[In this column, Tom Cross analyzes the perplexing merit of punishingly complex games as he explores space adventure title X3: Terran Conflict -- and says "enjoyable" is a word both too strong and too weak.]
There's something to be said for complexity, especially when it comes to games -- despite the fact that so many ways, simple or intuitive games are easier, more fun to play. It's not just Nintendo and various designers telling us this: we understand that our experiences with games are often hampered by muddled instructions, overly complicated UIs, and jam-packed missions structures.
Most people know what they want, and they filter their game consumption accordingly. This isn't to say that a person who loves Peggle
can't also love Neverwinter Nights 2
. On the contrary, many gamers enjoy switching back and forth between these different kinds of games, depending on their moods.
Even so, some games revel in their complexity, and for the right gamer, this complexity is absolutely worth it. The harder it is to succeed in a game, the more rewarding the experience, supposedly. There comes a point however, a certain level of obtuseness and opaqueness in game design, where I just give up.
I'm willing to play shooters with way too many buttons, RTSs with ridiculous amounts of options and tasks to perform, and of course, RPGs with long, wandering stories, murky, deep leveling systems, and unclear directions. I like the fiddly bits in these games, but I draw the line when a game makes enjoyment a nigh-impossible goal.
Some games reach this unpleasant achievement by treating you to punishing, unrewarding gameplay. The Ninja Gaiden
's of this world may give you a sense of accomplishment when you spend hours on one annoying boss, but your reward (other than this peculiar, fleeting sense of "accomplishment") is hardly commensurate with the time and effort spent to attain it. After all, once you figure out what you need to do, the only obstacle you face is your silly human fingers. It's with perplexity and joy then, that I've picked my way through X3: Terran Conflict
One More Frontier, One More Headache
X3 is a space exploration game in the vein of Evochron Legends
, Darkstar One
, and Elite
. It's extremely complicated, and it does next to nothing to ease the rocky journey to understanding its quirks, joys, mistakes, and omissions. The extensive manual that comes with the game poses questions rather than answers them. The explanation of the various technicalities, ins and outs of X3
can't be comprised in this small space, and especially not in the way they've been presented.
So, with a cursory knowledge of how flight works in these kinds of games, coupled with a brief in game flight tutorial, we're off. From the minute you enter the universe of X3
, you're bombarded with statistics, restrictions, threats, and more opportunities than I could ever complete in one playthrough.
Still, the game's huge systems and myriad options are all visible from the distance of the starting line, you don't have to worry about the game surprising you. It's tough enough to get a handle on what you know is coming. The promise of intergalactic combat and trade are hard to pass up; thus, I found myself giving an overly hard game that I liked for no good reason even more of my gaming hours.
Unlike a game like Darkstar One
, this is not a mix of light space sim, light trading, and light everything else. The space combat is still nothing close to that of a real flight sim, but the addition of escort fighters, drones, pilots who fly for you, and whole wings of allies, makes eventual combat possibilities daunting.
Traders Have it Harder than Ninjas
If anything, the mercantile portion of X3
is even more complicated. While initial trades consist of buying low and selling high, the game's market fluctuates continuously, and not just because of your miniscule trades. Wars, blockades, trade shortages, and other complications will change your plans drastically. The first time another trader beats you to a location and floods the market with the goods you were trying to sell, you'll start to understand how much more fluid the system is.
That's only for single ship runs though. When you start building up your trade fleet, a whole host of interesting opportunities and hard choices are thrown at you. How well will you armor and outfit your trade vessels? Will you provide them with fighter escorts? When you amass enough capital to build factories, how will you protect them? Of course, this isn't taking into account the main storyline, the pirating and smuggling options, the various alliances that you can make and break, and of course, the deep ship upgrade system.
Of course, none of this is that different from other games of this type. We've been flying, trading, and fighting in space for a long time. What makes X3
such a unique experience is not necessarily the aforementioned facets, nor is it the game's excellent graphics; in fact, the most impressive thing about X3
is that after puzzling through a large percentage of its initial content, the reward in depth and scope of gameplay pales in comparison to the feelings the game can illicit from you.
