with each failed attempt in Super Smash Bros. Brawl's Events mode.

I'm currently enrolled in the second-to-last semester of my undergraduate education, and in many ways it feels like a race against time. In the last few months, I've found that the way I pursue life goals has an analogue in the relationship between video games and players.

I know it's not a perfect analogy, but humor me for a moment. Like games, my college career:
  • segmented into episodes, with each episode requiring me to learn from the episode before it while adding a new layer of complexity or challenge
  • ...has given me many "second chances," offering a chance to try, fail, and try again.
  • ...presents me with a wide variety of potential experiences, leaving me to interpret what tasks I must complete and how to measure my own success.
Most significant here is that last point. Of course I'm hoping to pass all my classes with a decent GPA, but beyond that there are so many ways that my peers and I measure success, some of which are unique to me and my personal goals.

Just as each person has their own goals in real life, they also have their own ways of approaching games. Over a year ago, Mitch Krpata outlined a working set of terms for a "New Taxonomy of Gamers" on his blog, Insult Swordfighting. In this series of articles, he suggested that some players play games as "tourists," experiencing the content that the game has to offer and being done with it. Others, he said, are "completists," trying to unlock every secret and finish every challenge for a 100% completion rating. (Note: Krpata's essays cover a lot more ground than what is summarized here, and I highly recommend giving them your attention.)

If different types of gamers can all approach the same game (a popular example: Rock Band) and find their own reasons to enjoy it, then the strength of that game is not in its challenge or the amount of content it presents. The game imposes nothing on its player, instead allowing them to play game designer and determine what the goals are and when they have "won." Open-ended games like The Sims push this concept in obvious ways, but even a traditional linear RPG can allow its player some degree of freedom by including side-quests or multiple endings. These games present a system to the player, and allow the player to project their own goals within the framework they provide. Just as I've discovered my own goals (and means of pursuing them) through the experiences I've been fortunate to have, a player discovers what they hope to achieve in a game, and then works to rise to their own self-imposed challenge.

This analogy might help next time I feel stressed about my workload. After all, if the tasks before me are anything similar to the challenges in games, I can rest easy knowing that even if I don't complete them before the clock reaches zero, the experience was worth it - if only for the fun I had trying.