Murphy’s Law in video games

The most destructive thing that I did as a child was play The Lion King for Sega Genesis. Well, that’s reductive. The most destructive thing I did as a child was throw a chair into a TV after getting enraged when I died playing The Lion King.

The Lion King was a wonderful game that largely went unnoticed during that generation because everyone was still fawning over the previous Disney classic Aladin. But The Lion King was of the same mold, except with a different attack function: an old-school timing platformer that forced you to hack and slash (roar and roll) through levels while collecting some largely random coin-like substance. When you factor in the magnificent 3D wildebeest scene in The Lion King, it may have actually been a better game than Aladin, but I digress.

I always struggled with one particular boss battle in The Lion King in which an unseen bag guy hurls barrels at you as you platform through a level. It was basically Donkey Kong with better graphics. But for whatever reason, I could never beat it. We went to my aunt and uncle’s house for some family get together (I think Easter) where I finally beat the boss. I was ecstatic and returned home with renewed vigor. When my one-time success couldn’t be replicated, I threw my controller to the ground and hurled a chair into the TV, doing about $300 worth of damage, which, for an 8-year-old without an allowance takes about a year to repay.

I probably have not-so-subtle anger issues, especially when it comes to things that I should be able to do. My golf clubs will occasionally find themselves on the other side of the fairway if I’m having a particularly crappy round. This is one of the main reasons that I’ve soured on single-player campaign modes in video games: they just seemed designed to frustrate you. Outside of the blockbuster first person shooters, I can’t remember the last time that I played a game deemed traditionally for “hardcore” gamers, the likes of which are making a comeback with titles like Ninja Gaiden (which, don’t get me started on the origins of that series).

Hardcore games are designed to frustrate. They’re muscle-memory exercises, essentially; memorize all of the phasing platforms in Mega Man 2, for example. They often feature the kind of obstacles whose passage is technically entirely in your hands, but which are nearly impossible to master until a certain level of timing and memorization has been achieved. Frankly, I don’t have time for this anymore, but neither do a lot of people, which is why hardcore gamers often complain that video games have gotten too easy nowadays; few people design games like this and even fewer want to actually play them.

A friend and I play and extensively discuss the online multiplayer in Battlefield 3. One of the common themes is that the game makes you feel like a truly elite player one day, only to throw you into the depths of despair the next. There’s a reasonable cause of this, however. The game’s matchmaking engine is dictated by a constantly fluctuating “skill level”. When your skill level is high, you’re placed into games against players with similarly high skill levels, ostensibly diminishing your abilities. After a while, your skill level will drop until you return to the ranks of the players that you can easily dominate.

But there’s also a very real ebb and flow to individual matches of Battlefield that require subtle changes to your play style. If you’re able to tweak your build out or class to counteract an opposing team, you may be able to dig yourself out of a rut. Regardless of whether or not you’re successful, there’s an element of human control to your success (besides the obvious: you’re the one shooting and controlling your character) that is missing from the hardcore genre that requires you to memorize environmental features.

A very weird thing happened over the weekend. A friend came over to play some games of NBA 2k12. Despite his obvious superiority to me in the game, I’ve been able to wrangle away a few victories making it something of a rivalry. Saturday was no different, with each of us taking one game a piece. In the third game of the day, my team, as teams are wont to do in NBA 2k12, went into a massive shooting slump. Not only were they missing open shots, but they were missing free throws that should’ve gone in and uncontested layups.

This isn’t totally foreign to NBA 2k12. One way that the series has tried to avoid the pitfalls of the NBA Live series–where players like Chauncy Billups become 80%-90% three-point shooters from one particular spot on the court–is to introduce a consistency metric, which dictates hot and cold streaks. In theory, this is a wonderful metric, because it punishes players for being irresponsible with the basketball and benefits those that are more composed. However, occasionally the game will decide to take over despite competitive play and essentially say, You’re Not Winning This Game.

At one point late in that third game, I had fouled one of his players, sending him to the free throw line. The in-game commentary, which I try to tune out (I should just turn it off in this mode like I have in the oft-played My Player mode), made a comment that I thought was really odd: “It’s Murphy’s Law out there for the Clippers.”

Murphy’s Law dictates that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. In a sports game, these kinds of things can happen: throw a bunch of bad interceptions or take ill-advised shots or have all of your players get injured. These are all natural occurrences in a game that can take place because of player negligence. But in NBA 2k12, that’s not the case. One of two on-court scenarios could trigger such a comment from the announcers: 1) the gamer is literally just missing everything they’re taking because of bad shot selection, unforced turnovers, playing with inferior talent, etc. or 2) the game, in an attempt to add realism to its broadcast-like environment, dictates Murphy’s Law in real time. As someone who has played NBA 2k12 extensively, and as any other player will tell you, the latter is the case.

NBA 2k12’s biggest flaw is self imposed. The game is frustrating in a way that even the hardcore games tacitly avoid. No amount of skill, muscle memory, or otherwise will save you when NBA 2k12 deems your team unworthy of victory. The only saving grace is a grand mistake on the behalf of your opponent which, if you’re playing a human-controlled team is unlikely to occur because of the massive benefits granted to that team, and a computer-controlled team will always avoid. When Murphy’s Law is applied to video games, you’re no longer playing anything. Instead, you’re being frustrated into submission, at least until you throw a chair through your TV.

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