As you may be aware, this blog often touches on the topic of gaming difficulty and frustration, and the issue with difficulty being a roadblock that prevents the player from experiencing the whole of what a game has to offer.   However, I should probably clarify that sentiment.   When I talk about being able to explore the entirety of a game’s content, I am generally talking about games where doing so is important in order to get the full experience, narrative-based games especially – if you run up against a difficulty spike in a Mass Effect game, for instance, you miss out on a large part of the story which is the underpinning of the game, an issue you would not have with a game like Minesweeper.   Or, for games without a narrative, you should at least be able to unlock all of the different modes of play (for an example, I recently played some Bejeweled 3, and while I generally do quite poorly at many of the game modes, even at my amateur skill I was able to fairly easily unlock all of the game modes), or for a racing-type game, to be able to have access to all of the tracks to at least play around on in time trial (a good example of this is Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, where unlocking the additional courses is handled based on how long you play the game, rather than how well you do, so that you can eventually unlock just about everything).

There are, however, other games where the entire mechanic of the game is based around simply doing as well as you possibly can before the game-over screen that don’t necessarily work with the model of unlocking everything.   SHMUPs, for example, the scrolling shooters where you’re constantly bombarded by enemy fire, can work with a level-select function (although the most recent on I can think of was Bullet Ex, for really old Mac computers), although given how such games progress in difficulty, warping to the later levels will still only yield scant seconds of gameplay before you’re overwhelmed.   In a situation like this, I would still suggest giving players the option to try all the levels, but having a system like the game Jamestown does make sense, where you can select levels, but the harder ones are locked until you can pass the initial levels with reasonable proficiency.   I’m certainly conflicted by that design, but I can see their point – if you focus on the first levels and gain reasonable proficiency with them, you at least have a chance on the more difficult later levels, and it does counteract another factor in allowing the choice of any level at any time – people complaining about difficulty by jumping into the last level first and then growing frustrated at the difficulty, when they could have jumped into the easier level without issue.   There’s also the issue that with a SHMUP, a lot of the challenge is seeing how far you can get each time, and hoping for a good run where you finally get just a bit further than before, and I can see how jumping to any level can short-circuit that kind of motivation.   Still, I like to explore games as much as I can to see what they have to offer, and I like having the flexibility to jump in and check out all of the game’s environments, even for a few seconds.

(In fact, there’s a similar progression to the track unlocks in the driving game TrackMania – while certain tracks are easier to unlock, in the harder difficulties, even if all the tracks were unlocked, if you did not have the skills to unlock them you would most likely not get much further than the first section of track anyway – and, to be fair, there was always at least one of each set of harder tracks unlocked for you to try your hand against.   Again, though, and this is true with most SHMUPs as well, there’s not much story to tie the tracks together, and you can still see as much of the environment of the game as you want through the easier tracks, or the built-in editor).

Beyond those games, however, is a realm of games where eventual failure is inevitable as an essential part of the game mechanic, or is in fact a major goal of the game.   A good example of the former is pinball, a game where the entire concept is that the ball will eventually, inevitably drain, and your goal is to score as much as you can before that happens – even if you complete everything a table has to offer, it loops around and you can do it over again, until the ball finally drains and you receive your score.   Admittedly, some of the more complex tables, like the later entries in the Pro Pinball series, have some narrative to them, but those tables also allow highly customizable settings that allow you to play for as long as you want, if your main objective is to follow that story.   For most pinball tables, though, the primary goal is the high score, and the fun is in playing the game itself for as long as you can.   In this case, it’s unclear what an unlock or easy mode could achieve – for the most complex story-based tables, it has some use, but I know from experience that playing a table endlessly gets boring quickly, and that the finite nature of pinball means that it is a self-contained experience that can keep you entertained for just long enough while you go for that high score, before it plateaus and starts to feel like a chore.

The second type of game includes roguelikes, such as the recent games Dungeons of Dredmor and The Binding of Isaac, and certain types of platform or puzzle games like VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy.   In all of these games, failure is generally inevitable and sort of the point – Dredmor even congratulates you each time you die.   The notion of these games is a bit different, though.   The roguelikes are generally procedurally generated and quick to play, so each game is a bite-sized experience where you often see something new and unexpected, which then often proceeds to make mincemeat of your character.   Again, though, the fun in the game is in the experience, and the challenge of seeing just how far you can get with what the game gives you on that playthrough.   If you could simply progress through the game without challenge, the games would lose their point, as the overall mechanics are fairly simple, along with the fact that due to the generation, even a complete playthrough would only offer a small bit of what the game has to offer, which you can get with each new game regardless of how far you got on the last one.   I’ve played both, and I’ve enjoyed both quite a lot, despite never having gotten very far in either, because you do get a new experience each time, and all a death means is that you set up a new game and go exploring again with a different setup to see how well it fares.

Similarly, there’s less frustration in something like Super Meat Boy because there’s little penalty for death – die, and you’re ready to make another attempt just about instantaneously.   (Similarly, VVVVVV saves after most puzzles, but you do sometimes have to do a bit too much to get between saves).   In fact, completing a level in Super Meat Boy then gives you a simultaneous replay of all your attempts, showing your entire progression along the way to your successful run.   In this way, even failure is entertainingly rewarded, and it sends the message that the failure is anticipated.   That doesn’t necessarily make the levels less frustrating, but knowing that you’re expected to fail multiple times before you succeed certainly makes you more willing to try multiple iterative attempts before the frustration kicks in.  Additionally, while it is true that there’s not a new, randomly-generated experience to be had each time, games like this are stage-based and generally save after each challenge, meaning that they’re easy to pop into, play a bit, and then pop back out before a lot of frustration sets in – the fun is in each of the individual challenges, and you’re generally not just grinding through them and getting frustrated because they stand between you and the next part of a story you’re involved in.

What I’m trying to get at here is that when I talk about gaming difficulty and frustration, I’m not necessarily saying that I’m against game difficulty in all cases, or that having an easy progression path is even desirable in every single game genre (as, in fact, many of these genres would have a tendency to get boring without their challenge – there’s not much to Super Meat Boy if it’s just one giant series of jumps, and I know from experience playing certain easier pinball games that I’m far more likely to quit from boredom than actually run out of balls).  However, there are certain caveats – if a game has any sort of meaningful story or narrative that is the main focus, I should be able to experience all of it, without running into frustrating, impassible barriers.  Similarly, in games with different tracks or environments, I want to be able to access them all, even if some are technically beyond my skill level – in the aforementioned Bullet Ex, I tried the final level many times from the level select, and managed perhaps a minute of play each time before my ship was obliterated, but I still had fun trying, and I don’t think being locked out of even giving something a try is worthwhile.  And, if it’s a game based primarily on exploration, I want to be able to explore everywhere possible whether or not I can pass some arbitrary mission (an area where the Saints Row series, for example, excels, and one where the GTA series consistently fails).  All that being said, though, I have no beef with difficulty per se, and I do enjoy a challenge when it’s done right.