The decline of memory challenges in games

Written by Ben Mansell

September 11, 2012 // 7:52 a.m.

Tags: #monkey-island #puzzle-game

“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.
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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.

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