I read a pretty positive review today of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night written by commenter CaryKid28 on his blog Collegiate Perspective, and while I haven’t actually played that game – I got through two other DS iterations, Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin – I’d like to write a little bit about how the series manipulates my fragile mind. Dawn of Sorrow came first and ate about two months of my life, but I don’t consider it time poorly spent: it’s a quality game as far as 2D side-scrollers go, and I’d recommend it to other gamers. It also prepared me for the endurance test that was Portrait of Ruin.
Seriously, Portrait of Ruin took me through hell. It was a trip upriver, at the end of which I expected to kill Colonel Kurtz.
I wouldn’t consider myself an obsessive collector of anything in real life, but something about RPGs triggers my acquisitive instinct; I want to feel like I’ve explored a game’s most hidden depths and brought back the treasures concealed therein. I want to achieve every ending. I want to obtain every weapon. Final Fantasy VII tapped into this desire in a powerful way, with its ultimate weapons and limit breaks and chocobo racing. God damn did I ever get good at racing crazy bird horses. Chrono Trigger did an even better job: the game can end in one of thirteen ways depending on a player’s choices, leading to a half dozen trips through its story and a love affair that now spans nearly a decade.
This gets to be a real problem in games that demand choices, though. When a game’s got me by the obsessive compulsive bone and won’t let go, I expect to be rewarded for my sacrifices – after I’ve given up my time, my dignity, and my basic commitment to hygienic living – with the satisfaction that I’ve accrued the most terrifying mass of artifacts and abilities the game can possibly offer. I want to be dead certain that when those aliens land and explain that the game was nothing but a recruitment vehicle for their galactic army, they’ll know I’m the one they want heading their battleship.
Dawn of Sorrow took this urge and twisted it into something ugly. At some point in my playing experience, the game recognized my completionist leanings and decided to have fun with me. The first offense was its predilection for one-in-a-million drop rates: I must have killed over two hundred valkyries before claiming one precious, precious valkyrie soul. Then – this must’ve been a real riot in design meetings – the game left some important items with nonsensical enemies who I’d never normally meet. I was, at one point, hunting a Waiter Skeleton so I could steal his Beef Curry which would – if placed in the right location, at the right time – lure out a Yeti. So that I could take its soul. These were things I did.
The coup de grâce, though, came in the form of mutually exclusive items: items that I could only get once, and could be traded – or not – for equally powerful, equally unique items. My mind can’t handle this: I want to get every single thing. Items that are only available through the sacrifice of other items paralyze me.
(This is actually an interesting logical problem, called the Dining Philosophers’ dilemma in computer programming and Buridan’s Ass in philosophy. Both examine the decision-making process when a thinking creature – or computer – is offered two equally attractive but mutually exclusive options. And for those of you keeping track, this means my mind works in a way best described as “jackass”.)
All these obstacles, however, paled in comparison to the blocks placed in my way in Portrait of Ruin. Want to boost your strength? Go collect five cakes. Because that’s how strength works. God forbid you ate them. Want to learn healing spells? Equip all of the nun-related items – you know, those items you sold earlier, because they were awful. Want the good ending, and not that insulting, spit-in-your-face-and-leave-cash-on-the-bedside-table ending? Cast a spell at the right time during the right boss fight. A healing spell. On the monster. Because that’s something I’d think to do.
Dawn of Sorrow required a few tricky leaps of reasoning, but it was difficult to make a mistake so massive that you couldn't undo the damage. Portrait of Ruin, though, offers the player literally dozens of chances to irreparably screw himself. I must have restarted that game a dozen times after reading about all the “mistakes” I’d made in a trusty walkthrough.
And oh, the glitches. Curious what a grown man looks like when reduced to a broken shell? Try freezing his game after he’s killed the same monster an even hundred times and finally – finally! – claimed the wretched thing’s goodies.
Daniel wrote recently about successful and less successful ways to extend the playtime of games. Dawn of Sorrow tried my patience, but ultimately did a pretty great job. Portrait of Ruin drove me crazy. Generally speaking, games that make your path to victory run in counterintuitive directions – by relying on your retention of arbitrary items, or on your completion of tasks seemingly unrelated to your goals – leave me more angry than satisfied. In your opinion, which games do this well? Which do it poorly?