Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Difficulty Arc: How frustration ruins the gameplay experience

The scenario: You, controller in hands, sitting on the sofa, staring at your television with a mixed expression of frustration and anger. You've hit a point in a game where you can't get any further, you don't want the strategy guide, you don't want to go pull up Gamefaqs. You just want to figure the wretched thing out so you can get on with the game you were enjoying up to this point.

The moment is as simultaneously recognizable and detestable as catching a fleeting glance of an ex at a party. The more you try to figure out how to advance, the less enthusiasm you have. It gets to a point where before you even pick up the controller to try again, you can feel it in your stomach -- a kind of grudge you don't even notice developing until it's in full effect. Before you know it, you don't pick up the game anymore at all.

This frustrating little phenomenon is the Difficulty Arc, a slippery slope where wonderful games can easily lose their footing and fall to their death, never to be played again. That perfect marriage of conflict and reasonable challenge rarely find their balance on the Arc. Only the best games manage to delicately hover there, poised as a hummingbird before a flower fat with pollen.

Let's begin with a little video (because somehow pictoral examples make everything seem a bit more realistic.)

Ah yes, that moment. While it rarely gets that bad, sometimes it happens. Perhaps partially the fault of the gamer in question (that lad seems to have some anger management issues.) Regardless, the issue here to focus on is not the gamer but the game: Envision a well-adjusted young man or woman of about 30, sitting with controller in hand seriously fantasizing taking the disc out of the console and hurling it out the window like a shuriken with murderous intent.

What I'm proposing here is that one of the biggest faults of games today is finding the right spot on the Difficulty Arc -- a space that is neither too hard or too easy. Now, all gamers differ, so they can hardly all be satisfied by the same exact point on the Arc, yes? BioShock is an excellent example of the use of difficulty settings: I would have become extremely frustrated (enough so to deter me from the story) had the hard diffuculty been the average, but thanks to the normal, I was able to enjoy the story first and go back to the hard setting later.

One of the worst failings of bad placement on the Arc is when frustration makes a gamer quit altogether. This often happens with excellent games, which seems to me to be a sorry shame. My personal memory of this moment is with Chrono Cross for the PS1. You can beat the last boss in a straightforward fashion, or you can beat it in a complex way, which nets you the best ending. The latter challenge was so elaborately ridiculous that I gave up after a few tries. The frustration here was more mental than physical -- The equivalent of attempting to find a single paper in stacks of thousands.

The physical form of Difficulty Arc failure is more a matter of personal skill and adaption to a game. For instance, some gamers hated the Myst series, citing the puzzles as ridiculously difficult. Others whipped out their graph paper and mapped out elaborate puzzles with relish. Some games have a reputation for being insanely difficult, such as Ikaruga for the Gamecube. This is hardly a failing on the part of the developers, as the title is intentionally intended to be a tremendous challenge.

Dementium: The Ward presents a more recent form of structural slippage on the Arc. The game allows you to save your progress, but you must begin at the start of the chapter each time you die. Sometimes, this isn't such a big deal. After trekking through the entire level to kill the boss six times only to die when you get there and be whisked back to the start, forced to repeat all the same crap, is just a recipe for frustration. This echoes the NES era, but even most of those titles employed checkpoints, rewarding you for your progress and effort. Dementium is a fantastic title, but it did test my patience and I have to admit to putting it down a lot due to that.

Of course, some gamers will tell you they've never been frustrated enough to quit playing a game because of difficulty level (they're likely lying or androids posing as human beings.) You're not a gamer until you've thrown a controller at the TV and screamed SHITFUCKJESUSHOLYASSCOCK loud enough for your neighbor to hear you and look at you oddly the next time you pass them in the hallway. It's simply a classic rite of passage for the digitally addicted. I actually hit a friend in the face with a flying NES controller while playing Super Mario 3 once ... still feel a bit guilty about that.

This is not a rally to encourage harder games to take a hike. Rather, it's a picture of a consistent issue in gaming today: The balance of challenge and difficulty is a delicate one, and to ensure a title is truly enjoyable, there must be a flow to the gameplay. By interrupting this flow with unnecessary amounts of frustration, you are taking the gamer out of the gameplay experience -- exactly what you don't want to do.

I hope the next gen of gaming stands up to the challenge of making more game conflicts that are less ridiculous and more reason, offer level difficulty selection more often, and keep in mind how difficulty works with or against the immersive quality of the title. As long as I'm wishing for stuff I'd also like a miniature pony, a mint condition Delorean and the ability to teleport at will, but for now I'll settle for a few controller-hurling titles that are still within the boundaries of reason. I will try not to hit anyone in the face with controllers again, although it's likely best if the cursing and screaming begin to just get out of the way.


Matthew Gallant said...

I just had a moment like that playing No More Heroes: I found Shinobu (the rank #8 fight) to be both 10x harder than the boss before her and substantially harder than the boss after her. I sweat my way through it and finally defeated her, but it was a rather frustrating experience on the whole (still love the game though!)

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kadosho said...

DOA 4 - "lessons in patience"
For the longest time, I have had some adjustment with 3D fighters. But with DOA, getting used to the balance of each character is sometimes overwhelming.

With a recent update, everyone has to face Alpha 152 (Kasumi's clone). And that character alone is enough to make anyone take a breather from playing for awhile.

F-ZeroGX "One wrong turn"
Although I've owned my copy of the game for a long while. I have never, ever been able to unlock everything in-game. At best, the better you play, the harder it gets.

I'm thankful I have the game, just wish I could feel more relief in actually getting over my fears. It is one of the toughest games I have ever played.

Sergio said...

Oh god echoes of the nes...jajaja

It’s true what you said; there should be a balance in the difficult of some games.
For example Contra 4 for the ds is a perfect example of how hard and fun a game can be. Is a challenging game filled whit action.

Every level is a great challenge. You just have to beat it.

I recall a game that made me cry one day. The first Ninja Gaiden its a classic in every way, but I must say it is a really hard an frustrating experience, from the enemies in platforms, to the bosses and the fucking birds that are horrible T_T is a roller coaster of fun and pain in the ass. I never finish the first Ninja Gaiden. It’s a mix between love and hate.

Something similar happened to me with UMK3, was just impossible to pass the game without cursing at least once. The best way to experience that game was the 2 on 2 figth whit a buddy just for sweet revenge, bloody sweet revenge.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, funny and insightful. Recently Castlevania Order of Ecclesia on DS has been one such're rolling along nicely, but you know it's going to get tougher, otherwise it would be a walkthrough - and lo and behold the bosses KICK YOUR ASS. Then the levels start to toughen as well. True old school tough platforming. When you figure out the bosses` multifaceted attack patterns, you get immense satisfaction from defeating them. A fantastically fun game, immensely playable, but hard as hell. Mastering it brings immense ego boostige :)