The Best Way to Ruin a Good Game

Nice game you got here. Shame if you were to happen to it.

by Rob Zacny
Oct 11 2017, 2:02pm

Forza 7 screenshot courtesy of Microsoft

The most insidious thing a game can do to me is throw down a meaningless, goalpost-moving challenge. A challenge like Forza 7's "Rivals" mode, which is a series of head-to-head time trials in which you try to beat other drivers' lap times around an empty track. By its very nature, you can never really finish it. Each time you cross the finish line with a faster lap than your target time, a notification flashes that you are now racing against a new lap time, from someone else.

I can't stop playing it. Every time I see a new lap time appear with the message that "DamnableRando is your new Rival", the tunnel vision descends and I go sailing toward the first turn with renewed purpose.

It's rewarding in a lot of ways, I'll admit. But the trouble is, after a point, I'd really rather be playing something else. An actual race, something less frustrating than an endless sequence of practice laps where a single error can torpedo the whole run. There's an entire game here, and I'm not playing it. I'm just circling an empty track, chasing new ghosts.

This isn't limited to racing games, though they're a natural genre for this problem of mine. Destiny 2 positively encourages it with its challenges: "Kill 10 enemies with Precision blows using this weapon you totally suck with!"

And I'm like, "That sounds awful. I want to spend my whole day doing that."

The most ridiculous thing I ever got hung up on was the Pavlov's House level of the original Call of Duty. It's a great level: a torn-up, five-story apartment building that you must first storm and capture from the Germans, and then defend against waves of counterattacks (God, remember when all this stuff was new and not series cliche?).

Call of Duty screenshot courtesy of Activision

Anyway, I didn't relish the thought of charging for the front door against a machine gun nest and a full platoon of Nazis, so I edged around the side of the house, flinging grenades through the windows, then went in through the basement. I cleared the basement and first two floors, then got shot from above and went back to the start of the battle.

It didn't occur to me until much later that none of my AI companions ever attacked alongside me when I took this flanking route. But even when I did realize I was breaking the level and that I was meant to be accompanied by waves of Soviet infantry, I dug my heels in. I knew I could beat this level with my clever solo-assault.

So I played for days. Days. Trying to beat this level, on the highest difficulty, against the stiff headwind of designer's intent. Finally, finally I managed to kill every last Nazi in that building. The counterattacks began, with German tanks rolling up outside and hordes of stormtroopers pouring into the lower floors. Still, my Russian comrades waited in their trench. I was like Eddie Izzard in Dress to Kill, frantically running from side to side, eventually reduced to throwing random trash at the waves of Germans.

Eventually someone came up behind me and shot me. Fade to black. Antiwar quote. Reload.

I was back at the start of the level, with about 30 minutes of play erased yet again. I uninstalled. I never played that game again. But to this day, I wonder if there was a way I could have beaten that entire sequence by myself. It may have ruined the entire game for me, but it felt so achievable!

I suspect I'm not the only person who sabotages their experience like this. What's your completely arbitrary white whale that you've let drag all your enjoyment into the black depths?

Let me know in today's open thread!