[If you're no good at video games, should you be able to enjoy them anyhow? Gamasutra correspondent Lewis Denby looks at why difficult games might be "some elite party to which I'm not invited", and what to do about it.
So you're pointing and clicking your way through a hot new adventure game, if such a thing still exists. You're stuck at a point where a mighty evildoer has rigged the entrance to the next area with all manner of preposterous boobie traps. What do you do?
Do you go to the local arms dealer and trade him some items so he'll explain how to disarm the explosives? Do you search around for a secret door that'll allow you to bypass the traps all together? Of course not. That'd be too easy. Too sensible.
No, what you have to do is take a rubber chicken to the local grave-robber, who'll give you a skeleton in exchange. Then you'll have to break off Mr. Boney's arms and legs, grind them down into a powder to give to a voodoo sorceress, who'll make you a potion as long as you bring her three sprigs of thyme in exchange. After that, you can feed the potion to a cat, who'll immediately vomit up a map of the island on which you reside, marked with an X.
Go to the X and dig - with a magical trowel, naturally, not the ordinary one you've had in your inventory for ages - to uncover a piece of paper with detailed instruction in how to sneak by the traps undetected. Oh - as long as you dress up as a woman.
There was a time when puzzles such as this would have been all the rage. Gamers have always loved a challenge - that's the basis from which the medium is largely constructed. But there's a reason why such obtusely difficult and illogical sections of games are widely hated today.
As games become more and more about the experience, rather than about leaderboards and showing off to your friends, such horrendous difficulty spikes are becoming a real problem. They're making games annoying, frustrating and not at all fun to play.
While the adventure genre is the one that many would point to when it comes to such matters, it's by no means the only area of gaming to suffer from such design idiocy.
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.
The problem with difficulty in games isn't that it's tricky to balance, or that no one will ever be able to please their entire audience. It's that a great deal of games are simply too difficult, no matter how you look at it. Too many developers are failing to understand the very point of their own titles, with releases billed as immersion-driven mood pieces being broken up by vast swathes of obtuse design.
There's nothing at all wrong with highly challenging, fiendishly difficult games. The title I've played more than any other this year is Derek Yu's Spelunky
, a remarkable, procedurally generated platformer that's utterly relentless in its arbitrary slaying of the player. But that's part of its charm. Though there's never the opportunity to save your game, meaning each death deposits you back at the start, the randomised level design means you're never facing the same challenge twice.
And the complete lack of fairness to the rules? Well, that's a rule in itself. From the very first time a missile shoots out of a near-invisible trap in the cave wall, you know Spelunky
's playing with dirty tactics. This is what you're signing up for. So as you progress, and as the game spectacularly evolves, you establish new ways to outsmart it, and promise yourself you won't fall for the same trick next time.
But having to play out the same battle in the next big action blockbuster again and again, never being quite sure why I'm not good enough to progress, is not the same thing. This is at best lazy design; at worst it's a way of artificially lengthening the experience. And all the while, all that detail in the level design, all that beautiful artwork, all those Hollywood-level voice actors... they're all going to waste. All you're focused on is one last attempt at beating that boss, before you slam the controller down in a rage and never return again.
Easy Does It
So I play my games on easy mode, wherever possible. I'm the guy who loved the Vita Chambers in BioShock
, the one who adored the streamlined gameplay of Deus Ex: Invisible War
. I play through most titles without ever having to reach for the load button. Maybe I'll play through a whole game in a single sitting. Perhaps I'm not getting my money's worth out of that. Perhaps I'm just making sure that every second I spend in the game's company is enjoyable and worthwhile.
And maybe I'm simply not very good at games. I never got on with the Thief
titles, much to everyone's absolute dismay. "It'll take you weeks to get good enough to start really enjoying them," someone once told me. Frankly, I don't have the time. I'll invest plenty of time into a game, but only if it's letting me actually have a bit of fun, or get something equally valuable out of the experience.
So let me play Thief
easy mode. That series' difficultly options are famously brilliant, with the tiniest of details adjusting depending on your chosen level of challenge. But it still fails spectacularly when it comes to letting someone like me, tremendously ropey at my sneaking, get the most out of the product I've just paid good money for.
featured dynamic difficulty, where the efficiency of the AI adapted to your own talent at the game. This might be a smart route to go down. Many adventure games are now incorporating advanced, intelligent hints systems, for those times when you're particularly stumped by a madcap puzzle. That's probably a good idea too.
In all honesty, I don't care how the problem's resolved. As long as these games don't remain part of some elite party to which I'm not invited, I'll be happy. I just want to be able to enjoy, soak up and become immersed in any title I choose to play.
[Lewis Denby is general editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for more information and contact details.]