NHL ’94: Abstraction and Simplicity in Video Gaming

Video games are about abstraction. The gamer takes a controller or keyboard and mouse and is suddenly put into the role of a superhero, soldier, or plumber downing mushrooms to grow big enough to take down a princess-stealing dinosaur. One can travel to distant galaxies or stick around at home, making life more comfortable for simulated humans with consumer products and love. There is a literal fourth wall—the screen between TV/Monitor—with a game on one side and a player on the other.

This is why controls are so important to a title. Good controls remove one more barrier between a player and the gaming world. Bad controls take a player out of a game, like seeing a boom shadow in a film. The illusion is shattered. Frustration replaces aspiration. It takes time to learn the controls of a game, of course, but if the design sensibility matches the learning curve, the transition becomes seamless.

Unfortunately, some genres lend themselves better to this than others. Simulations, strategy titles, RPG’s, and other games that require fewer reflexes don’t require swift and responsive controls by their very nature. Other kinds of games—platformers, FPS’s, and puzzle games—all require dexterity on part of the player as much as intelligence. And then there are the titles that are very much about reacting quickly (space shooters, in particular), where poor controls can mean the difference between a great game and an awful one.

What’s important here is that realism isn’t necessarily linked with this abstract form of control. The Wii and Xbox Kinect have made games more natural for the non-gamer out there (garnering accolades and Scrooge McDuck-sized money bins in the process), but there is definitely a correlation between experience as a gamer and the lack of necessity for “realism” in controls. Look at the advance of controllers: it goes from simple to complex in less than twenty years. It’s only with the introduction of a whole new class of gamers that things shift radically back to the simplified form.

Sports games suffer the most from this radicalization (Wii Sports and its sequels being major exceptions). If a game is too simple, it misses the nuances of a curveball. If a game is too complex, then one gets frustrated at the myriad obstacles in the way to hitting said curveball (WARNING: LONG SENTENCE APPROACHING) over the left field fence due to the graph that’s over the plate that measures the airspeed velocity, arc, and “english” of a pitch that must naturally be simplified because it is happening on a 2D plane that must be adjusted by the stereoscopic vision of the player. Games are about abstraction, remember: if someone wanted to play real baseball—or play a real guitar, or go shoot up aliens with a shotgun—they’d do THAT.

Which finally brings us to the king of video game sports: hockey. Hockey is already abstract for enough people. You need to use several expensive implements that do not produce a natural “fit” for the human form: skates, sticks, ice. Tickets to games are expensive. Watching it on television can be a chore for the non-fan without HD TV. And yet, hockey games have been some of the best sellers of video game consoles from the very start.

Sure, football is king, but ice hockey lends itself particularly well to the medium. A gamer doesn’t need to worry about skating, or puckhandling, or any of that jazz. Shoot a soft or a hard shot. Hit a guy. Make a pass to the open man. Get into a fight. These are understandable achievements that don’t require a multitude of buttons. Classics such as Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey got by with two buttons and a D-Pad.

This is epitomized in the difference between the classic NHL ’94 and the modern-day NHL 12. One is an old school title that utilizes abstract mechanisms to convey the primal rush of hockey for casual fans. The other is a symphony of control mechanisms and playing guides that go into creating as “realistic” a game as possible. Yet the NHL series has seen dwindling sales and ratings for the last half-dozen years, even as things get closer and closer to reality. Why?

NHL 94 is old-school gaming at its best. Three buttons, basic controls, simple game scenarios (including playoffs and a season format). You also couldn’t fight, but you could make a player’s head bleed if you hit him hard enough. It built on the two previous titles in the series to create a classic of the genre that sold millions of copies. It has become a cult pop-culture icon thanks to its many, many fans.

NHL 12, on the other hand, showcases how far the gaming industry has come… and how it still has further to go. Five pages of control schematics allow for everything from a blocked shot to spin-a-ramas to proper protocol for engaging in a fight. You can “Be A Pro” or “Create a Team” or “Run a Season,” all in either real-time or simulated formats. The character animations are fluid and dynamic, there are over a sixty teams (and over a thousand players). It is as real as it can get, but the most common complaint from players is that it’s too hard to wrap their heads around it. Casual fans, even those who love and enjoy the game of hockey, don’t enjoy the game in the same way that hardcore fans do.

