Critical-Distance’s January Blogs of the Round Table–which, hey! lookit that! I was featured in–was about challenge. A very interesting and divisive feature of game design and criticism. As I’ve argued here and elsewhere in the last handful of months, I think that difficulty is a great way to make a player invested in the game’s events. There’s an overwhelming sense of relief that comes with beating a boss after all your health potions and cure spells are exhausted, or triumph after sneaking over the finish line first after trailing a for a whole race. It’s also a great way to feel empathy for a player character when the player has to pour all of their faculties into a challenge, just like their hero, and the sense of frustration and experimentation and fiero–as Joseph Miller calls it in his own treatment of the subject–holds enormous narrative weight. That said, challenge is a huge barrier in approaching games and anything that keeps people from playing games hurts us all.
In my Medium Difficulty piece, when I referred to challenge, I was not referring to difficulty as a maneuver or a boss that deals lots of damage while having a lot of HP. I was referring to a sense of responsibility the player has over what’s going on in the game. When the player enters a house, they should feel like They got into the house, they should own everything that comes with getting into that house and there should be an implied feeling that the experience of the house was reserved for those that made the effort to explore it. Maybe the house is guarded by a bunch of enemies, maybe there’s a tricky puzzle to unlock the door, maybe the house is hidden at the end of an obscured path. Maybe the house is right out in the open and all the player did was walk through an open door, but so long as they’ve entered on their own terms and experienced it themselves in the way they wanted to than I consider that positive design. It’s an accomplishment; maybe a great one, maybe one barely significant, but it’s an important aspect to engaging with the art form.
And when challenge is restricted to the strength of enemies against the thumb dexterity or systematic familiarity of players, it cuts a lot of would-be players out of the experience. I have a friend who my partner and I have been trying to foist the Mass Effect trilogy on for some time. I maintain that the Mass Effect trilogy is today what Star Trek was for former generations and, for this particular friend, Mass Effect seems almost tailor-made. But because the first two games in the series require successfully completing a lot of gunfights, she’s had a hard time. She’s played games on and off for many years, but she’s not what could be called a hardcore gamer*. Composing a balanced party, controlling the camera, evaluating threats, finding a strategic position, keeping track of ones abilities and knowing when to use them, all while in a firefight feels natural to somebody who’s done that in other games before, but for my friend, it’s just annoying. She learned how to manage it, but it was a continued struggle. Real life interfered and she only ever finished half of the main quest in the first game, and while I haven’t given up hope that she’ll return to it, the mechanical challenges of the game have kept her out of experiencing something she has said she wants to be in on.
In bygone days, she could simply have turned on God mode and carried on with the story with the assumption that Shepard’s armour is super space age (cause, well, it is) and carried on with the story. I’m going to stick with the theme of anecdote and discuss my experiences with RTSes. Age of Empires–particularly the second with The Conquerors expansion–was my game for many years. Like many who played it, it was my ongoing history lesson and I honestly think that delving into it during puberty helped me develop a strong memory for dates (if for little else). And as much as I enjoyed the campaign, I cheated. Typing in a code was the first thing I would do with any mission. Ditto for another of my most loved games, StarCraft and its Brood War expansion. I loved these games and I still do. But I would never have had the opportunity to experience them had they not allowed me to cheat. If I did decide to give an honest go at a level, there was a safety net always available in case I was ever overwhelmed.
I think of my writing on challenge and I wonder how much more invested I would have been in seeing the zerg swarm stopped, or the confederate government overthrown, or Tassadar vindicated if I had struggled for every inch of territory. If I had to carefully consider each move and scramble to make up for every mistake, I probably would have been much more emotionally connected with the factions I was representing. But because the game was, mechanically, out of my reach, I turned on God mode and I at least got to experience some of it. Even if removing the challenge diminished the experience, I was not excluded from it entirely.
If I’m able to play adventure games (another genre that, mechanically, I’m just lost) because I can keep a walkthrough up on my phone right next to the game than why can’t my friend experience the great story of a mediocre shooter with God mode? Challenge is useful and meaningful. Audience participation is a part of the medium and that doesn’t come when the player is handed everything. But when participation starts to demand that the audience be experts in something they’re unfamiliar with it gets a little absurd.
Games are for everybody. If a game can’t be designed without Nintendo-hard enemies or overly elaborate puzzles than add a God-mode and put up a walkthrough. These players might not get the whole experience, but at least they’re still invited.
*I feel like using those two words has made me a disappointment