Recently, the gaming blog Game-ism published an interesting article about balancing challenge and frustration in video games (http://www.game-ism.com/2008/08/19/challenge-vs-frustration/).† While the author comes at the question with a view that is not quite diametrically opposed to mine, he does make an important point, to an extent – a game that lacks any level of challenge or intensity can seem quite boring, especially if you are playing a game specifically in order to feel challenged.

Now, I will admit that for some games, challenge can be a motivating and enjoyable factor – there is a certain thrill and adrenaline rush, to be sure, when you finally beat a difficult part of a game level, a personal triumph of skill.† The problem is, in most cases, that there is an incredibly fine line between just barely triumphing over difficult odds, and slamming your mouse against the wall after an hour of frustration.† Get the difficulty just right, and there’s an interesting challenge to be had — but if you create one difficulty level for all skill levels of gamers, you will get a small subset that are satisfied, while gamers on both sides of that narrow range will be alternately bored or frustrated.

Admittedly, there probably isn’t much point to playing a game that requires no ability at all – if all that’s required of you is to press a single button to watch a cutscene of your character beating the level, you might as well just watch a DVD.† But on the other hand, you also don’t want a gamer reaching a frustration point and junking the game midway through.† I think what it comes down to is this – the player can be challenged, but overall, the player should always keep moving forward.† If the player slams up against a brick wall, you can have all the story and interesting environments in the world, but it’s all for naught if the player can’t enjoy it because they’re stuck repeating one section that, for them, is impossible.

My opinion is probably motivated by my own perceptions of video games, or at least their single-player campaigns.† I tend to see these campaigns as primarily an interactive experience – I play them to experience something new and interesting, and to take a break from reality by way of a virtual one.† For me, a game is often seen as a more interactive form of entertainment – for example, I tend to see a shooter as something akin to an action movie, but better, because I’m not just watching the battle from afar but participating in the thick of it.† Instead of being an observer, I get to be the protagonist, and fight my way to glory. †

But that’s just it – in a movie, the good guys always win.† Sometimes there’s struggle, sometimes there’s strife, but in the end, they win the day – or, at the very least, meet a poignant or interesting end, having been given the opportunity to finish the entire arc of their story.† Imagine, for a second, a movie where the good guys (oh, what the heck, space marines) go up against a tough alien monster, who proceeds to smack them around.† They retreat to their ship, lick their wounds, and rearm, ready to take their dramatic defeat and turn it into a charismatic victory.† And so they return, newly confident and desperate to renew the struggle – and the alien smacks them around again.† They lick their wounds and rearm, only to be foiled again and again.† They can never finish their story, and the movie ends with an endless loop of them fighting the same futile battle over and over again.

Perhaps such a movie would be interesting to those who are fond of experimental philosophy and the futility of the human condition, but any action-movie fan is going to walk out halfway through the film, muttering in disgust.† And that’s the main problem that I find I have with games – I get into the story, I get partway through, and then the immersion has its spine ripped out by mind-crushing difficulty that leaves me stuck in an endless loop of struggle, failure, and repetition.† It’s like psychological experiments into learned helplessness – if you’re always stymied, no matter what you do, you eventually just give up on the whole thing.† Luckily in my case, unlike the rats endlessly exposed to electric shocks, I can end my torment and simply walk away.† When I do, though, it’s with a bad taste in my mouth.† I’ve paid my fare, but my entertainment has been sadistically denied me – although some might say that I simply failed the game, I can’t help but think that it was the game that failed me, that it promised me entertainment and then let me down, cruelly dangling the rest of the story in front of me while always holding it just out of reach.

So, in my view, the player – the protagonist – should never lose, not entirely.† They should never be smacked away to a static screen of defeat, and then whisked back to a save point and made to retread parts of the game that they already completed, the infinite loop of penance for failing to live up to a game’s predetermined standards.† And the sad thing is, with proper game design, the determination between victory and defeat can be used to enhance and expand upon the game’s plot, instead of take away from it – and, regardless of outcome, can continue to move the plot forward.

With platform games which want to tell a story (as opposed to having the puzzle of the levels themselves be the sole focus of the game), the answer can be simple enough, and is exemplified to an extent with some games in the Sonic series – a “high” route full of difficult jumps can get you though the level quickly and with bonuses, whereas if you miss a jump, you can descend to a “low” route that is generally less difficult.† In place of the suggestions I’ve made previously, this multi-level paradigm can be added to allow less-skilled players at least one route where they can always make it through and progress, with accolades and bonuses if you take a higher route – but everyone can still enjoy the experience of making it through the level, and if you try for the higher difficulties and fall a bit short, you can still make it through, instead of effectively being scolded and told to go back and try it all over again.

For other types of games, you can actually make use of such determinations to create a more intricate storyline.† For example, you could have a shooter where you start off as a lone soldier, battling through a difficult commando campaign.† As you fight your way through, if you keep up, you stay hot on the heels of your adversaries, taking a straight and dangerous path to their field headquarters – or, if you become seriously wounded, you are medevaced to a field hospital, and reinserted to a different path, where you fight off their rearguard and pick up their trail again, taking on a less difficult campaign without disrupting the narrative, and allowing the story to continue along a slightly different path, with your character’s “death” a natural part of the storyline, as opposed to an unnatural, narrative-breaking obstacle. †

Ultimately, my point is this:† if a game has a story arc, like a movie, the player naturally wants to experience it from start to finish.† They want to experience the ups and downs, the challenge and the triumph, but they always want to keep moving forward. † When games enable that, they become engaging and fun, and when games artificially block that through poor design choices, they become an exercise in futility and utterly destroy the immersive story that they are trying to tell.† If your game has a story, let the player experience it how they want, and donít put barriers of skill between them and the full experience of the virtual world that youíve created.