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Cheating, fooling or beating?

Warning: pseudointellectual mumbling from someone who does not play From Software’s games or know or understand the human psychology one bit.

Back when Star Fox Zero was announced to have some special mode with invincibility or something – I didn’t really care, just noted that a lot of heated words were being typed – I didn’t see the point of getting upset. But I ended up thinking of cheating and such in the back of my mind.

Did you ever play solitaire when you were a child? And I mean with real cards, not the computer variant? Did you cheat? And when did you stop?

In my case, fast-forward a number of years, and I see a lecturer on research ethics telling when her father caught her cheating in solitaire, he asked, “how is it that a person can fool themselves?”

A while back I wrote a post on New Style Boutique 2. One of my issues with it was that the game probably didn’t even try to see if the makeup I chose for a woman was suitable in any fashion. But I still tried my best. In that way, the game offloaded responsibility onto me: if I put in only the minimum effort, I won’t get as much out of the game as I could.

If you play a solitaire on a computer, chances are you can’t cheat in it. The player is given no responsibility to follow the rules – they can do nothing but follow the rules. With that, the rules become a part of the adversary. You’re not playing a game, you’re playing against a game.

How about we look at what could count as cheating from this perspective. Cheating is one way of changing the level of difficulty, so here’s a number of other ways to accomplish that without modding. Some of these I’d call cheating and some not so much. You be the judge of what you consider cheating yourself.

  • If I were to stretch some terms to the point of ridiculousness, continues were originally a way of fleecing the predecessors of modern-day whales. “Insert coin to continue.” A pay-to-win feature, if you like. Still, “free” continues are nowadays commonly accepted and more often than not, they’re unlimited. These are a feature the developers decided to add and the player is offered the choice to take it. The concept of one-credit clear still lives, though, as does the idea of permadeath and ironman modes.
  • Then there are the various save states and quicksaves. I’m pretty sure I’ll never beat the Yellow Devil in Megaman 1 without using save states. Save states usually weren’t intended by the original developers to be used. Quicksaves, though, are intentional features, and they can eliminate challenge just as much as save states.
  • Cheat codes. I never cleared Doom or Doom 2 without various codes. They’re intentional features but hidden away so that the player has to put in extra effort to use them.
  • Difficulty levels. Again, intentional features and presented openly to the player – but changing it from “normal” to something easier is a hurdle. I’m pretty sure I won’t beat any of the Platinum Games’ titles I have on normal, but changing the difficulty to easier would take away the sense of accomplishment. But it’s a matter of labeling. If you played Megaman 2 on NES and finished it on “normal difficulty” – congratulations, you beat the game on “easy”; the “hard” difficulty was the only difficulty level in the original Japanese release. How does this make you feel?
  • Exploits: unintentional, most likely undesired features in a game. I thought I was clever to spot a way to easily get myself to max level in Rings of Power by just repeating the same dialogue over and over again. It’s of little consolation that I’m not the only one to feel like this – just remember how popular shooting at a cave entrance was at one point. Just like hitting pause repeatedly in some old shmups when bombing to have the screen-clearing bomb affect the boss multiple times.
  • Aides. Some companies (Nintendo and Sega) have had in their games a way of getting help after losing enough lives at the same section. Intentional feature, presented openly to the player.
  • Playing for the sake of leveling up. A common way of adjusting difficulty (and padding the game with repetition) in games with RPG elements. Intentional and an implied, if not explicitly stated, option for the player. I wonder if there are games where the level caps increase as the game advances?

As I noted, the single-player game programs and the rules they impose appear as the player’s adversary. No mercy, no quarter given, the only unfair advantage is the one the other side has and all that. If an enemy gets stuck in a corner or a bug lets you hit them through the wall (or jump over obstacles like Knuckles in Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric), no worries and no regrets. We’re not cheating or fooling ourselves, instead, we’re beating the game. But are we cheating the game?

What about when the game openly provides you with the easier option? Will you take the continue, load an old savegame or retry a one-credit clear? Tone down the difficulty if it is an option? Let the game show how to pass the hard part of a stage? The way I see it, this is harder because I’m not trying to beat the game program: instead, my opponent is offering to handicap themselves. It’s like me playing tennis with a buddy and them offering to start each match from 15 – 0 in my favour, not to mention how amateur golf handles handicaps.

I admit to having used a continue in the second-last stage in Tachyon Project. But afterwards I got back and cleared it without continues. Likewise, with Sonic Lost World, I took the wing bubble in Lava Mountain zone 3 to get past the parts with rising lava. And came back to beat it later without aid.

Personally, I don’t think some of the aforementioned options are cheating. Not the continues, not the aides, not the grinding, not the lower difficulty levels. But I’m not fooling myself to think that playing through the game with them is the same as without them.

So… do you think there’s any merit to this line of thinking – that overall the less intentional (on part of the game devs and designers) some way to adjust the difficulty is, the more acceptable using it becomes, and this comes from seeing both the game rules and the AI as the adversary? Grinding and continues seem to be the strongest counterexamples to my eye.

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