Games, much like exams, are too easy these days. That's the common refrain, and it would seem to be supported by the number of kids' titles that no longer place any long-term penalty on the player for failure. Remember when you'd desperately scan the pages of the games magazines for an infinite-lives cheat? Today's whippersnappers have no such problem.
It's certainly true of Bolt and Ben 10. While in both games you can "die" (Bolt, being from Disney, just curls up and has a nap) you simply start back at the last checkpoint, and there's no limit to the number of times you can plug away at each section. Bolt may earn some hardcore kudos since you still have to find health pick-ups to stave off this temporary setback. Ben 10, on the other hand, refills his health every time he changes into an alien form, earns extra health from the many smashable objects littering the scenery and can only be defeated if he loses all his health as a human kid.
Both games, thankfully, have regular and sensible checkpoints, meaning that restarting is never an aggravating chore yet inconvenient enough that the young player wants to avoid the stigma of failure. Bolt, perhaps, suffers most since combat in that game is rather long-winded, with even the most basic enemies requiring several knockdown combos before they expire.
Is this a bad thing? It's a debate that was recently and famously revived by Fable II. The entire concept of "lives" is really a throwback to gaming's arcade roots, when they were a tangible reminder of the need for spare change to prolong the experience. Certainly, today's youngsters wouldn't understand being thrown back to the main menu after falling foul of the old "three strikes and you're out" mentality. Far from lowering the stakes, I've found that my son's generation is no more fond of dying in-game than we were. Even without the looming threat of Game Over, he and his friends will fight to the last to avoid defeat. This, ultimately, is perhaps the best argument for redefining our understanding of "game death". People, regardless of age, just don't like losing.
Once again, the LEGO games have pioneered in this department, placing no penalty on death other than the loss of studs, the game's currency. In the short term, it's no big deal. In the long term, it matters. A poor player will struggle to accumulate the studs required to unlock the many extra characters and features of the game, effectively replacing the meaningless demise of an on-screen avatar with a more tangible loss of a desirable reward.
But there's a flipside to this argument, and one that once again illustrates the contradictory nature of kids, while providing a very compelling throughline from gaming's brutal early years to today. You see, my son's current favourite game isn't based on a film, or a TV show, and it's far from easy. It's the Xbox Live Arcade version of N+, the famously tough platforming game which gives you an Achievement for dying a thousand times. It's perhaps significant that N+ has no Game Over screen either, allowing you to bang your head against each challenge as many times as you like, but I know my son wouldn't stand for the constant ruthlessness in a title like Ben 10.
One of the key differences is story. There's no narrative to N+ and so no sense that you're missing something should you fail to progress. It's also far from linear, and with the numerous DLC level packs there are always dozens of other levels you can attempt instead. It's also relevant that N+ is a single-screen game. You can see your goal, you can see how you need to reach it, and all the player needs to do is navigate the obstacles in between.
That the stickman ninja is agile and provides almost tangible sensory feedback with regards to his weight and momentum also helps enormously - even a child can instinctively feel the movements required. It's an often ephemeral part of what makes a game fun to play, but whether you're guiding a hero from platform to platform, or tugging at a wobbling tower in Boom Blox, it's the sort of tactile connection that kids love to make and it can make even the toughest challenge more manageable.
N+ has actually reduced my son to tears on occasion, yet he keeps on playing. I want to tell him that it doesn't matter, that he can just switch it off, but I recognise the look on his face. It's the same look that kept me hammering away at Manic Miner many years ago. The difference is that my son is getting better. He can now easily beat levels that left me stumped, and was the first to get the Achievement for completing 30 episodes - or 150 levels - of the game. Even with my own I'm still astonished by this, yet to him it's no different to when he unlocked all the characters in LEGO Batman, another gaming feat he was incredibly proud of. Even though the games couldn't be more different in their approach to punitive measures, he's getting the same feeling of satisfaction.
Clearly the question of difficulty is more one of context from game to game than simply making it impossible for pampered players to lose, and therefore the best games for kids may not always be those banished to the "kids' games" ghetto. It's when this balance is skewed that the grim results are apparent. The recent Pixar games - Ratatouille and WALL·E - both exhibited an astonishing ignorance of what kids actually enjoy doing, and punished them harshly for it. They may have shifted units thanks to the name on the box, but that doesn't mean that kids actually enjoyed the game inside. Fiddly tasks, with no tactile reward, will only be repeated for so long before the game in question ends up gathering dust.
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