In-Game Judgment Systems: Stoning Me To Death
I never know quite how I feel when a game tells me I suck. Okay, that's not true. I feel bad. Real bad. Shamed, you could say.
I know, you're surprised that a game could have the gall to tell the player that he or she sucks. I mean, maybe you're not surprised. Maybe you know I'm actually a pretty sucky gamer. Although I doubt it, what with my status as a cipher to all known identification agencies, after the events of February 23, 2005...a dark day, especially for that poor dachshund.
Anyways. This game told me I suck. And it did so with an annoying stone trophy of a fat man falling onto his rotund buttocks. What are you trying to say, game? That I should lose some weight? Yeah, well, that's racist. Ass.
I'd been doing pretty well with Bayonetta, too. I had gone through the first couple of levels, getting nice, handsome golds and silvers...hell, I even got a platinum in there, I think. And then I got that first stone trophy. And then another. And another. Soon, I had enough stone trophies to use them as pillars in the foundations of my pleasure palace.
What really threw me for a loop in all this was that I couldn't figure out exactly what I should be doing to fix the problem. I assumed that my strategy of dying on the burning claws of my angelic opponents may have been something of a factor, but I wasn't sure. Should I not be dying as much? How should I manage that not inconsiderable feat? Would "not dying" be worth using an item, and then losing the point bonus I gained for going through a level without any item usage? Was it simply a matter of noticing what buttons I was pushing, instead of flailing at the control like an epileptic jackrabbit?
Well, an amount of investigation that, on a scale of 1-10 where 10 is equivalent to a good ol' Sam Spade style effort, is just far enough above zero to count as a different number has led me to believe that I am not the only one facing this problem. Others experience the same showering of faded copper fat man statuettes, and there appears to be something of a consensus on the reason for this phenomenon: "The game is hard." That's sort of a paraphrase, you'll have to forgive me for not having terribly much journalistic integrity here.
I think that what I truly take issue with here is not the fact that I earned so many of the worst possible award I could get. After all, I could simply be a poor Bayonetta player. But if that's the case, then I don't know that I want a game constantly reminding me of that fact, every time I beat a Chapter. And if the explanation is that the game itself is simply difficult, so that my experience is close to the normal range of things, then I must say that the existence of platinum, gold, and silver awards is what we in the biz refer to as a "tease". It's something you don't do, ladies and gentlemen. Especially ladies. Remember that.
When I ask myself what the point of these trophies is, the only answer that makes any sense to me is that they exist solely to spur players on to greater and greater heights of witchery in the game, until eventually they are zooming around the board, dodging strikes that would have shredded a weaker mortal to bits, and tearing apart opponents with a graceful, never-ending string of motion. Maybe the trophies even succeed in creating this state in some players. Not me, though. I'm far too stubborn, and far too easily discouraged. All I see is that I died a number of times in that chapter, a number that is greater than I'd like it to be, and I don't see replaying it as getting any easier. True, eventually I'm sure I could train myself to succeed in getting gilded trophies; I might even be able to train myself enough to believe that they were worth all the effort.
The trophies in Bayonetta just didn't do much for me. They didn't make me want to perfect my game, and they sure as hell weren't going to be the source of any desire for replay. They were just a means to ensure that I knew that I could improve, greatly, in the hopes that mere knowledge of my inadequacy would be enough to want to keep playing. But why?
Here, I'll point to another game that uses an in-game judgment system, as I have termed it: Rock Band. Of course, Rock Band's system is significantly more lenient than that of Bayonetta. The minimum ranking is three stars, meaning you'll always feel better than those imaginary schmucks who are so bad, they only get one star. Then, the highest possible rank is five golden stars, and in all my time playing the game I have never concretely understood how well I had to perform in order to reach that achievement. But that was perfectly acceptable, I think, because all I had to do was perform my best, and I would be rewarded with a nice, happy five stars. In Rock Band this was especially true, thanks to the ingenious mechanic allowing players to watch each star fill up as they earned more points.
I can remember the days when I was playing Guitar Hero 1 and 2. I can remember the glorious rush of moving up from Easy to Medium, and then from Medium to Hard, and then right on into the highest level, reserved only for those seraphic angels of the music game: Expert. I remember going back and seeing how easily I five-starred a few songs on Hard, after I had been playing on Expert for a while, and then deciding to rip through all of Hard again, in an attempt to five-star the shit out of the track list. And then, I did the same thing on Expert.
I didn't exactly have this experience with Rock Band, though, as I had already gone through it. By the time Rock Band came out, I was already an Expert level player. I felt no need to run through any songs on lower levels, except for when I was learning drums. And even then, I felt no desire to try to five star every song on drums. The appeal of that search for stars was gone.
I think it's because these rating mechanics, as used by both Rock Band and Bayonetta, among others, are gimmicks. They're not truly substantive; they're devices of manipulation, crafted to appeal to gamers who are often completionist to unhealthy extremes. We like getting every cent we can out of our games, and one of the ways to ensure that we feel like there is ample material in a game is to prolong it, simply by offering up the possibility of scoring better.
In Rock Band, while I did stop caring about the judgment system as much as I had once done, I would still say that it works. After all, the point of playing a song in Rock Band, besides simply enjoying the music, is to score as many points as you possibly can, to get as high of a star rating as possible. That's really the goal of the game. On any given song, it's a functional goal. Do well. Chances are, once you reach a certain point, you won't fail except on the hardest of songs. Then you can enjoy the game in a simpler, more relaxed way, instead of needing to worry about mastering each and every song until you can pocket those five, shimmering golden stars.
In Bayonetta, however, I think the rating system is entirely misplaced. I understand it's a relic of the game type, and particularly of the Japanese style. I recognize that removal of the grading system might upset people, more than it would please complaining cusses like myself. But final word for me on this game is that it is enough of an incentive for me to play the game to simply beat the crud out of all comers to the best of my ability. I understand that I could be doing it better, and that the combat system allows for so many cool, flowing, cinematic combos...but I don't need to search for that perfect combat flow in order to enjoy the combat system. I don't need to strive for perfection in these battles in order to feel like I got my money's worth out of the game. And to have the game informing me at the end of every Chapter that it believes I did a shitty job does nothing but annoy and discourage me. It doesn't make me want to play again, in a search for greater glories; it makes me want to finish the game as quickly as possible, so I never have to hear that stupid fat man again.
If nothing else, I would ask that an option be included in games like Bayonetta to turn that system off, so that I can play through the game without having my experience interrupted time and time again with these annoying reminders of my inadequacy. Because even if I am a shitty player, it doesn't matter to me, as long as I can beat the game. With an option like that, at least, I could enjoy the game independent of this manipulative mechanic. And who knows, I might choose to replay it on a higher difficulty level, just to experience a greater challenge, even without being spurred on by the allure of bigger and better trophies.
In the future, I can only hope that rating systems like these will be kept to games where they belong, like Rock Band, where the entire point of the game is to score as high as possible within the rating system. I can only hope that they are no longer used as leverage to keep the player pushing onward in the hopes of improving.
And I can only hope that if systems like this must be employed, then they will include numerous compromising pictures of Bayonetta. No matter in which video game the judgment system is appearing.