Recently I have been playing two games a little obsessively, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and FTL: Faster Than Light. I decided to sit down and try to think about why that is, especially since other games that have been released recently have not garnered the same level of obsession. I compared them to other recent-ish games such as Borderlands 2 and COD: MW3: OMG: TLA and narrowed it down to two things. You can actually lose at XCOM and FTL, and no amount of mindless grinding will actually achieve victory for you either.
When I say you can actually lose, I really do mean lose in the game over screen, no more progress for you, here is your score, better luck next time kind of way. The first time I played FTL, I was given a choice between easy mode and normal mode. I naturally chose the most difficult sounding one expecting less difficult options to be more easy than their names made them out to be like in most games in recent memory. Then something happened that I did not expect, it humiliated me, insulted my mother, and then called my manhood into question. After about ten attempts, I gave up and tried it on easy. After several more attempts on easy I finally beat the game.
Some may find this discouraging, but the difficulty of the game, the fact that a single mistake can destroy all of the work done so far made the experience intense and extremely rewarding. Every time you lucked out and got a really good weapon, it was something to celebrate (briefly). Every time you lost a crew member it was a significant blow to your play through. Most importantly, every time you killed the boss it was an accomplishment and something to tell your friends about. The same kind of thing happens when you play through XCOM in ironman mode. You make a mistake and a critical soldier dies and that pretty much wraps it up for the mission and in a lot of cases that country as well. I have yet to complete an ironman playthough, but I am sure I am going to be posting screenshots when I do.
Compare that to Borderlands 2, where every time you die you lose some insignificant portion of the money that you will never use anyway. Or to MW3, where every time you die you are inconvenienced back in time thirty seconds to the last checkpoint and you now have intimate knowledge of where the enemies are. Now granted, I don't play either of these games because they are particularly rewarding games to play. I play Borderlands 2 because it has split screen co-op and I get to play with my girlfriend, and I play MW3 multi-player because I enjoy being called horrible racist names by twelve year olds. The single player experience is definitely lacking in both of those games. The end of the game just doesn't have the same thrill of completion or accomplishment.
This brings up another question. Why do we play games? As much as I find them lacking, I still play both MW3 and Borderlands 2. That is best saved for another post perhaps.