Some people don’t have sixty hours in their lives to devote to learning how to play a game. Some gamers complain when a title’s entire running length is that long. This isn’t a criticism against NHL 12, or any of its immediate predecessors, but a game that goes from mainstream to niche-appeal is naturally going to lose sales. Gamers bemoan the casual market and yet these are the consumers to whom publishers must appeal if major profits are going to be made.

Abstraction and aspiration is at the core of any great media. Uber-fans of film may discuss technique; casual goers talk about how cool it was that Thor beat that one guy with a hammer. Musicians discuss the notes not played by a jazz bassist; casual music lovers bob their heads to the beat as they eat their dinner in the club. A video game shouldn’t be any different, and is in fact made worse by the crossing of the Uncanny Valley.

For those unfamiliar, the Uncanny Valley is a concept that was proposed by the roboticist Masahiro Mori. He theorized that human beings naturally identify with images, icons, or representations of the human form… but only to a point. When the similarities to a human face become more numerous than the differences, people stop noticing how similar a representation is and how start realizing how non-human it is. It is an unsettling affect, and most people either grow uncomfortable or laugh. We can see this all over pop culture. Consumers love Wall-E. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, on the other hand, makes people laugh.

Similarly, the closer games get to true realism, the more is expected of them. Gamers want more realism in an abstract sense because realism, to them, is one step closer to virtual reality. Why use a control to shoot spider-webs when you can be Spider-Man? An ever-increasing paradox creeps in: more and more complex controls and abstractions are required to get closer and closer to reality. At some point, people stop feeling like they’re a part of a game and start appreciating the game for itself. Games become art-for-art’s sake, meaning that there is a small set of fans that appreciate them for their own ingenuity while the rest of the populace begins to ignore them for the very same reason.

There’s no going back, either. You can’t unmake the atomic bomb, nor can you unplay the latest Gears of War. Gamers have come to expect a certain level of technical proficiency (and budget) in their titles. Games have to get bigger, which means gaming companies try to appeal to a smaller and smaller subset of hardcore gamers. The only way to get out of it is to appeal to the mainstream… and get back to simplicity.

NHL ’94 gets a pass where NHL 12 doesn’t because the former is almost cartoonish in its simplicity compared to the latter. People respond to it because it is close enough to hockey for them to recognize it but not so close that they feel like they actually have to understand the intricacies of the sport AND memorize the control schemes to know how to put those techniques into practice. Most people are the equivalent of Pee-Wee players: they can get the basics and might even understand the theory, but asking them to skate in the NHL would be a little much.

All the common complaints about EA’s NHL titles (and Madden, for that matter) branch out from this. Not enough innovation? Well, that’s because if games innovate TOO much, fans respond in anger (see Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, among others). Why not just release patches so that gamers can update their rosters or give tweaks? What, and give up on the assured profit of millions of new copies sold?

NHL ’94 didn’t exactly push the limits of the prevailing hardware. It was a fun title that did what it did with a minimum of fuss. It was simple, enjoyable. It didn’t have to be a masterpiece of art because that wasn’t what it was going for. What’s fascinating is that gamers want their favorite medium to be recognized as a ground of artistic media without losing the social significance of what that means. They want the wider world to appreciate games like NHL 12 because it validates their choices as consumers, yet at the same time they do not want this same gaming audience to actually play them.

In effect, some become the snobs of the art world: jaded, insular, privileged. At that point, truly, video games will have become an art if only for the art scene that surrounds it. Whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable.

Editor’s Note: I highly enjoy NHL 12, particularly the Be a Pro Mode… but I’m also awful at it. I just wanted everything to be on the up-and-up. If you feel that I may be taking this too far because I can’t get the handle of the controls, well, that’s very fair.

2 thoughts on “NHL ’94: Abstraction and Simplicity in Video Gaming

  1. Pingback: He’s got some sort of pig power… | pixelthèque

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