Why Chasing The High Scores In SSX Is Endlessly Entertaining

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If there’s one series that has yet to bore me throughout the course of my long, ever-treacherous but usually satisfying gaming career, it would without a doubt be SSX. EA Sports Big’s snowboarding juggernauts of the early 2000s weren’t just a sports games, and really, neither were any of the late great development studio’s releases. EA Big knew how to put fun first, rules of the road second, and general convention and laws of physics dead last, and the results weren’t just a rollicking good time with each and every release, but uncommonly high praise from game critics ‘round the globe. When you consider how sports games tend to be received nowadays, this comes off as doubly impressive.

The recent SSX revival back in February of 2012 was a big deal for me, and though a vocal minority of die-hard “fans” on the web criticized the game for not remaining true enough to 2001’s SSX Tricky, I actually found the new game to be a gleaming achievement from EA Canada. Not only did it respect the series roots and absolutely nail the feel that spiritual predecessor SSX 3 was aiming for, but it actually managed to engineer gameplay that was a logical extension from where that game left off. SSX 3 was bigger, better, and more realistic (if slightly less zany) that SSX Tricky, and 2012’s SSX expanded upon that growth even further. I’ve been playing the game since its release and writing about it for almost as long, and I still take it for a spin at least once a week. Depending on my schedule, it’s often once a day. To me, it’s that good.

Thanks to the extremely robust and ever-addicting online component of the game, labeled RiderNet and located under the Global Events subcategory in the game’s main menu, SSX provides new surprises and experiences almost every time I sign on. With this piece, I want to relay those experiences and the emotions they trigger, and hopefully tie them into current events, the gaming landscape, or even interactive entertainment as a whole to the best of my ability. In other words, I’m going full tricky mode.

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Origin of the Score

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Beating a high score is one of the oldest objectives in videogames. In fact, it’s the oldest objective. Whether it’s Pong and Space Invaders or more recent score-chasers like Geometry Wars and Pac-Man Championship Edition, hunting after an elusive and often exorbitantly high number that represents one’s performance, ability, and general gaming-worth is a concept that is both timeless and extremely addicting.

With that said, high-score games have in recent times come to represent a bygone era. Games where you go after high scores are usually smaller, or more casual. Maybe they’re found more commonly on phones and tablets. And even when they are hardcore, brutally challenging gaming encounters, they’re usually not the latest blockbuster; they’re just souped up Pac-Man. Like it or not, immersion and score-shattering seem to grow further apart with each passing day.

It makes sense as a general idea – I can’t really imagine anything that would pull me out of, say, Red Dead Redemption more than than a big glowing number at the top of the screen. “You pickpocketed that shop owner, good job! Ten points!” At the same time, the game does streamline this into a more logical system – depending on how good or evil you are, your public reputation adjusts accordingly. Though only a few degrees away from a regular score system, it’s not the same thing in the purest sense. That’s isn’t necessarily bad, either – it’s just the way things are.

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The Life of a Rider

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What strikes me about SSX as it relates to all of this is its ability to treat both immersion and the pursuit of high scores with equal importance. My routine when I switch on the game is pretty simple – I go right to Global Events and check out which drops have the highest payout for the day. I look them over, and if they’re appealing, I suit up and take them for a ride. I usually glance at what kind of score I’ll need to place in the Diamond bracket (my minimum standard before I’m allowed to move on to another drop), but in those early minutes it’s all about the experience. Being a skier/snowboarder myself, imagining throwing on all the gear and feeling the icy wind as I’m ferried up the big hill for a day’s worth of adrenaline is half the fun. The other half? Well, that’d be just playing.

“Just playing” is about the best way I can describe it, because once you come to master the game’s controls, it in many ways just plays itself. It’s like learning to improvise on an instrument. At first, you really can’t express yourself the way you would singing or talking, because the instrument is an obstacle; it prevents your true voice from shining through as you fumble with hand positions, fingerings, and the like. Once technical encumbrances have been dealt with, however, the instrument not only becomes an extension of one’s true voice, but an enhancement. No matter how wonderful of a singer or speech-giver you may be, you’re not going to replicate a virtuosic violin solo without a violin. Such is the case with SSX. It’s not just that I can’t snowboard at a high (read: impossible) level in real life – that is an implied and basic pillar of the game’s immersion. Games let me do things I can’t in real life. Wonderful. What’s going on here, however, is another layer entirely. Within this world where I’m a pro-grade destroyer of alpine terrain, I can actually choose my look, my style, and my approach. I can yell in excitement as I hurtle through the air, I can pull tricks at every bump in the road in a spastic, rapidly-spinning frenzy, or I can lay back and wait for the massive payoff, and literally fly as I swing from a helicopter mid-jump and admire the view. Maybe it takes absurd amounts of hours playing SSX to appreciate it this way, but I genuinely feel that such depth is there.

