Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Importance of the High Score

[Note by Jake: This is my first step towards expanding A Capital Wasteland to multiple writers. Introducing Jordan Parker!]

What is better than the high score?
The pursuit of the high score.

Good, but I can do better.

I applaud anyone who has run through a Call of Duty campaign on the Veteran difficulty.  For the non-initiated, the tag-line for this extreme difficulty reads: You will not survive. The tag-line is 100% accurate, and almost to a fault. Anyone who has done a Veteran run in any Call of Duty game will tell you that there are certain areas that you end up dying, reading a famous quote and respawning, over and over again. 

My personal favorite from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2:
“In war; truth is the first casualty”
This cycle of game overs and respawns continues as you push up through the hail of enemy gunfire to trigger the next checkpoint, only to be maimed again and again as you trudge through the endless corridor of combatants.  There is no style in a Veteran run in Call of Duty. There is no glory in a Veteran run of a COD game.  There is nothing about it that will make you replay that last level. The only thing you feel when “Checkpoint Reached.” appears is relief, and you are thankful that you will not have to do that again.

If Call of Duty was a test, there would be no right answers, the teacher would merely ask you to fill in all the blanks and give you full credit for finishing. The only way to further your experience is to play through the game on a harder difficulty. A game like Call of Duty doesn't ask you to correct your wrong answers and get better at the game; it doesn't encourage you to discover strategies for getting past tricky parts  It just lets you respawn until you manage to trigger the next checkpoint. Here's the rub: after you've beaten the game on the hardest offering, what else can you do? 

The high score creates a competition between yourself and your last run through a game. The earliest high score pursuit I can remember playing comes from Namco's 1981 classic, Galaga—I had the NES version. I wasn't very good at Galaga at the time, and I don't think I ever got farther than Level 12.  All of that changed when I saw a Galaga “master” at work.

My uncle crushed my high score. He showed me how to get double fighters by Level 2, where to position my ship to get 100% on the challenging stages for the 10,000 point bonus, how to influence the patterns of the enemy swarm, and where to look for extra points from Boss Galaga and special-type enemies.

I gained an understanding of Galaga. I learned its strengths, and I learned its weak spots. I learned all of this because I wanted that high score, which is now over 200,000.

If Galaga simply gave users the option to start at Level 1, 10, or 25 with no mention of score, nobody would take the time to master Galaga. Gamers want to play the game well, not just complete it.

In other games, the high score has evolved beyond a number.  Games like Metal Gear Solid rate your performance across criteria like kills, and game overs. Players going for the title of Big Boss need to play Metal Gear Solid the way it was intended. You cannot get a good rating by shooting everything in sight, dying countless times, and trudging forward until you reach a checkpoint. Rather, Metal Gear Solid asks the gamer to play the game well, and avoid detection to be awarded title of the greatest solider who ever lived, Big Boss.

You'll want to save magnum rounds for this guy.

Pursuit of the A-Rank in Resident Evil 2 creates a desire to discover the safest and most efficient way to traverse the RCPD.  If you're aiming for the best ending in the original Resident Evil, players will actually have to investigate that eerie scream from Rebecca, remember the damned  hex crank to save precious time, and stay off the green herbs.  A seasoned mansion crawler knows what zombies can be dodged to save ammo for pesky bosses like the Yawn.  A high score run forces the player to explore all that the game has to offer. It rewards thoughtful play; not grinding for completion.

After you get the coveted A-Rank or Big Boss title, you'll want to do it again faster and better.  And while both of these games are masterpieces that can be enjoyed without any mention of a high score, it’s the “score” that keeps you coming back after you've memorized all of the lines, know all of the scares, plot twists, and have unlocked everything. You are still left with the option to improve upon your latest performance. That is the magic of the high score.

Room for improvement leaves room for a replay!

It also creates a community that is eager and willing to discuss strategies and tips for the tricky parts.  Who knew how to poison The Fear in Metal Gear Solid 3 without consulting a forum?  Who fired up Resident Evil for the first time and found the most efficient route through the Spencer Estate without discussing it with fellow survivors? YouTube videos and GameFAQs are the perfect places to discuss techniques for otherwise difficult parts. Gamers flock to these forums and videos with the purpose of improving their single-player game in pursuit of the high score. Without the high score, incredible single player experiences wouldn't be revisited nearly as often.

Beautiful things happen when you are pushed to improve your single player experience. 

Watch.  This is real:

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