Relative Difficulty: The Line Between Challenging and Frustrating
Some time ago, maybe when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I decided to play Call of Duty 2 on the Veteran difficulty setting. It was going to be tough, of that there was no doubt, but the prestige that went with beating the game on the hardest setting was too good to pass up. By the time I reached the nineteenth level, named “The Silo”, it began to dawn on me that no amount of gamer pride would ever be able to compensate for the countless hours that went into the play-through. What did playing this game on the hardest difficulty setting amount to? Nothing more than an endless cycle of hope, shock, and frustration. The level would begin, I’d hit a checkpoint, I’d get shot, start right back from that checkpoint, perhaps get two feet further than the last time, get shot again, start right back from the same checkpoint, and do the same thing over and over again. Tom Cruise had it easy compared to me and the thousands of other gamers who played that level. By my hundred-and-fiftieth attempt, I decided there was no point in continuing my forlorn venture, so I promptly unplugged my Xbox 360, turned to the wall, and punched a hole straight through it. It was the only time in my life that I’ve actually gotten physically violent because of a game.
It should go without saying that any honest gamer appreciates a good challenge. None of us are or ever will be gladiators, space outlaws, or Kung-Fu masters, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hop into a fantasy world and imagine what it’d be like to walk around in their shoes for a couple of hours. It’s a joyful experience, and one that is often timeless. But all too often it seems like video game developers opt to make games difficult in a superficial sense, and not in a way that truly tests the vast range of a player’s skill. I can only speak for myself, but it seems that there would be a lot more intellectual satisfaction derived from a game that challenges a gamer’s ability to think critically rather than a game that challenges their patience.
Let’s return to Call of Duty 2 for a moment. The only difference between the Recruit and Veteran settings is the amount of times you can get shot before you die. Aside from that, the levels, weapon layouts, and game mechanics remain the same. To some that may be a challenge, but it is one that only tests a gamer’s forbearance. Other skills such as dexterity and the capacity for abstract thought go untouched as the player trudges their way through a campaign that makes them want to add some rather unseemly renovations to their room.
The same goes for the Halo franchise. Playing on the Legendary setting isn’t a true test of your wits, it’s just a sophomoric endurance test that wants to see how long you’ll play before you chuck your controller out the window. What’s extra sad about Halo is that the developers offer a means to make the game genuinely difficult, but only as bonus content that exists outside of the actual campaign. The skull system is more or less an Easter-egg hunt that requires the gamer to find hidden skulls throughout the campaign that unlock a variety of challenges upon repeat play-throughs. For example, the Fog skull disables the Motion Tracker on your Heads Up Display (HUD), so you won’t be able to see where your enemies are coming from, while the Famine skull makes ammo much more scarce, so you have to choose your targets carefully and be precise when you go for them. These are challenges that affect your reaction time, your aural and visual senses, and your management skills; in other words, they are actual challenges. But for some reason, Bungie thought that they’d be much more fun as bonus material that has to be unlocked rather than an integral part of the campaign.
As enjoyable as both of these game series are, they commit one of the worst sins that any game can, and that is to provide the illusion of a challenge rather than a substantial one. All games inherently offer the player a stacked deck, but the point of the game is that you figure out the rules and bend them to your favor. And when you are able to learn the ins and outs of the game, you feel a sense of accomplishment when you are finally able to outsmart it. The problem is most modern games end up playing out like an episode of Game of Thrones; you think you’re going to win but then out of nowhere this big, burly Brute with a gravity hammer clobbers you to death. It may make for good TV, but good gameplay it is not.
Having said all that, I do not mean to imply that game developers should get stuck in the similar rut of making games too easy. While Call of Duty and Halo are both games that make games difficult in a rather shallow sense, they are also games that provide incredibly pedestrian experiences when played on easier settings. The big one with these two is the regenerating health mechanic. Now, that isn’t the same as finding health packs to recuperate lost health; that at least provides somewhat of a challenge as you try harder to avoid more difficult engagements and are actively searching the area for aide. Regenerating health automatically returns a player to full strength, so all they need do is duck and cover for a few moments in order to do so. While it may provide players with a few moments of excitement, it doesn’t provide a satisfying challenge for players.
By making players into Wolverine-esque super soldiers, developers place them on a gargantuan pedestal that shields them from any harm or challenge and therefore nullifies any sense of accomplishment. Similar mechanics that give gamers too much of an advantage include infinite inventories (the Metal Gear Solid series, with the exception of MGS 3) and button prompt tutorials (the Arkham series). While it’s important to create a means by which players can overcome the obstacles laid before them, they shouldn’t be placed on a tier where they can simply walk through the game unscathed or unchallenged.
Ultimately, it may be better if developers start to look towards mechanics that make games harder in an intrinsic way rather than an extrinsic way. Rockstar Games is a game developer that is currently offering gamers such challenges. Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, and the Grand Theft Auto series all lack difficulty settings, but that’s because the challenge is one that comes from the players’ ability to figure out a problem rather than one that simply tries their patience.
L.A. Noire was a remarkably fun game because of its intricate facial animations that challenged gamers to decide whether or not their interviewees were telling the truth only by observing their body language and tone of voice. Sure, the feature lacked some polish but for the most part it was a very novel mechanic that required players to watch and listen attentively, think critically, and be fully immersed in the world of the game. Moreover, the gameplay requires players to actively search for clues and other details that will aid them in their investigations. If you mess up an interrogation because you don’t have enough evidence to prove that the person you’re talking to is lying, then that is your fault. It is not as if the game hid the evidence from you, you just failed to acquire all of it. This has the dual purpose of encouraging repeat play-throughs and making gamers try to find a way to beat cases even if they don’t have all the required evidence. Though it did have its flaws, L.A Noire was definitely a step in the right direction in terms of providing gamers with a worthwhile challenge.
Good games offer people a puzzle that needs finishing. Great games offer people a puzzle that they delight in taking the time to finish. As Sir Ken Robinson once said, “When you’re doing something you enjoy, an hour feels like a minute. When you’re doing something you dislike, a minute feels like an hour.” Though his statement applies to more important things in life, one can’t help but judge a video game following that criteria. A player should not be looking at the clock hoping that it’ll turn faster; they should be lost in the game and be happy that they are lost in it. As imaginative and fun as they are, games like Halo and Call of Duty don’t provide the kind of challenge that people want to meet. Instead, those games just sit back and laugh like a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass who wonders with cruel amusement as to why the tiny critters can’t run away fast enough. But it isn’t fair to say that all is lost, and so long as developers strive to make games fun and original, they will be able to offer new challenges for us to face. I just hope they aren’t of the how-many-bullets-can-you-take-before-dying variety; I have enough holes in my wall as it is.
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