Before DLC and outpost takeovers and gritty storylines, games were a purer, more focused affair. Arcades and gaming machines of the 70’s and 80’s were, on the whole, about one thing and one thing only - score chasing. High scores are synonymous with gaming. It’s the one thing a total non-gamer knows to ask a gamer when they see them playing a game - “Looks good, what's your high score?”
Pac-Man; Defender; Arkanoid; Tetris; Donkey Kong. Games build around boundless potential for scores, where no artificial ceiling could cap the skills of the best players. With the steady loss of arcades worldwide, we’ve seen a similar decline in high-score chasing games. There’s still plenty out there, but it’s not a must-have feature these days.
Recently I, like millions of others, have been playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I’d forgotten entirely about Kojima’s penchant for high-scores and was surprised to see a detailed breakdown of my performance following the first mission. The best rank is an S. After a painfully long prologue I’d gotten a B. There was no way I wanted to go through all that again to improve my rank, but the completionist inside me craved that all-important S rank.
This is a feeling that didn’t go away with my entire time with MGS 5. It felt like it was judging me on my particular style of play, rather than letting me play the way I wanted. Non-lethal, silent and swift runs are the key to a major score. Why then does it offer me one of the greatest selection of weapons I’ve ever seen in a game? Why let me call in an airstrike? The latter is incredibly fun by the way, but using it is punished with a lower score - why not just a monetary impact?
It got me to thinking just what games benefit from high scores, and which don’t. If you saw high-score credits roll at the end of level in Half-Life 2 or a scene in The Last of Us you’d probably be affronted, so how is it we think it’s okay in a similarly cinematic adventure like MGS 5.
I’m of the opinion that games stripped of narrative and ‘endings’ are the ones that typically warrant high-scores. In this respect it’s like it’s very own genre. That said, action games like Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengance also benefit from high-score chasing despite the fixed-length levels. In these games it’s about perfecting your skills and besting the limitations imposed by the developers.
When and where do you think high scores should be used in games? Should high scores be used in every game? And do high scores keep you coming back to a game long after you’d normally have stopped playing?