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The Tyranny of Challenge

Like most middle-aged gamers, I cut my teeth in the noisy, garish world of coin-op arcades. When each play costs anew, game designers and manufacturers had a vested interest in making them tough. Not too tough to put off potential gamers, but enough to require repeated coins pumped through the slot.

It was a delicate balancing act but we lapped it up, living for those sweaty moments of exquisite agony where new and unexpected situations taxed your muscle memory and you twitched instinctively over the joystick. Trying desperately to keep that personalised bunch of mindless pixels on the screen burning brightly for one second longer, fired with the knowledge that pocket change isn’t that easy to come by when you’re a teenager.

The same ethic of toughness pervaded the early home computer games. Partly it was inherited from the coin-op world, and partly it was down to technical constraints. But neither lasted. As early as the end of the 8-bit era there were games where progress could be saved, where the focus was more on brave exploration or engrossing story or cunning conundrums than it was on mastering movement patterns.

At a stroke this should have altered forever the culture of difficulty. Where is the value in setting up artificial barriers to progress when they can be overcome eventually with the repetition of saving and reloading? Anyone could master anything with no more skill than a reserve or patience, or obsession. And yet difficulty not only remained a shibboleth of game design, it remains celebrated now.

For evidence, look at the number of titles that hobby gamers repeatedly celebrate and marvel over from the most recent console iteration which are feted for their extreme levels of difficulty, such as Dark Souls and others. Observe the worry about input lag on modern TVs, and how microsecond differences can make difficult games unplayable. Look at the exhortations you see in columns and articles everywhere to play games on their most punishing settings.

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I first started thinking about this when I saw a fairly heated discussion about the merits of doing just that on Max Payne 3. There was a minority of dissenting opinion that the best way to experience the game was to actually do the exact opposite, make it as easy to play as possible, and just sit back and enjoy the story and those cool bullet-time visuals. And I thought, why not? What’s wrong with just loving a game because its immersive and clever, treating it more like an interactive film than a traditional game experience?

I was reminded of that train of thought recently, playing Dear Esther for the first time. It’s an odd thing which defies easy classification, and I admired to hugely for its inventiveness and artistry, probably more than I enjoyed actually playing it. But it has no difficulty whatsoever, beyond the demands that piecing together the intentionally fragmentary, incomplete story places on the player. It may not even be a game.

But whatever it is, it wouldn’t work anywhere other than on a computer. I was dumbfounded to read that some of its critics felt it would have worked better than a film. How would a film incorporate the elements of exploration that reward the player with more clues on Dear Esther’s tantalisingly incomplete characters and plot? How would it randomise the monologue to ensure repeat value and different interpretations on each analysis? How would it draw the viewer into the central driving seat of the experience? It is fundamentally a digital experience, and must remain so to preserve its value.

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But on consideration, its astonishing that it took so long for something like Dear Esther to exist. The ways in which it leverages the medium to create an absorbing yet highly creative and aesthetic experience seems obvious after the fact. And it’s not like artists haven’t tried using games to make important, interesting statements before although the results have been far more art than game, worthy of analysis rather than play. Why did no-one create a playable art-game hybrid like Dear Esther earlier?

Some of the blame rests with the deservedly dreadful reputation that the term “interactive movie” garnered early in its life. Games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace might have looked very pretty by the standards of their time but they were clunky, linear things with little replay value and the bad smell they left after their initial vast hype is only now beginning to dissipate. Recent titles like Dear Esther and Heavy Rain leave me wondering what that amorphous combination of film and computing could have managed in the intervening years were it not for the long shadow of the laser disc.

But mostly I suspect that the lack of progress in this space is due to the worship of difficulty on the part of game designers everywhere. The people in the driving seat of game releases have, up until very recently, been my generation, that same generation who had an association between challenge and gaming seared onto their developing adolescent brains from hours of coin-op play. To people raised on that cultured that celebrated challenge as the be-all and end-all of games, the idea of something sedate, easy, to be consumed and appreciated for reasons other than its difficulty is anathema.

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The same people are doing a lot of work on mobile and tablets. They’re responsible for games like Super Hexagon, a game of such intense difficulty that progress for most players is measured in terms of seconds, not even minutes. But the interesting thing about this is that in many ways mobile gaming is a return to the early days on coin-ops because both formats have an inherent interest in keeping games short, albeit for very different reasons.

As a result high challenge games work exceptionally well on mobile. And as the format eats further and further into console and PC gaming it’s worth remembering that while difficult games have value, they don’t entirely play to the strengths of those platforms, which is rendering long, compelling, media-rich experiences.

