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The decline of memory challenges in games

Posted on 11th Sep 2012 at 07:52 by Ben Mansell with 25 comments

Ben Mansell
“You fight like a dairy farmer...”

Anyone who has played Monkey Island, and even a fair few who haven’t, will immediately know the correct response is “How appropriate, you fight like a cow”. Insult swordfighting is one of the most famous examples of a gameplay mechanic which has utterly fallen out of fashion in recent years: memory challenges.

For those unfamiliar with insult swordfighting, the player builds up a list of insults and comebacks through fighting opponents, and must then memorise which comeback is paired with which insult. Only by doing this successfully will you win the duel. There’s no mechanic in the game for pairing the insults and comebacks, instead you must rely on your memory (or a note-pad and pen) to complete the puzzle.

The decline of memory challenges in games “You fight like a dairy farmer...”

All games require you to memorise at least some aspects (at the very least the controls), but these days very rarely are you expected to memorise a discreet piece of information which is necessary for progressing through the game at some indeterminate point in the future.

It’s not that the puzzles themselves have disappeared, instead today the games just do the remembering for you. A locked door which requires a code to open is a common gaming mechanic, with the code usually located under a desk somewhere on the other side of the map. Upon locating the code, these days the game typically will make a note of it for you, so when you return to the door it either unlocks it automatically, or shoves the code in your face so you can’t miss it. Either way, you don’t need to make any kind of record of the code yourself; safe in the knowledge the game will do it for you.

So why has the need to memorise disappeared from games? It could be because the games in which they were most suitable aren’t popular any more, or even that most implementations simply aren’t very much fun. Insult swordfighting arguably works in Monkey Island because the whole game is built around puzzles, so you’re already in the mindset necessary. Conversely, you couldn’t spontaneously stick a complex memory puzzle in the middle of a Call of Duty game, as you’d be engaging a part of the player’s brain they’d probably deliberately switched off when they decided to load COD. On top of that, having to make a note of the necessary information on a handy scrap of paper presents ample opportunity for immersion breaking. Nothing reminds you more that you’re playing a virtual game than having to press pause whilst you contemplate whether your girlfriend’s lipstick sitting next to the keyboard could be used as a handy pen.

The decline of memory challenges in games “You fight like a dairy farmer...”

That said, it does strike me that perhaps modern developers presume our memories are a little too gold-fish like. These days, you’re rarely required to remember anything in a game beyond a few seconds. Even games like the Professor Layton series, where the entire gameplay is built around puzzles, seem to shy away from mid or long term memory challenges. There’s never seems to be a requirement to remember anything from one puzzle to the next for example, even though all previous puzzles are available at any time to review. In fact, I can think of not a single modern AAA game that presents you with a unique piece of information at one point, and then requires you to recall that information at a different point to continue, no matter now simple that information is.

Long term memory challenges are probably rightfully absent in modern games: it’s unfair to expect the player to remember anything complex unless you provide them with some sort of feature to allow them to make notes, such as an in-game journal. Even then, you’d have to make it abundantly clear they had to make a note, otherwise they might get stuck later on and have no idea how or where to find the information necessary. It’s plainly far less problematic just to have the game remember the details for the player.

The decline of memory challenges in games “You fight like a dairy farmer...”
Long term memory challenges are rare in today's modern puzzle games

However, more short-term memory puzzles I think do have a place in today’s games. Even the most attention-deficient gamer could hopefully remember some simple information over the course of a twenty minute level. For example, imagine a military FPS level which concludes with the player having to defuse a bomb. You could make it an annoying retro-arcade style mini-game, or an oversimplified “click Use to defuse the bomb!”, but a better solution might be to have your commanding officer inform you at the beginning of the level “cut the red wire, then the blue one!” Then at the end of the level, the player is presented with a bunch of coloured wires to cut. You could theoretically get through it by trial and error, but thanks to a tiny and incredibly simple memory challenge you’re suddenly progressing using something other than just your reactions.

It could even work in genres that usually present you with copious amounts of written text, like an RPG. Picture a dungeon inhabited randomly by one of three unique boss monsters. An NPC in the local village informs you what the respective weakness is of each boss type. When you then reach the end of the dungeon and are faced with one of the three bosses, you have to remember which weakness is relevant. You could still win through using conventional weapons, but the savvy player would feel rightly chuffed if they could remember the correct weakness to exploit.

