Challenge Accepted: How games challenge you
Consider a simple game for a moment. Your objective is to tap a key as fast as you possibly can, let’s say the letter X. Every time you hit the key, your score goes up by one. If you stop hitting the key for five seconds, your game ends. Now let’s consider another equivalent game with a different end condition: if you don’t alternate between X and C, your game ends, although you can take as long as you like between presses.
Both games are functional, both offer a challenge, and both could be dressed up to provide a sense of opposition. (Although sometimes all we need is a Flash interface telling us to hammer on the X key to waste two hours of an idle afternoon.) But this isn’t the same game repeated. There’s a different challenge in both versions. In one, it’s all about speed; in the other, it’s memorization. If you’re going to think about challenge, you have to think about more than just the existence of same and more of the types that can be faced.
Memory challenge: This is the province of bullet-hell shooters, of highly technical racing games, of fighting game combos and special moves. You’re given a great deal of specialized infromation, and what you need to do is internalize it, remember patterns. If a piece of information isn’t intuitive in some away, odds are it’s part of a memorization challenge. Sure, the concept of types in Pokémon is pretty straightforward, but there’s not much intuitive about figuring out whether a Ghost/Steel critter is in a good place when fighting a Dark/Fire one. You just have to memorize the chart.
Games that rely too much upon memory challenges wind up feeling like an ornate game of Simon Says, where you’re not so much playing as you are dancing through the maze laid out by the designers. Relying upon them too little, however, leads to games that don’t require any sort of practice or experience; you can pick up the game and do quite well without having to remember a thing. Flash-based lunch break games tend to be very light on memory challenges, compared to technical racing games and some categories of RPG, which adore them.
Reflex challenge: Reflex challenges are pretty obvious – in their rawest form, they are the dreaded timed events which demand players press X right now to avoid dying. But it’s also a matter of dodging, of timing your attacks, of hammering buttons and moving back and forth. Move Mario to the right and there’s an enemy walking toward you, jump on it before it walks into you and you die. Reflex challenge. You don’t have to memorize these things, you just need to have the coordination to respond to obvious stimuli.
Relying too much on reflex winds up with games that are all about twitch response, leading to a play experience not unlike your older brother pitching every conceivable object at your head while shouting, “Think fast!” Not relying on reflex enough leads to games that remove most sense of immediacy from the procedure, where nothing acts or requires your activity until you interact with them. Old-school RPGs and pretty much every adventure game eschew reflex challenges almost entirely, while arcade-style racing titles and pretty much every action game will happily throw you against them on a regular basis.
Thinking challenge: The boss descends into the center of the room. Sparks begin flying out from beneath its feet. A quick glance reveals four platforms above your head, two ladders, and four water mains that you can break by shooting them. How are you supposed to fight this boss? Congratulations, and welcome to the thinking challenge. It’s a challenge borne out of synthesizing a variety of individual pieces of information into a coherent whole. It’s a puzzle. It’s something that keeps your trigger finger as less important. It’s Aperture Science.
Not putting enough challenge for the brain into a game leads to something that feels dumb, no matter how smart the narrative may be; conversely, a game that relies too heavily upon challenging the brain winds up making you feel dumb for not being able to figure it out. Adventure games, RPGs, and puzzle games all love challenging your ability to think, while most light-hearted games don’t ask you to use a whole lot of your brain to keep bopping along.
Social challenge: It’d be easy to say that this is a challenge category that didn’t exist until the Internet, but it really always existed. Arcade games like side-scrolling brawlers and Gauntlet clones have always been designed to be played not by a single person. Online games have just brought the social challenge to an entirely new category, giving that many more ways to challenge not just your button-pushing skills but your ability to coordinate other people doing the same.
Because that’s what social challenges are, challenges of social engineering. You could be the best player ever to stand in front of an arcade cabinet, but if your three friends are busy punching one another and stealing health pickups, you’re not going to get very far in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s not enough to get to the gate of the raid in World of Warcraft, you need a bunch of other people who are also ready to go. Even if you’re all focused on the goal, the challenge here comes in effectively communicating plans and working as a group.
Unlike the other three categories, social challenges can be almost entirely absent from some games and omnipresent in others. When online games rely heavily on large groups of people, the games are unfavorably compared to being ornate ways of organizing a company softball team, more focused on managing groups of people than actually enjoying the mechanics. Meanwhile, games that don’t push the social component hard enough while still having it can feel like exercises in fruitless design, with no actual motivation for players to interact with one another.
As mentioned above, most games don’t simply pick one sort of challenge and stick with it. I’m expected to memorize a fair bit of the fingering involved with Guitar Hero‘s more intense songs, but I still need the reflexes to play them. Mass Effect tasks me to do quite a bit of thinking and keep my reflexes sharp, along with a few important bits of data to remember. Tetris tasks you with having the reflexes necessary to line up the pieces, but you also need to know how shapes fit together and be able to think a few moves ahead without getting overwhelmed.
That having been said, most games do have one specific challenge that serves as its main gating mechanism. Success or failure in most Mega Man games comes down to how well I can dodge and react; memorizing the stage layout will reduce my odds of dying, knowing how my weapons work will make my choices more useful, but you can clear a game without a single death if you can react well enough. Conversely, reflexes will only bring you so far in Gran Turismo; you need to know the course quite well if you’re going to know how to brake without spinning out.
But what about challenges that aren’t really challenges? Well, that’s the topic of the next column, followed the time after that with a discussion of how challenge is sold to the player and how genre can create a tacit implication of challenge.