This isn’t about bashing difficult games on consoles. When they’re built around the concept of their challenge, cunningly designed as Dark Souls is to make it a central feature of their game on top of which other involving aspects of play can be assembled, they can be superb. But the continued existence of fake barrier erected in many other games can simply lead to repetition. Don’t be phased. Enjoy games on whatever difficulty settings appeal to you most. And hope that now a new generation of developers is leaving the old god of challenge for mobile, where it properly belongs, we’ll see a whole lot more experimentation and innovation in the next hardware generation.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

5 thoughts to “The Tyranny of Challenge”

  1. I typically play games on their “Normal” difficulty on the logic that that’s where the developer will have put the most effort into proper balancing. There are a few I feel pretty strongly about playing on tougher settings, though: the Mass Effect, Gears of War, and Halo games are all so toothless on their default settings, most of the game mechanics are completely superfluous.

    Biotic synergies and fancy powerups don’t mean anything when you can beat down every foe by holding down the fire button. That’s my metric for picking a difficulty setting: the balance where the tactics at my disposal are serving their intended purposes.

    1. Agreed, but I’m also all for the concept of variable difficulty settings for all aspects of a game. In a game like Halo or Mass Effect, that means weaker enemies that don’t require advanced tactics or abilities. Does it negate some of the design of the game? Sure, but for people who want that, they really just want to get through the action part to see the next story bit or whatever is driving them. If they really wanted a challenge in the combat, they’d turn the difficulty up. This gets really intriguing when you get into the realms of platformers and something like, say, a Zelda game. In a platformer, difficulty can be adjusted by positioning and amount of enemies (not unlike an action or FPS game), but also by increasing or decreasing the amount of navigational help present.

      You know what game did this really well? Mega Man 10. MM9 was notable not only for the series return to 8-bit form, but also the difficulty that came with it. Lots of people never finished it. MM10’s easy mode not only dropped the amount of damage done by enemies and bosses drastically, but also added extra floating platforms over pits and spikes to assist the player in the navigation part as well. This was a really good idea, and I’m still waiting for the Mario game with a difficulty selection. I’d turn that sucker all the way up, because I love a platforming challenge, but there’s no reason people shouldn’t see all of that content that they paid for and that the artists spent so much time working on.

      I’d love to see this at work in a game with puzzles like Zelda as well. On a basic level, maybe the individual puzzles themselves are just more difficult, and there are more enemies present and they hit harder. If you want to get more creative, you could end up with something along the lines of the Ocarina of Time Master Quest! You actually take a different path through the dungeon, with different locked doors and more fiendish puzzles to solve. This is more work on the designers part, yes, but it would make for a much more accessible experience for everybody involved.

      1. I always liked that approach of increasing difficulty: changing the game mechanics themselves to increase/change the challenge level. Kind of like how in Goldeneye, you had different objectives that were harder to complete at higher difficulties, or in Curse of Monkey Island where there was a Hard Mode that changed and/or created new puzzles.

        It actually added a reason to replay a game at higher difficulty levels (rather than it just being a golly-gee-I’m-awesome-at-this-game thing) as you faced a whole different series of challenges on your second playthrough.

        I can see why this isn’t common though; it must be hell on the designers.

        1. Yeah, another game that did something similar to Goldeneye was the first two Thief games. You got additional objectives to fulfill, and it even opened more areas in the level on the harder difficulties. That’s excellent difficulty scaling, and it gives you a reason to replay it on a harder difficulty besides just “enemies hit harder”.

  2. For some reason I really like the old way of doing things. My roommates and I had so much fun over the past….two years or so trying to beat Battletoads in Battlemaniacs. When one of us finally accomplished that goal, it was incredibly satisfying and momentous.

    There really is something lost when you can simply save, reload, retry. I realize that most games are too long nowadays to instigate “perma-death” but it is something I would like to see more of, or at least a one save file type thing they did with Dead Rising where they prevent you from retrying. There is no experience that compares to getting that perfect run.

    In terms of story, it really takes me out of the experience because that death or failure is not part of the story, you’re supposed to succeed and the game forces you to continually retry until you fit their narrative. There should be more games where at these points in the game they find a way to allow you to succeed or fail, but progress the story regardless. Do this thru multiple endings or whatever, but make each attempt mean something. It really takes away from the accomplishment you feel when you do beat a difficult section, because hey, anyone can do it given enough attempts to focus on the same section. Then you move on and focus on the next section, forgetting everything about the one you just passed. I want to feel like I’ve beat the game, not just gotten through the game.

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