Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Difficulty and narrative

I've recently been laid up with an injury and been unable to sit a computer for more than an hour or so. As a result, I've spent quite a lot of time playing games on my XBox360 rather than modding. Among other gaming, this led me to finish my Mass Effect 2 insanity playthrough. This difficulty level requires a little more patience and skill than lower difficulties, and there were a few segments I had to replay more than once. Now, I have no problem with this, but it did get me thinking about how this difficulty level was affecting the gameplay experience.

If I'm tackling a boss fight a half a dozen, a dozen or even more times in order to defeat them, then I'm getting a great sense of accomplishment from the final success, knowing that my skill is sufficient to overcome the difficulty. The challenge of the battle and the triumph in overcoming that difficulty gives the player that empowering feeling of "Yes, I did it!" The thing I'm not quite so sure about is whether that actually helps the feeling associated with the end of the game and the climax that should come from the completion of the ultimate challenge to bring a game to its conclusion. Having recently finished Gears of War 3 co-op after numerous retries on the final battle, the victory felt both liberating and hollow given my friend and I realised we had come "this close" on a number of previous attempts.

No, this isn't the final boss. No spoilers here.

The issue I found was that it felt like the difficulty was clashing with the narrative of the story. Admittedly, the immediate counter-argument is "l2play n00b", but that's hardly intelligent or helpful. The sad truth is, it's probably accurate and the best solution to the problem. The more focus is given to the story of the game as progress between gameplay segments, the more each failure on the part of the player will "get in the way" and have the potential to negatively impact that part of the experience. Getting meaningful narrative into gameplay itself is extraordinarily difficult, so unless repeated failure is part of the gameplay or narrative mechanics, those gameplay failures translate into the story feeling weaker. Unless the player gets better, they're going to enjoy their achievements of gameplay success more than the story, because that's where all their effort and energy is being expended. Commander Shepard is a galactic hero... who has died several hundred times on the way to the end credits.

Yeah, that's the stuff of legend.

Counter-intuitively, the greatest feeling I got of being an epic hero was when I was getting through segments by the skin of my teeth. Barely surviving tense firefights, especially where I'd done something ridiculously brave and stupid but somehow managed to come out on top, that was the epitome of Commander Shepard's achievements - overcoming insane odds to save the day. Having a difficulty to punish you if you repeatedly do something stupid and incompetent was good, but not something that would bitterly punish every single mistake with near or actual death. I'd suggest that this is why games like Ninja Gaiden and Demons'/Dark Souls don't rely heavily on plot but on gameplay instead. If they did, everyone would go insane from the brutal difficulty, and/or end up ignoring the plot anyway because it would be delivered far too infrequently for most people to actually keep track of it.

The thing is that I love the sense of achievement from beating ridiculously hard games. I'll fight hard to learn how to cope with those tough as nails fights in games, and spend hours of frustration trying to get past that next sequence. While I love an enjoyable romp where I can casually do ridiculous things and still dominate a horde of opponents (this is what makes the repetitive gameplay of Dynasty Warriors so mind-numbingly enjoyable), I'm happy to harden up and go for the tough battles, even if I eventually have to admit defeat. (Curse you Modern Warfare's Mile High Club) Is it possible to have a ridiculously hard gameplay experience that requires countless defeats sit well with narrative? In rare circumstances, it is. Both Planescape: Torment and Braid expect and demand failure in order for you to reach the end goal. These do, however, utilise very unique gameplay and narrative techniques to achieve this goal, ones that can't easily be replicated across different genres and settings.

I remember reading articles about people playing Dragon Age who felt they had to drop the difficulty to "easy" in order to gain enjoyment out of the game, because they found the fights too challenging for their party. This led to them feeling stupid and not enjoying the game because they were there for the story and their constant defeats were getting in the way. There was also the tale of another DAO modder who stopped playing The Witcher 2 because of similar difficulty woes. Such difficulty is hardly the way to get players involved in the complex setting, characters and plots of a story driven game.

L.A. Noire even went so far as to offer the potential for players to skip action sequences altogether if they failed repeatedly. Unfortunately, many players took this as a severe slap in the face, as though the designers/developers were telling them: "Sorry, you're really bad at this. Let's just pretend that you succeeded, shall we?" Many then spent persevered until they finally succeeded, just so they could have the pride of saying "I did it!" What if, instead, the game had just invisibly dropped the difficulty to allow the player to succeed? Then they'd have the feeling of accomplishment without feeling insulted beforehand. Or did perhaps proving that they were good enough make that pain worth it? That's a question I can't answer.


  1. Even Jesus had to respawn at least once :P

  2. Congrats on finishing the 'Insanity' playthrough of ME2. Nothing like that achievement popping up to inspire a sense of accomplishment.