These might be minor challenges, but they’d engage a part of our gaming brain that is increasingly showing severe signs of atrophy. Otherwise we might all be forced to play Dr. Kawashima’s when we’re older, and no-one wants that!

Should memory challenges make a return to games, or are you struggling to even remember what this article is about? Let us know in the forums.

25 Comments

Discuss in the forums Reply
Edwards 11th September 2012, 09:51 Quote
One of the Skill Points in the Asura starting area in GW2 is a memory puzzle. The NPC makes a speech, and then asks you questions on what they said a minute later. I was pretty disappointed with just how many attempts it took me to get the answers right!

Edit: tried to post this directly to the comments section at the bottom of the article but got 'Invalid Thread specified'.
brumgrunt 11th September 2012, 10:41 Quote
Sorry, fixed that!
mi1ez 11th September 2012, 11:01 Quote
First thought that crossed my mind (after Monkey Island of course,) was the Wind Fish's Egg in Link's awakening. left up right up left up right up left up right up!
Griffter 11th September 2012, 11:23 Quote
"no matter now simple that information is" paragraph under 2nd image.

i wish they brought more puzzles into it. what i find being and old school gamer, using the arrow keys still to move :-), is that i remember the code and get to the door and the sad feeling that the code pops up again cos i saw it earlier and takes away a sense of accomplishment or epic win feeling. i feel cheated at those times.
steveo_mcg 11th September 2012, 11:53 Quote
Just discovered this while looking for somthing else:http://www.scummbar.com/community/games/swordfighting/

A real test to your long term memory. You're no match for my brains, you poor fool.
Raptorkid 11th September 2012, 13:57 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Article
In fact, I can think of not a single modern AAA game that presents you with a unique piece of information at one point, and then requires you to recall that information at a different point to continue, no matter now simple that information is.

What about Fallout 3's ending where you're given the password to the purifier at the beginning of the game?
MjFrosty 11th September 2012, 15:41 Quote
The thing is with these is that...

What were we talking about again?
pimlicosound 11th September 2012, 16:21 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Raptorkid
What about Fallout 3's ending where you're given the password to the purifier at the beginning of the game?

That was my first thought, too. Pathetically, I couldn't remember it and had to look up the solution. I suppose I've just got used to games not requiring me to use my memory, so I hadn't engaged it at all while playing the game.
Shirty 11th September 2012, 16:21 Quote
Years of substance abuse have left many of us unable to remember what we had for breakfast, so the decline in intellectual standards in gaming aren't a huge shock.
Griffter 11th September 2012, 17:03 Quote
a thought... maybe its not just the way games are made but google itself?

gone are the days of getting through a stage required u to actually think, now u try once, maybe twice then alt tab, google it, and continue. so maybe both are to blame, games stopped working like that cos gamers stopped trying and vice versa.

damn you google!
Sloth 11th September 2012, 19:39 Quote
Reading this article immediately reminded of playing Final Fantasy IV, getting decently far, then stopping for a few months. Forgot where I was and what I was doing. Uh oh. No in game helping notes, all the NPC dialogue had already told me where to go and was now spouting lines like "Good luck! We're all relying on you!" just to make me feel even worse about completing about their plight. Ended up starting over again.

Try selling an RPG without a quest log of some sort in today's gaming world and you'd be getting death threats!
Jacob-86 11th September 2012, 20:34 Quote
Ico was a great puzzle game. Very minimal dialogue which required you to use the environment around you and experiment. Another great puzzle game (of a slightly different style) was Shadow of the Colossus. Both of these created by the same group of developers. Both available on the PS2.

I highly recommend them if you haven't tried them out.
dolphie 12th September 2012, 01:00 Quote
Yeah well these days everyone has ADHD and the average gamer starts a sentence and
lepre 12th September 2012, 10:26 Quote
Most of the people nowadays would just google the information needed right away.
Dwarfer 12th September 2012, 17:19 Quote
I miss challenges in games. I have to go back & play Mario Bros or Zelda to get a challenge nowadays
Nexxo 12th September 2012, 17:40 Quote
It isn't hard if it isn't Nintendo-hard. ;)
TWeaK 12th September 2012, 21:17 Quote
Am I the only one who kind of liked Dr. Kawashima’s?
dolphie 12th September 2012, 23:56 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Nexxo
It isn't hard if it isn't Nintendo-hard. ;)
Aargh my heart, it's sad when I read that. It's amazing how not just Nintendo games but most games in general back then really were hard. Even kids games, game design just generally seemed to be all about making tough challenges for gamers to overcome, and we had to try to beat it, whether it was saving a princess or solving PC Adventure Games or getting to the end of Contra, or getting to end of Doom or whatever else. And just to think that nowdays, there are hardly any games left like that. Just a small percentage of games, and those are mostly only retro ones anyway, like Trine or Legend of Grimrock or whatever.

