He may be easy, but he’s a prince

What makes a video game enjoyable? It’s obviously different things for different gamers: some like non-stop action, while others prefer games to be slower, more cerebral experiences. Some are graphics fetishists, while others say that gameplay complexity trumps visuals every time. Myself, I like a good narrative in a game, but I also want the gameplay and storytelling to be intertwined.

In the end, however, what it boils down to for most people, and in the most circular fashion at that, is that most people want games to be fun. They want to be taken out of their everyday lives for a while. Obviously that’s one of the reasons why so-called ‘casual games’ have been a major success in the last few years. Whether it’s Peggle or Plants vs. Zombies, or indeed one of the gazillion variations on the theme of Mah Jong, they’re all making money compared to what they cost that make most ‘non-casual’ games cry into their DVD boxes.

Is it just me, or is casual gaming more sexy than sweating, bespectacled nerds hunching over their gamepads for whole weekends? Or is that just evil advertising messing with my brain?

Now, old-school gamers like myself, who remember the times when a pixel was bigger than your head and the height of gaming was yellow pill addicts running through mazes and frogs crossing the street… Many of those gamers have nothing but disdain for casual games. Why? Because they’re easy. There’s little to no challenge in Puzzle Quest, they claim, so even your grandmother can play them and succeed. The most embarrassing examples of such old-school gamers will then go on a rant about the evils of instant gratification and those horrible people who feel entitled to winning a game every now and then without serious training.

Myself, I like a challenge every now and then – but to be honest, next to working 100% and having a relationship, I definitely see the appeal of games that are not punishingly hard. I see the fun in games that you can pick up, play for 15 minutes and drop again feeling that you’ve had a good time and cleared your mind.

However, there is such a thing as a game being too easy. I’m currently playing Prince of Persia, a reboot of a reboot of a classic gaming series back from the days when computers were big as houses and joysticks had one button. It’s a beautifully crafted game: it looks and sounds gorgeous, and it tells a nice story to boot. But, honestly: if I wanted a game that practically plays itself, I’d watch a DVD.

Behind every weirdly dressed man there's a woman with glowing hands. Or something.

It’s a real shame, because the game could easily have been as much fun or more while still providing a bit of a challenge. As it is, you never feel like you’re controlling your character – and for me, that’s one of the big things when it comes to good games. If it’s there, you never think about it, but the moment that control is taken from you, you can’t help noticing. In previous incarnations of the Prince of Persia series, your character performed the most amazing free-running acrobatics, but the controls were tight enough to make you feel that you were the one making the Prince run along walls, parkouring his way through Arabian Nights-inspired worlds. In this game, however, it’s enough to run roughly in the right direction and press a button at roughly the right time, and hey presto! you’re running along walls as if gravity was completely optional.

Without a bit of a challenge, without the feeling that you’re actually controlling your character, the gameplay actually becomes a bit of an annoyance much of the time. It’s like watching a film on DVD (or Blu-ray, of course!), and every time you get to a new scene you have to play Tic Tac Toe against an idiot. You’re sure to win, but it breaks the flow of the game. At what point does a game become so easy that it might as well consist of one button: “Press X to watch the next cutscene?”

But yeah… the game is oh so pretty. Behold (and if you’re a fan of the final episode of Six Feet Under, you may want to brace yourself for a tune you know very well – once you’ve accepted this as something other than utter blasphemy, it actually works quite well):

You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone

For all of those who thought that after weeks and months of me going on about Six Feet Under you were finally rid of wafflings about the Fisher family, I’m afraid you were popping the champagne corks too early.

So, what brings on this bout of raising the dead? Frankly, I’m not quite sure. I’ve been in a strange mood all day, and the last few minutes of “Everyone Waits”, the final episode of Six Feet Under, kept coming to my mind. Mostly in fragments: a bit of Late Nate Jr. singing “I Just Wanna Celebrate (Another Day of Life)” against a blinding white background, a bit of Sia’s “Breathe Me”. But mostly one short scene: as Claire says farewell to her family, she takes out her camera to take a picture. As she looks at them through the viewfinder, Nate stands behind her, telling her “You can’t take a picture of this; it’s already gone.”

You can’t take a picture of this - it’s already gone.

And it’s this line that’s been running around in my head. Taken out of context – by which I mean the whole scene, the episode and indeed the entire series – it’s nothingy. It even seems trite at first, like a slightly reformulated Seize the Day-type motto. But there’s more to it. The context adds layers. Is it about Claire’s constant attempts, as an artist, to capture something; call it the truth, the spirit of the moment, or just pretentious twaddle? Is he telling her not to hold on to moments, because those moments become the past immediately, and while you’re busy trying to hold on to it, you miss out on life? Is he telling her that life is fleeting? We all could drop dead from a brain aneurysm, be shot, die in a car accident, or have our heads crushed by blue ice falling from a plane passing overhead?

Probably there’s something of all of these in Nate’s cryptic sentence, but what kept coming back to me isn’t just what he says or how he says it. It’s the fact that Claire, after Nate has said his bit, takes the photo anyway.

What is it about this moment that keeps coming back to me? On the one hand it’s the sentence itself, and if I try to reformulate what it means to me, it just becomes trite. On the other hand, it’s Claire’s defiance: yes, the moment is fleeting, yes, tomorrow we shall die, yes, sooner or later we will lose everything we have to time (there I go, getting all trite, even though I said I wouldn’t…) – but she takes the photo anyway. Against hope, against reality, against her better knowledge, she tries to hold on to the moment. A lesser series would have had her take the photo, and only then Nate tells her that what she just did was futile. So much of Six Feet Under was about defying that futility – to hold on to what we have already lost, and to honour it in everything we do in the present. It’s already gone – and personally I dread the moment we accept that and move on without looking back. I hope with all my heart to know fully well that I can’t hold on to the present moment, and nevertheless to do so.

P.S.: Next time, more HBO – and Peter Pan, by way of overrated Swiss directors. At least that’s what I’ve got planned. Yes, I actually plan these things in advance. Sad, isn’t it?