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The Hunt Begins

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So where do high scores come in? Well, that’s the fun part. The first few runs of my SSX routine usually embody what I described in the above paragraph, and it’s glorious. My hands feel loose, my in-game persona made it down in style, and I placed in the top bracket of the competition. That is, unless I didn’t. That’s where the scores come in. That’s when I start looking at them.

Even if a particular drop has upwards of many hundreds of riders who have logged scores that day, the game only shows you the score you need to break into each bracket, and the player with that score who you need to beat. Once you break into the top bracket, you’re also allowed to see the top score for the entire rider pool. Because of this limited peek into the whole of the competition as opposed to a massive leaderboard, the few names you get to attach to the numbers you’re chasing become real-life opponents. That is, real-life in the world of the game, which you’ve presumably for fun accepted as real. You know, because people do that.

The beauty of this whole system is that with each passing attempt to try and break into the Diamond bracket, the less I focus on fun and style and flying and nature, and the more my attention narrows into a singular beam directed squarely at the player whose score I am chasing.

In a recent Global Event I played on Fast Forward, which is essentially the bottom third of the game’s longest drop Serenity, I had the most extreme example of this phenomenon to date since I bought the game. Serenity is a drop I usually score well on no problem, but for whatever reason cramming a high score of 19 million or better into Fast Forward’s short duration is something I was struggling immensely with. At this moment — the place where determination, frustration, and real-life competition meet — many videogame experiences begin to break down. The fun factor makes a quick exit, the chances of success seem low, and most of all, the feeling of any of it being remotely real is sucked away entirely. It just becomes an unfair game that I can’t beat because some jerk on the other end has no life and logged a crazy high score. Yeah, well, you won’t catch me being like that kid. No way, I’m done.

Except, that doesn’t happen. I can’t see the 25 riders who scored ahead of me, I just see the one number between my current score and the one that lumps me in the top tier of SSX players. For all practical intents and purposes, being in that bracket means I’m very, very good at the game. And be it Super Smash Bros. or Call of Duty, that’s something that feels great to achieve, if you can achieve it. It’s precisely because your goal is always within reach that SSX never forces you to give in to frustration and annoyance. Instead, you react the way your in-game counterpart might. The 12 million points you just scored on what felt like the run of your life is still a whole 7 million shy of the rider you need to beat in order to hang with the best of the best. 7 million shy. “How on earth is he pulling that off?” It’s not hard to imagine your rider watching video of the opponent, wondering in complete consternation at how the laws of physics have been bent in such impossible ways. Though the scores are ever present, they’re simply representations of more meaningful concepts, and the 7 million points between me and “MrMcPot420” aren’t just points. They’re the five additional super-uber tricks (an actual in-game term, for the record) my opponent was able to squeeze into a three-minute run without racking up a “no flow” penalty, still maintaining a 20x multiplier, and to top it all off, hurtling off of a massive, hard-to-reach jump while performing a signature uber-trick and wingsuiting across the finish line. How do I know he showboated at the end? The game lets you see your opponent’s ghost as you race. Like I said – watching the videotape.

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Being a Better Gamer

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As you make the transition from being completely experience-oriented to completely score-oriented, you’re actually just becoming more self-betterment oriented, which is a great thing for a game to force the player to do. Two hours later, when I replayed Fast Forward for the twentieth time, I hit the hard-to-reach jump and flew across the finish just like my opponent did. I landed hard in a fashion that would shatter all but the strongest kneecaps in real life, and looked at my score. 21 million! An impressive feat. I then did a victory dance. That is, my character in the game did. Or was it me in real life? Does it matter? Or maybe I don’t even remember. The feeling of achievement during such moments is remarkably palpable, and what do you know – it’s all because I beat a high score.

I think games like SSX prove that score-chasing is far from dead. Not only that, but it doesn’t have to refer to 8-bit alien blasting either. The concept of score-chasing actually enhancing immersion by representing one’s ability in a highly skill-based gameplay climate, where said skills are visually represented via the style and panache players bring to each and every encounter and in-game play instance, is one that I feel is highly effective and ought to be explored more. Whether an arcade-style snowboarding simulator will continue to push boundaries in this regard I have no idea, but I’m sure glad I’ve played SSX enough to extract such wild experiences from it.

Fellow enthusiasts will understand completely, but if I seem crazy, why not give this game another go? The console generation is wrapping up, afterall, and EA has yet to confirm a sequel. You may just find yourself screaming at the top of your lungs, completely drowned out by the rush of your snowboard sharply and stylishly ripping through the air around you, your pre-ordered PS4 waiting to be picked up at GameStop days after its release. I’ll admit, that’s probably a huge stretch for most. But I could definitely see it happening to me.

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