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“This game is just unfair! I’m not even sure you can get past this part.”
“What? That bit was easy! There’s no challenge in this game at all.”

Challenge is a tricky term to discuss in video games. We probably all recognise exchanges like the one above, which demonstrate the relative subjectivity of the matter. Balance and difficulty present a complex riddle for game designers.

One of the important factors involved is the “punishment” for failure. Usually the player character will die and be sent back to the last checkpoint. The player then has to replay up to where they were originally.

It’s tempting to say no one likes doing that, but that would be ignoring the fondness for ultra-difficult NES era games and the slightly-more-than-cult following of Demon’s Souls.

But most have probably seen the human reaction when someone watching a game being played loses interest as soon as the player dies and is reset to an earlier position, like you rewound a few minutes of a film they were watching.

There are games like the Fable series and the 2008 Prince of Persia that practically remove the cost of failure altogether. Naturally this was met with a massively mixed reaction. Either it was praised for streamlining the experience or criticised for the casual pussyfication of gaming.

Lego Star Wars (and presumably the further entries of the franchise) did this kind of instant, no-cost respawn too.

They aren’t an invincible god mode. You can still fail. But those that dislike this kind of design say it takes away the consequence of dying and thus the meaning.

But shouldn’t the actual reason for the virtual loss of life be considered the real challenge? Whatever tricky platform, boss or sections that kill the player character. Punishment for death might seem like a totally different matter but it’s become totally conflated with the nature of difficulty.

To be fair, placement of checkpoints can add an extra level of difficulty. Having to replay the ten minutes between the checkpoint and the part that killed you will wear you down and make you more likely to fail again.

But that also leads to infuriation and time-wasting. The gameplay equivalent of headbutting a brick wall. Killing pacing, immersion and probably braincells.

Then again, your character casually shrugging off being murdered and magically jumping back to full health in Fable doesn’t help the immersion either.

It seems that even the illusion of death is important to some players. If Prince of Persia and Fable just put you back one minute of gameplay from when you died, it’s likely that far fewer people would have complained about the lack of challenge.

As for the real challenge, rather than the consequences of not winning – there are design decisions that make general difficulty more approachable and forgiving.
From the classic example of regenerating health, to being able to rewind or slow down time to avoid in-game death. These too were met with mixed reactions.

Then there’s when the difficulty is downright unfair. Be it a massive difficulty spike, a cheap boss in a beat ‘em up or too many enemies being thrown at you. There isn’t really a solution to that occasional how-did-this-happen design oversight.

As for an overall solution? Well, the best mainstream games of recent times, such as Uncharted 2 or Mass Effect 2, have just been having more and more checkpoints (essentially putting them closer together) to minimise retreading and frustration.

But a better idea might be to take advantage of options.

Once again, the beauty of gaming lies in its interactivity. You could make the gap between Easy mode and Hard mode much bigger. Or essentially have tickboxes for certain functions.
If you want the game to restart from the beginning when you die once – that could be an option.
If you want the game to respawn you right before you died, that could be an option.

An option could be an unlimited ability to rewind time to avoid death in action game? Or the total freezing of time before a killing blow so you can always avoid death?

What if a game like Uncharted 2 only let your health get down to the lowest possible point before death? Thus preserving the illusion of danger. But that last bullet or attack would never register a hit on you. Would you even notice?

Then there’s the ability to level up. When an RPG doesn’t use grinding to pad out its length, the option to make your characters stronger is a way of adding adaptive and optional difficulty.
If an RPG is too easy, then you can avoid levelling up and limit yourself by not using magic or items.

I should admit that I fall into the camp that prefers to get through a game without losing a life. I often play on the easiest difficulty available and I see absolutely no reason to give Demon’s Souls a try.

But I think there are ways of giving the best of both worlds to those that like their difficulty and those of us who like to breeze through games. It’s up to creative developers to bridge that gap.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run a marathon and then attempt surgery.

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2 Comments

  1. I like difficult games. But only certain types of games.
    Games that focus heavily on the storyline to the exclusion of everything else need to Be challenging but not frustrating. Randomly dying and having to replay 10 or more minutes of what is usually fighting loads of random monsters on your way to the next plot point will kill it, and I’ll have to put the game down and go back to it in a day or two. It ruins the flow of the game and makes the story seem less interesting.
    In mindless action games, Dead Rising for instance, who cares if you die. Let’s face it, you’re only playing the game to do the same thing over and over, bash in zombie heads, so who really cares if you die and have to replay ten minutes or so, because you’ll just be doing the same thing whether you get to the next area or replay the previous area.
    That said, there are conditions to everything, and it’s too complicated to go into much detail here without rambling more than I already have. >_<

  2. It’s a great idea to make the suggestion of choice for the gamer. Rather than having a game’s difficulty options simply based on how much HP the bad guys have, basing differing difficulty options around the spacing of checkpoints would be much more attractive to me, a gamer who sometimes feels like a classic 8-bit challenge — which is hard to find these days. A casual mode with closely spaced checkpoints, a gamer mode with sparse checkpoints, and a challenging mode where you have to start at the beginning of the level upon death are all preferred choices to me.

    However, the question of how this relates to modern games isn’t quite so easy. Most popular games today are less like games and more interactive stories. And I wonder if the reason people fell out of love with the retro gaming concept of replaying a level from the start — or, heaven forbid, the *entire game* — is because they play for the immersion in the world and its story. People like to feel like they’re in danger in this world, but dying is simply an occasional minor annoyance that just gets in the way.


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