Moving beyond killing the last alien

When I was much younger, my favorite game was Contra for the NES. For hours, I would battle my way across a remote island infested with biomechanoid creatures to face off with the alien menace codenamed Red Falcon. As Bill and sometimes even Lance, I would fight off the constant incoming soldiers, survive the traps scattered throughout the island, and reach the inner part of the vast creature where I would, finally, kill the last alien.

Years later, that’s become a joke to me. “Killing the last alien” has become code for the type of videogames I rarely play anymore, the ones where genocide and xenophobia is disguised as the primary mechanic of killing scores of others. It’s the same type of games that littered the 1990s from the boom of movies of the same type. Some muscle-bound hero would have to fight their way through dozens if not hundreds of enemies to often rescue a woman or kill an alien. Battle Toads. Double Dragon. Streets of Rage. Contra. Many others.

It was also challenge. When I thought about videogames I would place in the category of “challenging,” those were the ones. From 1942 to  Galaga, I associated complex enemy patterns and difficult-to-master mechanics with challenge. That’s all I had to play. Way before I had access to the Internet or even a wider range of videogame genres, I knew “killing the last alien” to be the ultimate expression of overcoming a game. Seeing the “kill screen” was completion.

That’s changed.

As videogames have matured and the audience expanded, we’ve changed how we think about challenge and what it means to us. No longer is it solely proportional to navigating a field of bullets or learning all the complex patterns. We have videogames that achieve a higher level of verisimilitude than ever before and whose challenge is not in a direct confrontation but navigating both spatial and social dynamics. Sure, death is still a central currency to many games, but it’s no longer exclusively so.

Even as we consider the definition of challenge to be “something it at stake and only the subjects’ active engagement with the situation will determine whether she is capable enough,” we think about it in terms of “creating a plethora of varied potential challenges and, likewise, the ways these may be actualized for a given player” (Iversen, 2012). We are no longer treated to the binary of learn or “die”, but often with a plurality of approaches, choices, and outcomes. All are valid and unique per player per instance.

Challenge has become personal.

We can consider challenge as divided into different areas. It’s what Chad Kilgore does in his post Understanding Challenge. Using the categories of Spatial, Linguistic, Mathematical-logical, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, and Existential, Chad maps “challenge” in videogames to the theories put forth in Howard Gardner’s Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. A videogame may meet one or even many of them.

And even with meta-game aspects of trophies and achievement points of in-game accomplishments, many videogames have us reading — and writing — our own stories within their virtual worlds. The competing interests of games like The Walking Dead where the characters are more than puzzle-boxes to solve give us a glimpse of places with a “moral” difficulty. We might have the classic trope of survival paired directly with a social problem, sure, but it has no “right” answer, only the one picked at the time.

We can — and should — model conflict outside of the realm of personal violence. Characters can “remember” more information than ever before and the possibility of having projects where we question if it is a “game”, “simulation”, or something new is ever present. Along with the latest shooter, we can have the newest challenge too: “live” in this virtual world, with everything that means.

Let’s move beyond killing the last alien.

We’ve become very good making games where a single person faces seemingly impossible odds. The lone warrior versus the world trope is powerful, useful, and good. But it’s not the only way to make a game. Shooting everything not “us” is not the single way to express challenge. There are other approaches to making games.

Super Hexagon and Journey, as two examples, are about avoidance, not confrontation. They pose challenge as an expression of fluidly in motion and spatial recognition. They also do this through teaching players to care about what they can control on the screen through deceivingly simple and utterly devastating personal languages unique to each game.

When I think about challenge now, I don’t go back to Contra. I go to The Walking Dead and the choices I had to make. I reflect on the hours it took me to gain just a few more seconds in Super Hexagon. I think about the future of videogames and I imagine where we might go next.