Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Broken Controllers: Videogames And Difficulty

Anyone who's played more than a few videogames probably knows the frustration of getting to a difficult part of a game. This brick wall stopping us from progressing takes on many forms: a sudden rise in difficulty, a sense that the game wasn't designed well or is cheating, a new goal that will take too much time and effort for us to overcome...whatever it is, these parts of games are more often than not the point where most gamers give up and move on to something else. I say this based purely on personal experience and the anecdotes of friends, but logically it holds up, doesn't it?? We quit games as kids because they became too hard or we grew bored of them. True, sometimes it is a case of figuring out you don't like something, but I think most gamers are smart enough to "try before they buy" or read reviews to make informed purchasing decisions.

At any rate, I'm not calling for easier games. Instead I think developers need to focus more on letting the difficulty and challenge come in multiplayer aspects of games instead of the single player ones. This is, of course, largely dependent on what type of game it is, and whether it even has multiplayer. But sheer brute difficulty increasingly strikes me as a relic of the arcade lineage of videogames. Games needed to be hard, to have limited 'lives' and cheap enemies, in order to keep people spending money. But nowadays, what's the use of forcing these limitations on players, specifically in single player contexts?? Yes, there is some charm to throwback games that have these elements, but limited lives/continues and even limited saves/places where you can save need to go away. Seriously. I respect people wanting to be challenged by their games, even in single player, but all it takes is the self control to do it. There are many groups and websites dedicated to things like speed runs and single credit challenges of games, so why rely on the developer to do it for you?? If I want to play the same five minutes of game again and again because I keep dying, don't limit me to five chances before I have to start over. If other players want that limit, they can impose it themselves.

I suppose when I talk about wanting most of the challenge and difficulty in a game to come in the multiplayer, I'm primarily thinking of games like Call Of Duty. Since AI in games is still very limited and always comes off as, err, artificial and machine-like, you end up with a single player experience that ranges from way too easy to infuriatingly hard. Trying to play popular shooters like Halo and Call Of Duty doesn't really present one with a true challenge on the higher difficulties if the AI gains god-like aim, speed, and the ability to take far more bullets. This is more masochism than difficulty. On the other hand, there's Portal. This is a great example of a game that got escalating challenges right. Anytime I got stuck or frustrated, it was always due to some inability or lack of perception on my part. True, Portal isn't as twitch based as the shooters mentioned previously, but still. Just making the AI enemies tougher misses the point. Higher difficulties should offer new and different challenges and not merely more/tougher versions of what's already on the 'normal' or 'easy' settings.

Anyway, difficulty will come in multiplayer. I don't believe that AI will ever catch up to the best human players, let alone be able to mimic the foibles and play styles of the kind of people you'll run into online. This is both the best and worst thing about Call Of Duty, because you usually run into people who are so ridiculously good at it you may as well quit and play a different game. They will make you very, very angry, but they will also give you a chance to see what you're going to have to learn to do in order to be as good as them. Conversely, you may just try to have a good time and, while still bitching to your friends on voice chat, manage to have a somewhat good time. Because it's actual human people who've earned their skills and items and not just AI enemies that cheat and have access to resources and omniscience that you don't. It may feel like they're cheating because they're so good, but really you're just angry they have so much free time and patience (or maybe that's monomania and a lack of a life/ambition) where you don't.

Lastly, I want to mention that I don't think games with a strong narrative should ever be hard. Yes, difficulty itself is subjective, and if a game is so easy as to appear to be on auto-pilot (as the last Prince Of Persia was criticized for) then just as many people will hate it as they would if it was too hard. But if your aim is to tell a story or give people an experience, difficulty does you no favors. We often describe novels or movies as "difficult" but this is because of the subject matter and/or the manner in which the narrative is conveyed. It's never because you can't get past page 240 because the Ringwraiths in Lord Of The Rings spam cheap sword slashes or you keep getting the 'game over' screen in Blade Runner because you fail the Voight-Kampff test. Some criticized BioShock for having the vita-chambers that made death impossible, instead making the player fight back to where they died at, but the game was always focused on offering narrative. Offering it, moreover, with not only its plot and characters but its entire world. Why take the player out of the 'experience', then, because they made a mistake or ventured too far?? You don't and shouldn't.

As for the appearance of 'ranking up' systems in games like Call Of Duty, where the people who play the most are rewarded with the best weapons and 'perks' the game has to offer along with their already improving natural skills....well, that's a whole 'nother blog post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeff Tweedy looked like he was in bad shape on Conan tonight. I guess we will see for ourselves soon enough. They played "You Never Know" and wore crazy country/studded suits in weird colors.