I’m an admirer of the NHL games from afar. Growing up in the American South, the terminal swamp of the United States, I never experienced hockey as a youth. Football and baseball dominated the “forced into team sports” days of my elementary and middle school education, and the former was the only sport deemed worth watching on television as I was growing up. I spent a few weeks with a bargain-bin NHL 2000 on a Playstation one teenage summer. I spent a solid week of confused, angry cursing and drafting with NHL 2011 when I was laid up with illness earlier this year. Despite never picking up the rules in “real life” or my stints playing these previous games, I decided that I really wanted to give NHL 15 a serious, good-faith effort, with minimal cursing and confusion.
The short version is that it didn’t work.
There’s a long-standing argument in both video- and board- games culture about complexity and how much of your time and energy you should give to a game before flipping a table or putting down a controller. Sometimes this is explained in patronizing artistic terms: “If you really put in the sufficient time, then you would understand how brilliant this is.” Sometimes it is laid out in the classic hardcore vs. casual gamers frame: “The game opens up when you develop a required bare minimum skill to access its complexity.” In both of those contexts, there is the feeling that you need to wholly give yourself over to something in order to really grasp its beauty. To love the machine as much as you should, we are told, you must turn into that machine.
This is a spectrum. How much you have to give yourself over to the machine with any given game plots that game’s location on that spectrum. Playing Tag requires very little buy-in from the player. You agree that you’re playing and you use your already-existing faculties to play. Playing Dwarf Fortress requires a massive amount of adaptation of your mind and body. You change the way you interact with your computer, the visual language of games, and your relationship with text in games. Getting to the place where you feel like Dwarf Fortress is actually giving you something wonderful and fulfilling takes days or weeks. Like all discipline, it is uncomfortable and frustrating.
NHL 15 does nothing to explain how the game works to you. The main menu is divided into three tabs. The Home screen offers you a “quick play” of your most played mode, a list of alerts and news about the game, a provocation to play new game modes, and a button where you can watch a trailer for the game you are playing. Other tabs include Play and Customize. The former is a container to play the various modes—quick play, online play, the ultimate hockey mode, playoffs, general manager simulation, pro player simulation, practice mode, and a replay editor. The latter allows you to edit rosters, choose your favorite team (which seems arbitrary as far as I can tell), enter product codes, and change your game settings.
These are all delivered to the player at one time without any weighting about what game modes are best for new or older players. A full half of my experience with the game has been about fumbling around in the dark when it comes to both menus and the actual activity of playing the sport of hockey. I want to contextualize this by reminding the reader that I have played hockey games before. And yet still this game presents itself to me as needlessly obscure, opaque, and difficult to orient myself toward.
From my attempt at playing this game, being a general manager is less about managing a team and more about hitting the “simulate until this game” button after placing agents around the globe in a management experience with as much depth as an Assassin’s Creed game. My time as Monster Mash, the Detroit Redwings GM, did not last long, both out of boredom and a lingering question about what I was actually supposed to be doing.
I performed slightly better during my time in Hockey Ultimate Team Mode, the fantasy sports/level up/online multiplayer mode that is a little bit Farmville and a little bit Call of Duty. You rank up, it rewards you for daily play, and there are minimal actions that you can do outside of playing the game to increase your ability. In my short time with this game mode, the Boston Gandalfs played a riveting online game rife with lag that ended in fifteen consecutive shootout runs. It was a brutal experience for everyone involved, but I won after cursing at the screen for a solid thirty minutes.
Physical sports are closer to Tag on the spectrum I mentioned before. They are, at the end of the day, fairly simple experiences that require a little bit of team communication and an understanding of where a ball needs to go. We are constantly teaching droves of four-year-olds across the world how to play nearly all of our physical sports. They can become complicated at high levels, but at the bottom, they are not.
At some point we decided that videogame versions of these sports needed an extensive amount of mental and bodily conditioning. I am being completely honest when I say that I bounced off of NHL 15 faster than I bounced off of Dwarf Fortress or ranked Starcraft II. I haven’t had such a hostile, exclusionary experience with a videogame in a very long time, and it honestly left me asking who this game is actually for. If I, someone who plays an immense number of videogames of all types, can’t at least get the hang of it in a reasonable amount of time, then who can?
Maybe you’re the one, and if it works for you, then godspeed. You are accessing powers and information that I can’t think of, let along exercise, and I salute you. I can say that there’s very little that’s as thrilling as skirting around the edge of the goal and barely tapping the puck in right behind the goalie. My little hockey player skates around in front of me and I yell “yessssss” and we all have a great time together. But the rest of the time I’m tipping and tapping and not managing this system very well. I’m not good at becoming the kind of machine that NHL 15 needs me to be.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.