Divining the Design

I know it’s weird that I talk so much about it, but given that I’m experiencing something I’m so familiar with in a group of rather inexperienced gamers, playing Red Dead Redemption is less of a game now and more of a psychological study for me. There is just about every type in the group: super brainy and dabbles with PC games (usually of the Bethesda brand); that guy that would be happy just buying Madden every year for the rest of his life; and most of them only play when others play. They are, in effective, a statistically weak but widely encompassing sample size.

And last night, the differences in mental efficiency and familiarity with gaming game into light. We had started playing Hardcore mode in some co-op challenges (you have less health, enemies have more, they can actually aim, and you don’t have autoaim) and ended up giving the Ammunition map a whirl. It’s a mission in which you guys start out in Tesoro Azul, surrounded by the Mexican Army, and you have to eliminate every enemy in the general vicinity.

When you aren’t playing Hardcore mode, it’s pretty easy. You can just snap to the targets hiding in the brush and pop them off one by one. The cannons generally don’t even touch you unless you’re looking for trouble. It’ll take a little while, but even at a casual pace, you can clear the entire mission in about 10 minutes or so.

But since we are the hardest of core and possible masochists, we had none of those pleasures. Not only could we not just tap aim/fire over and over again until we won, but it was raining, making it all but impossible to see the assholes peppering you with lead from over 80 yards away. Cannons will kill you in one blast, Gatling guns are pretty much unapproachable, and everyone hates everything because we’re only our sixth attempt and no closer to finishing.

The brainy guy, however, had played this before while I and the self-admittedly inexperienced player (who averaged single-digit kills per mission) had not. He suggested two things: immediately run to the left (we spawn in the middle of the fort facing south) while throwing a stick of dynamite at the invading infantry and taking cover behind a not very cover-worthy wagon, and work our way back west along the north side of the fort. The first one mostly made sense even though it was a little different by the end of things (I would throw one stick left, clearing out the first five guys, they would run right to defend from the trickling westerners, and I would clear out the ground-level troops just outside the entrance.

Once they joined me outside, we would clear out the ridge riflemen until we got the notice that the eastern front had been secured. At this point, the game told us to take the western front now, and this is where we hit a conflict. Brainy wanted to go north, hugging the wall and taking cover behind crates to kill several Gatling gunners and several more runners. He said this was because “this was the way the designers intended.” Granted, that’s fairly easy to see; there’s an ammo supply box right at the outside northeast corner of the map, the crates were positioned to indicate outward progress, and the enemy numbers increased the further we went this direction.

However, there’s a difference between deciphering game design and deciphering your needs. The primary thing killing us besides bullets and more bullets was cannon fire. The southern ridge was just lousy with cannons, Gatling guns, and snipers. So by the sixth attempt, I was tired of running headfirst into the same, macabre situation (albeit, we made slightly more progress each time) and decided to solve our main problem.

Long story short, we beat the mission that time. It took us 12 minutes. I finished with 42 kills, Brainy with 20, and Inexperienced with 9. By not attempting to divine the intent in a mission or map, I took the more practical route and killed almost twice as many enemies in the same amount of time (they made it to the demolition destination just as I finished killing the last bad guy) and we achieved success so much more easily than before. They stopped dying because I took out the cannons and I stopped dying because I could take cover behind a ridge (even clipping issues can’t penetrate a mountainside).

While it is important to learn how to appreciate game design, it’s also important to learn how to break it when necessary. All signs indicated that our original plan was probably the right way, but the new plan was the better way. Perhaps this is also actually playing into the game design regardless (RDR is, after all, an open-world game). Who knows. What I do know is that after I broke from the design, we finished the mission.

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