Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: there’s no upside to getting old. I’m speaking from experience. In terms of ‘traditional’ video games I’m in what I imagine is a fairly small group: folks over 50 who still spend a lot of time with a controller in their hands. Old age means your eyesight starts to go wonky (I had 20-20 vision for most of my life, now I wear $500 progressive bifocals and I have to get them upgraded every few years), your joints start to hurt and your reflexes (both mental and physical) start to slow down.
A few months ago Rock Band 4 came out. I had a lot of fun playing Rock Band back when it was hot so I bought the game/guitar controller bundle for RB4 as soon as it came out. So far I’ve played it once. I have just enough arthritis in my hands that trying to play on that controller causes me a lot of joint pain in my fingers. That wasn’t a problem as recently as Rock Band 3 that came out in 2010. But once your body starts to degrade, things go downhill alarmingly quickly. If I played through the pain it might get better (I can use a traditional controller without any pain I think because I’m so used to it) but so far I haven’t wanted to play badly enough to endure the discomfort.
RB4 is just one game and its loss isn’t all that great, but this week I discovered an entire genre has been closed to me: side-scrolling platformers. Earlier this week I was going through my PS4 collection looking for games I felt good about removing from the hard drive, which is getting pretty full. I stumbled on Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition, which I believe was a PS+ freebie a long time ago. Or maybe I bought it during a sale…who knows? In either case I had it installed but had never played it.
So I tried it, and it was super-fun for about 3-4 hours. But as is the case with most platformers, the farther in you go the more complex the moves you need to use to progress and soon enough I came to a section of the game that I just couldn’t get past. I knew WHAT I had to do, and if I was playing back when I was 45 I’m sure I could’ve cleared it without too much difficulty. But now? I just couldn’t keep my fingers moving fast enough for long enough to pass through this area. This passage had me doing that ping-pong wall jump routine that many platformers challenge you with, in order to move vertically up a shaft. The twist here is that 1 wall is in the “dead” world and 1 wall was in the “living” world so in addition to wall jumping back and forth I had to phase between worlds as well.
In mechanical terms, I had to tap X, then X again (a double jump with a brief pause to get enough height to make progress), then R2 to phase between the dead and the living world, and then push & hold the left stick left or right to stick to a wall. That sounds easy, right? And it was, but I had to do it smoothly about 6 times to get to the top of this passage. And time and again I’d do something stupid on repetition 4 or 5.
I spent about 10 minutes trying to get past this segment and decided maybe I needed to take a break (I’d been playing for a while). So I did and came back to it fresh and spent about 20 minutes and STILL didn’t get past it. At that point I gave up, and deleted the game from my PS4 (in part because I was trying to clear up space and in part so the icon wasn’t sitting on my dashboard mocking me).
It’s possible that had I kept trying I might have eventually gotten past this section, but the other thing about getting old is that you become more and more aware that you have a finite amount of time left to live. I know that sounds way dramatic and it’s not like you think in these terms, but it’s more like a background hum of “I don’t have the time to waste on this.” I mean video games are inherently a waste of time I guess, but at the same time I find they can be super-satisfying and often relaxing. But there are a LOT of games I want to play (with more coming all the time) so when it’s taking me too long to get to the next “rat pellet” (by which I mean some kind of dopamine producing happy moment) I move on to something new.
After I deleted Guacamelee! I went back to clearing out old games, and I found a few other platformers and realized that for the most part, I may as well delete them too. I’m not meaning to pick on Guacamelee! in this post. I don’t think it’s an unusually hard platformer. My issue is with the entire genre (specifically 2D side-scrolling platformers). With a limited palette of moves to work with, the only way for designers to ramp up the challenge as you move through the game is to either ask you to string together longer and longer combos of moves, or making the timing required more and more precise. Neither of those things is a good fit for an aging gamer who doesn’t have the mental and digit-al (digits like in fingers…get it?) dexterity that s/he once had.
Another genre I’ve given up on is competitive MP shooters that are played in small arenas, because again my brain-to-finger connection just isn’t fast enough to compete with younger gamers (games that offer more space to move around in tend to also reward tactics and sometimes I can still do OK in those).
I’m not sure what genre I’ll have to give up next and I hope I don’t find out for a while. But in broader terms as both the console gaming audience and the developers who make games age, I wonder if we’ll ever see a time where some games cater to older players. I read an interview with Cliff Bleszinski (I can’t remember where) in which he said that his next game is going to offer some kind of class or weapons meant for older gamers because he (and he is way younger than me) is already feeling that he can’t keep up with the youngsters who can snap off headshots without breaking a sweat. That was pretty encouraging to me and I hope more developers adopt a similar philosophy.
It won’t be easy though, because if a developer makes a game and puts in giant bright red sparkly letters across the box that the game is intended for gamers over 60, the 20-something internet blowhards will still rip it to shreds as being too easy and the game will end up with a 40 at Metacritic (in spite of the old gamers loving it) and the publisher will lay off the entire dev team. It’s why we can’t have nice things.
On the bright side, I only have 20 years or so left to worry about any of this.