The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 1

When did Game, Set, Watch declare war on difficult videogames?

At the start of September, GSW published a piece by Lewis Pulsipher which argued that gaming’s great failingĀ  is that people actually have to play games in order to enjoy them. If only we could make “play” optional, we’d be as big as the movie industry, a goal whose worth is self-evident to Pulsipher.

Last week, Lewis Denby wrote about his lamentable ineptitude in most games, and how they do not adequately provide for the extreme left tail of the “skill” bell curve.

These two arguments share the belief that games need to stop persuading people that they are not worth the bother, but are otherwise very different. Pulsipher’s argument veers into the realm of absurdity when he quotes from noted videogame expert Roger Ebert’s review of Terminator Salvation: “Movies that resemble video games are often panned by film critics, but recently the well-known critic Roger Ebert said, about the movie Terminator Salvation, ‘It gives you all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it.’ (He gave it three stars out of four, quite a bit better than the Metacritic average — this was not a criticism.)” Pulsipher thinks he has found our Northwest Passage.

There are numerous problems with this assertion, however, not least of which is the fact that Ebert gave Terminator Salvation two stars, not three, and the text of the review is scathing. After describing the dearth of actual characters, and the hopelessly muddled plot, Ebert concludes by saying, “…most of the running time is occupied by action sequences, chase sequences, motorcycle sequences, plow-truck sequences, helicopter sequences, fighter-plane sequences, towering android sequences and fistfights. It gives you all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it.” In context, then, the line that Pulsipher offers on behalf of his argument is revealed to be a damning judgment of an inferior film. Ebert is saying that these empty pleasures, a string of action set pieces devoid of meaning, are the domain of videogames.

To which Pulsipher shouts, “Amen!”

Pulsipher wants games to get the kind of audience that big summer blockbusters enjoy, and thinks the way forward is to eliminate “the bother of having to play.” In other words, we must make videogames enjoyable for people who do not actually enjoy videogames.

Lewis Denby, on the other hand, raises an issue that every gamer has encountered at some point: games often become just too damned hard, either intentionally or through crummy, counterintuitive design. After opening with a description of the archetypal “disastrous adventure game puzzle” (although a better example can be found in Gabriel Knight 3 as told by Erik Wolpaw), Denby has examples of how gruesome difficulty spikes crop up in other genres:

Take the first-person shooter where every door is locked except the one you have to progress through, which isn’t signposted one bit. Or how about the RPG that demands hours of grinding away at repetitive side-quests before you can crack on with the story? There’s always the inevitable section in every platformer in the world where you’ve to precisely leap across tiny stepping stones above a sea of fire, where jumping just an inch too far means restarting the level for the eight hundredth time.

This might have been okay when games were purely about bettering yourself, or bettering other players. But in a climate where the medium is as much about storytelling, atmosphere and immersion as any other factors, it’s a serious issue that needs to be stamped out.

I don’t think anyone is going to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, now, I happen to like my games to be obtuse and sadistically punishing. It just makes my success on the 173rd try all the more meaningful!” Extreme examples of bad design are easily recognized as such, and won’t attract many defenders. So I have no problem agreeing with Denby that this kind of experience has to go.

Nevertheless, I have two problems with his argument. The first is that it is inherently subjective. Videogame difficulty exists on a broad spectrum, and it would be impossible to agree where games should fall. There are too many shades of gray. While there are extreme examples of bad design that no reasonable person could defend, like the “mustache for a moped” puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3, such cases are rare. Denby himself pointed out in a chat via Twitter that what one person would call patenly unfair, another would call a bracing test of skill.

My other objection is that Denby does not really make an effort to separate “fair challenge” from “excessive difficulty.” We can all agree that “excessive difficulty” is a bad thing, but we need to know where and how a game crosses that line. Otherwise we simply admonish developers to “design better games” without offering any direction about how they can do that.

Leigh Alexander suggested during a Twitter debate that we distinguish between “intentional” and “unintentional” difficulty. That would have us discussing the degree to which developers ensure that players are being challenged by only what developer intended to be challenging. Developers would have made a mistake if players get hung up by something that nobody on the development side ever expected would be problematic.

While acknowledging the merits of that approach, I still think it’s important to draw a line between what is challenging as opposed to what is merely difficult. Challenge is why I play games, and why I have never for a second felt that they waste my time. I have no problem with a game that bars my progress until I play with greater skill, or come up with a clever solution to a problem. So long as I feel that I am being forced to improve as the game raises the bar for performance, I am entirely happy to try, try again.

What I cannot stand is a game that demands perfection, endless repetition, and blind flailing until I stumble upon a completely irrational and arbitrary way of advancing. Nor do I think these flaws solely exist in the eye of the beholder. You can recognize where a game ceases to ask for mental or physical improvement and simply bars your progress.

continues with Part 2

  1. Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  2. That is fine by me.

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