More Than Just a Couple of Spice Runs
The immense hurdles between you and enjoyment of the game are products of the game's poor documentation, but only initially. After your first hours of confusion and failure, you'll reach a point where you can comfortably engage in the simplest of the game's interactions: one ship trade, inter-system travel, in-system market monitoring, and combat.
Of course, while you may have mastered these simple techniques, you're aware that the game is designed to provide you with opportunities far beyond anything you've tried yet. So you grind, making money trades that grow incrementally larger, or missions that provide slightly tougher enemies each time out.
The graduation from small-time pirate, trader or vigilante is a difficult one. Buying secondary cargo ships, fighter wings, and fellow pilots takes some work. Abilities are unlocked by a multitude of ship add-ons, meaning that advanced, exciting techniques (like factory complexes) require a massive financial investment.
I haven't even gotten to the space stations yet, or the larger wars and fleet actions that you can take part in and use to your advantage in trade and other endeavors. If all of this sounds needlessly complicated, then it is. Complicated that is. Obviously, X3
does not model the true complexity of a multiple system-wide market that changes based on war, economic policy, and other factors. However, it comes closer than any other game within the deep space sim genre. Its economy and building systems can't compare to certain 4X strategy games like Galactic Civilizations
, but at the same time, where it chooses to specialize, X3
models things to an impressive degree.
Again, all of this would mean nothing if these actions were enjoyable. And in the end, enjoyable is both too weak and strong a word. There is, in the arduous, long, painstaking performance of the game's various rituals and necessary activities, a sense of taking apart in something vast and complicated (and with good reason).
I mean to differentiate this sensation from the sense of accomplishment or skill achieved by succeeding against superior odds or enhanced difficulty in other games. We may feel victorious when we defeat far superior foes, but we take our enjoyment from the difficulty involved in performing the task, not in comprehending what it is we do to succeed.
It's another feeling entirely to spend a long time understanding and comprehending the depth and breadth of a game, and what intricate machinations need to be carried out to complete objectives. Sure, I can memorize the sequence of buttons to perform ridiculously complicated fighting moves in Soul Calibur
or Devil May Cry
, but there's never a question of not knowing how to accomplish my task. It's in the doing, the manipulation of my hopelessly inadequate fingers, that the victory lies.
Felling Dumb Never Felt so Good
, completing tasks is never that difficult. The mechanical aspects of the game are not impossible to get a handle on: really, the only difficult area is learning how to survive in the larger battles you'll become embroiled in. Thus, you'll only feel a real sense of accomplishment when you finally piece together the best way to produce certain goods, or when you finally find the right system (possibly adjacent to warring factions) to produce your weapons and armaments.
This is also where X3
can be maddening. This isn't a game that ever rewards you in bursts, in ways that you notice. I love watching my tiny trade empire grow, but it's not the same as destroying The Colossus of Rhodes from the inside: it's a slow, deceptively rewarding experience, not a rush of "did you see that" gameplay. Sometimes it's a bit too slow, but that's the nature of X3
It's a unique feeling when you realize that you've mastered a way of examining, understanding, and approaching a game, not just the execution of in game activities. It helps that you find yourself trading, battling, and building to the tune of catchy futuristic music, with every warp gate and space station backlit by beautiful nebulae and glowing planets. The sense of grandeur these backdrops and settings provide is indispensable. It doesn't matter how hard you work to understand a game's inner workings, the arena you're working in has to be equally as interesting and rewarding.
In this, X3
succeeds from a purely artistic standpoint. It's best to treat the game as a vast space opera, which stars some kind of brilliant but vacant hero with no personality, because the acting and story are awfully implemented. Then again, as this piece testifies, this isn't a game that you'll come to looking for interesting characters or deep dialogue options.
Instead, you'll come to experience a frustrating, lengthy, ultimately rewarding tale of micromanagement in space. I'm glad most games aren't this difficult to wrap my head around, but the existence of X3
is comforting: it shows that we're still willing to invest more time and effort than we probably should in order to immerse ourselves in a truly unique experience.
[Tom Cross writes for Gametopius and Popmatters, and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]