I’ve been playing Pixel Piracy recently. For a number of reasons, though not least because you can play the game relatively capably with a five month old child on your shoulder. I’m not recommending this, per se. Don’t go and borrow an infant to put on your shoulder while you play video games. That would be odd. If, like me, you happen to have one in the house and he likes sleeping on his father’s shoulder, I’m here to tell you that Pixel Piracy works reasonably well.[ref]Also Hearthstone, incidentally.[/ref] In any event, this finds me at the computer tapping away at the mouse and occasionally leaning forward with mixed degrees of care depending on just how asleep the little guy is to scroll the camera left or right.

That’s it. That’s the control mechanism for Pixel Piracy. I rather like it, really; despite the clearly broad potential for control schemes when using a PC to play games, I’m a sucker for simplicity like this. Click on this, click on that, and move the camera. Left or right, in this case. Done. The clicking in question summons and dispatches my minions, and let’s be honest: every game needs a minion here and there. The game tempts me with space for many minions indeed, though I have but two. I’ve assigned one to cook and the other to clean up all the poop. My virtual pirates are apparently not clever enough to at least lean over the side. The three of us (the chef, the custodian and my gallant hero) sail the high seas, benefitting from some rather aggressive levelling by yours truly. As a result, combat is not as aggressive as I’d hoped. Rather than seeing my screen explode into frantic pixel murder, I observe my pirates (under my instructions) sail up to an enemy and then wait in the galley for rabid pirates to come aboard only to be chopped up into little pieces by my battle-axe wielding sprites. I plunder the opponents’ ship and move on.[ref]Though it should be said that the act of plundering the ship is a bit odd. The game won’t let me do it until I’ve sent my main character over to break every urn and chest on the ship. Why this affects the ability to scupper the ship and take its goods is not explained. Perhaps the urns and chests are architecturally significant?[/ref]

Rinse and repeat. The baby sleeps, my pirates level up, I discover new islands and an hour has passed. I end up with that strange feeling that I’ve wasted time more than I’ve enjoyed the game. Though that’s not fair. I’ve enjoyed almost every minute I’ve ever played a Civilization game, and some of those sessions amount to little more than eight hour long forays into a fugue state. It’s just not quite what I’d been expecting from an open world pirate roguelike-like game. I get a little frustrated. I could recruit more men, but why would I? It puts me under more pressure to earn more money more quickly, which as far as I can tell involves me doing what I’m doing now but at an increased pace. The game allows for the capture and domestication of animals found on the various islands and hints at complex ship designs that include cannon and other types of ranged weapons. There appears to be a mechanism within the game to assign my pirates to various tasks. I’ve tried none of this, partly because I’m not entirely sure how it works.

Such are the pitfalls of an early access game I suppose, though I’m less inclined to blame the developers and far more inclined to point to a potential flaw in open world design: it makes it more likely that a game fails to overcome my laziness.[ref]A long standing flaw in video game design.[/ref] Pixel Piracy promises much, and I’m unsure as to how much these promises are truly unfulfilled; I was largely attracted to the game thanks to its connections to the excellent Terraria, a game that took my latent repetitive compulsion and turned it loose on a subterranean world of minerals and dirt with treasure laden throughout. I’m not seeing that with Pixel Piracy, but I’m not convinced it isn’t there… The game’s depth is mostly hidden but lays around the fringes of what I’ve played so far. How exactly can I get my pirates to enslave an enemy, and what will that slave do? Are there more islands out there? More sea creatures? Can I equip one of my men with a fishing pole, order him to channel his inner Robert Shaw and take out that huge shark that’s following me everywhere?

Pixel Piracy fascinates me really, because it makes me think about difficulty in games. Players being able to minimize threats to their character and maximize the benefits in order to progress through a game in as sanitized and “safe” a manner as possible generally hints at faulty or unimaginative design, but I don’t believe that to be the case here.[ref]Not only does Pixel Piracy have pirates and pixels, it has lovely (and lovingly written) descriptions of each pirate. Characters break out into song regularly. The game is full of really nice little touches.[/ref]Nor do I think that I have uncovered a fatal flaw. No, I believe the game is allowing me play it in a very simple and rather one-dimensional manner. That’s on me. It interests me because it makes me think of difficulty in a video game in different ways. We’re used to discussing it in such simple terms. Dark Souls is hard. Mega Man is hard. Difficulty implies depth in this medium, an increased commitment from the player. It also alienates. It doesn’t have a monopoly on that of course: Call of Duty games are easy to the point of alienation, for example.

There’s an additional form of alienation in playing games as well, long before we get to critiques of modern popular culture or discussions of individual morality in games of make-believe: that relentless clicking, the grinding, the levelling up. Spelunky, Terraria, these are games I’ve uninstalled and reinstalled repeatedly, a futile effort to save myself from myself. Maybe, just maybe I’ll play an RPG or I’ll play the shooter I bought five months ago because I heard the story was good… Maybe I’ll do something constructive. Pixel Piracy is in serious danger of joining this band of games. It’s good company, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an odd category. Am I denying myself all that this game has to offer?[ref]Yes. Yes, I am.[/ref] Does it matter if I am?

Is my reluctance to push myself further in the game an indicator of a new trend in video game difficulty emerging? We have books that are considered difficult to read, films that demand your full concentration to watch.[ref]Of course, this in itself is heresy. Surely every film deserves our full concentration regardless of its artful (or other) aspirations?[/ref] Are we now finding games that need you to put the work in to reap the full rewards? Pixel Piracy brings an interesting dimension to the argument because perhaps it is hinting at a kind of difficulty that is not enforced on the player but is simply laid out as part of the game. I have tried and failed to play DOTA 2 and it’s likely I never will. Then again, games have been this way for years, with plenty of trinkets and the detritus of design awaiting discovery by completionists. And ultimately, my experiences with the game are a result of the mixing together of so many factors including the fact that the game is not (quite) finished and I am currently inclined towards a certain play style. It is to the game’s credit that it caters to varying play styles. Indeed, it may be this that I find most exciting about the game. You can recruit an army of pixellated pirates, you can collect a menagerie of animals, you can visit every island generated by the game. You can do all these things. You don’t have to.

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