Today I’m going to talk to you about the difficulty of games. More specifically I’m going to talk to you about the fairness of difficulty in games, and the point at which we should draw the line between a good challenge and user-friendly game design.
It is not the intention of this editorial to critique and pass judgement on game’s like Devil May Cry 3 or Vagrant Story which make quite legitimate use of difficulty to offer a rewarding challenge, but rather to address games which take a dump on user-friendly game design in order to engender a false sense of difficulty.
None of us should be unfamiliar with excessively difficult games. I would wager that the vast majority of the Lusipurr.com Otaku readership would be intimately familiar with the NES era of gaming; for many of you playing Nintendo’s ugly grey box will have been one of your first formative experiences with gaming, while younger readers have probably at least tried their hand at some NES emulation; the point being readers will be familiar with the difficulty incumbent to poorly designed games. From Contra to Battletoads the NES era was replete with ball-acheingly difficult games; many of which owed their difficulty to unfair or malicious game design, with a small but significant selection which would require the mongloid intuition of an idiot savant to complete without using cheats. The vast majority of us let this slide however; we were kids after all, and similarly the game industry was in its infancy. Lessons have to be learned before they can be taken on board, and thus the eventual gaming success stories had to stand on the shoulders of the INDUSTRY’S numerous failures.
That was then, and this is now. Circa 2011. We have every right to hold games to a loftier standard given the highly competitive nature of the current gaming climate, so now we must ask ourselves; to what extent are we willing to excuse unfair game design? This question does not lend itself to a straightforward answer.
It must be said that one of my biggest pet peeves are the constraints placed on the gamer’s ability to save their progress. The constraints on the saving of game data were likely necessary at one point, but technology has long since progressed beyond the point where a game’s refusal to allow players to save at will can be justified under most circumstances. Picture if you will any JRPG that you have played this generation which featured save points, now realize that their only functional role in games today is based on the game designer’s hope that at some point you will run into an enemy you cannot defeat and have a chunk of your game progress wiped out by being sent back to the game’s nearest arbitrarily designated save point. Or at least in theory this is how it’s intended to work, though as often as not it is life which intervenes, and RL commitments will at some juncture demand your attention, at which point you can either leave your game on pause for protracted periods of time (not recommended for the power hungry modern leviathans of gaming), or you can elect turn your console off, wiping various amounts of progress for any game arrogant and anachronistic enough to utilize a time greedy save-point design in their game.
Save points in modern gaming is a pet peeve of mine, yet more offensive by magnitudes is the willfully obtuse placement of save points so as to create an artificial impediment to progression by denying the gamer access to a save point when they need it most. A prime example of this is Final Fantasy III. I have played very little FFIII myself, yet I have heard profligate accounts of the lengthy final dungeon’s only save point being located at its entrance. Even in normal circumstances most would conclude that this is some profoundly mean-spirited arsehole game design, yet add to that the fact that FFIII is often held to be one of the hardest games in the series, and then you just have yourself a bad game.
But of course Final Fantasy III has no monopoly on purposefully belligerent game designs, one recent game which brought me no joy whatsoever was Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls was a hard game, and that’s OK. I had heard it was difficult, and I was expecting a game of difficult GAMEPLAY. The gameplay itself is challenging but decidedly fair, the game heightens its difficulty by frequently springing surprises on the player, yet this does not manifest in any unavoidable hazard being dropped into the player’s lap. I have no complaints regarding the gameplay de jour of Demon’s Souls, but rather the sticking point for me was the game design which prevented me from spending any of my souls (EXP) until my progression to some arbitrary point in the game that I never reached. Demon’s Souls is a game which goes out of its way to kill you, and yet its designers were so profoundly bastardly that they deny you character upgrade facilities in your initial starting hub. This is why I put down the game. This is why I’ll not by another. It was supposed to be a sadistic game, sure, but this initial roadblock to my progression was just too much. I can only loose my incredibly hard earned EXP so many times before I feel utterly sick to my stomach, and find myself in a foul mood for some hours. Some people will argue that this design decision adds to the old-school charm of the game, but I contend that it’s bad game design.