Nowadays gaming is all about instant gratification instead.
oliverr97 13th September 2012, 00:07 Quote
I never really liked memory games (mainly due to my terrible memory), but its a shame that they have declined so much.
mi1ez 13th September 2012, 10:43 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by dolphie
Quote:
Originally Posted by Nexxo
It isn't hard if it isn't Nintendo-hard. ;)
Aargh my heart, it's sad when I read that. It's amazing how not just Nintendo games but most games in general back then really were hard.
I've been replaying Link to the Past and wondering how the hell me and 2 younger brothers completed it at the ages of 12 and under!
Darkwisdom 16th September 2012, 00:56 Quote
Like playing Ninja Gaiden on the NES, now that is a hard game. It took me until last year to actually complete that basterd of a game.

Mental challenges just don't appear in games now. It's all shoot and shoot (aka COD and that large genre of similar games). Look at the ATARI 2600. The Swordquest games were games that required a large amount of remembering; you had to get items, and put them in rooms in the correct order, just to get some codes, which you then had to figure out where to find the words in the included comic book. You then had to make a sentence with the words using the words that were prime numbers. That's a brain cruncher right there.
gosh 17th September 2012, 00:16 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sloth
Reading this article immediately reminded of playing Final Fantasy IV, getting decently far, then stopping for a few months. Forgot where I was and what I was doing. Uh oh. No in game helping notes, all the NPC dialogue had already told me where to go and was now spouting lines like "Good luck! We're all relying on you!" just to make me feel even worse about completing about their plight. Ended up starting over again.

Try selling an RPG without a quest log of some sort in today's gaming world and you'd be getting death threats!

had exactly this problem with ff6, i think it's more that people don't sit down and play the same game in long sessions as there are far more games and distractions, not to mention portable and mobile gaming. breaking up of games has led to quicksaves and checkpoints wheras time was you could be a long time between savepoints, plus as mentioned the game assumed you'd be back and gave no objectives or synopsis.

was going to disagree with there being no memory challenges though, but casting a quick eye over my games collection aall the ps3 stuff is shooters and beat 'em ups and the pc games library mostly stuff where i have to remember ammo points on maps, tank weakspots or elemental weakness'/resistances. still don't want to go back to the days when i used to game with a notepad and pen nearby (still do for tracking somethings like skillpoints/upgrades/resources needed etc.) for codes, notes, etc. as that could get confusing and frankly no memory was involved
.
ashchap 17th September 2012, 14:12 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Article
In fact, I can think of not a single modern AAA game that presents you with a unique piece of information at one point, and then requires you to recall that information at a different point to continue, no matter now simple that information is.

Two AAA games that require memory: Mass Effect 2 (when you have to seduce the Ardat-Yakshi by remembering her opinions, favourite band etc.) and Deus Ex Human Revolution (when you have to answer the guy at the LIMB clinic with the secret code so that he will talk to you).

And a game that requires not just a pen & paper but numerous excel spreadsheets and community created tools to get anywhere: EVE Online
gosh 18th September 2012, 01:06 Quote
maybe the problem just lies more with the fact that anyone that has forgot a memory challenge such as a code would probably tab out and google it rather than spend time backtracking when they know where they can find the clue and rather not waste half an hour ? fast internet, juggling multiple processes and net-capable phones really change how this situation goes down - most recently i've been playing 'trails in the sky' on my psp and after hunting up and down a highway i'd rather google where to find a particular bounty monster than hunt all the many maze-like paths.
dolphie 29th September 2012, 00:13 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by mi1ez
I've been replaying Link to the Past and wondering how the hell me and 2 younger brothers completed it at the ages of 12 and under!

Lol yeah, kids back then were hardcore! I remember my friend's little brother playing Mario 2 and just dying over and over and over and it was really sad. Then about 3 weeks later when I went round to their house again, he had completed it :) And when I watched him play, he was amazing.

Back then there were no walkthroughs and spoilers and you couldn't just play another game either because you tended to only get 1 new game every 6 months or something. So you just played it and played it until you mastered it.
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