So far I have only broached instances which I believe to be relatively clear cut in their awful design, yet one other save system design which I am a trifle uncertain about is the use of a deliberately limiting save system in the survival horror era of the Resident Evil series. One is not able to save their games without first possessing a quantity of ink ribbons for the typewriter (save point), and like all commodities in those games they are a finite resource. This essentially means that gamers are only allowed a finite number of saves, somewhere in the order of between fifteen and twenty-five. This would not be a problem in an ideal world where entire days can be devoted to playing the game and saving at appropriate points, yet once again life is rarely so accommodating as to make way for these demanding fucking games.
I am not able to play Resident Evil games as I would other games, it is not really possible to effectively play the games in order to kill a half hour before having to be somewhere, as your limited amount of progression is probably not worth wasting an ink ribbon. There is a huge disincentive to sit-down and play Resident Evil when one has less than two solid hours (at a minimum) to dedicate towards it, this really makes it vastly more difficult to enjoy the games. Allow me to furnish you with an anecdote: several days ago I was playing Resident Evil (GC) and had progressed a little over my twenty or so minutes of play when Lusipurr told me to hop on Skype. This left me with something of a conundrum; do I go to a save point and waste an ink ribbon on a paltry twenty minutes of playtime, or do I just turn off my console and loose my progress. In the end there was only one choice :(.
Like I said before however, the Resident Evil save system is a feature That I am slightly ambiguous about. I dislike it wholeheartedly, I always have and I always will, yet how does one rubbish it in a game which is based almost exclusively around the concept of resource management? On the one hand it doesn’t seem unreasonable to treat saving the same as every other resource in the game, on the other hand a lifetime of gaming has taught me that it is never good game design when a particular feature makes you want to play a game less.
Finally, the survival horror genre is apt to demonstrate another area of ambiguity within game design; namely the fairness of enemy and hazard placement. In the majority of game genres one would expect every impediment to gamer progression to be sportingly crafted, if the player is playing the game right then every hazard should be avoidable. Not so the survival horror genre, which requires the implicit threat of the unexpected in order to maintain a frightening atmosphere. When the player is unexpectedly assailed from behind (don’t be gross!) then they receive a shock, when the player wanders through some high grass only to find themselves caught in a bear trap they receive a shock, these occasions are absolutely integral to maintaining the experience, yet each time they feel a little cheap and unpleasant seeing as it wasn’t a deficiency in our technique which led to us taking damage.
To what extent then is it desirable to have the player blindsided by unfair gameplay elements? Too little and you have a game like the superb Resident Evil 4, which categorically failed at being scary. Too much and you are left with a game that you put down in contempt; I was rather enjoying many elements of Alan Wake, yet its occasional random battle mechanic felt cheap, nasty and amateurish. Then of course you have games like Doom 3 which attempted to utilize cheap-scare monster closets to such an extent that they became banal and farcical. When you find yourself starting to enter rooms backwards because of the tangible gameplay advantage it provides, then that is a clear sign that there are far too enemy spawns placed behind you. Ultimately a game which loads up on assailing players with blindsides may well be harrowing, yet it precludes the player ever getting the full measure of enjoyment from the game’s combat system, and all but ensures their low sense of efficacy as gamers when making their way through the game. As for me, I think my sweetspot is somewhere in the vicinity of Silent Hill 2 and 3. Unique events are good, but they are a distraction from core gameplay.
At this point I should like to solicit reckons, as per usual I don’t know quite where to come down on many of these game design elements. Can the challenge of negotiating inconveniently placed save points ever justify the heavy demands it makes on your time and patience? Should resource conservation games compel players to ration their saves also? How frequently is it advisable or desirable to to burden players with unexpected hazards in order to establish and maintain a game’s atmosphere?