Challenge Accepted: Fair’s fair
If you think about it, the whole idea of challenge being fair is kind of strange at face value. Games build unfairness into themselves by design. If your average Mega Man game was fair, the boss would be able to pause the game and use weapons on me to target my weakness. The bosses start out by being unfair by design, at that; they can jump higher, run faster, fire more complex attacks, and so forth. That’s not fair.
Of course, if the boss fights were fair, the game would be kind of boring. Imagine a game where every boss dropped as easily as the player character. It’d be fair, but it wouldn’t be fun.
Fairness is a nebulous concept, but it’s also a really important one when you’re talking about games. We talk about the importance of it over and over, about the difference between games that are really hard to beat but fair compared to those that are just plain cheap. But how relevant is that, really? Are we looking for fairness, or are we just interested in accountability?
The two aren’t different terms to describe the same thing. It’s possible to have a perfectly fair game with zero accountability, but it’s also possible to have a fully accountable game with almost no fairness. It’s even possible to find both games in the same overall franchise.
Mario Party is a completely fair game. In theory, every character on a board has a completely equal chance of winning, even as you approach the end. What the game doesn’t have is accountability. It’s quite possible to be in the lead during a match only to see someone steal all your stars more or less as a result of random chance. There are only a handful of challenges where skill even plays a role; many of them just come down to a roll of the dice, with no decisions to be made other than “I hope I win.” Stepping away from video games, the card game War and a lot of simple board games are similar; your choices don’t matter much in a game of Chutes & Ladders, do they?
By contrast, Super Mario World is a staggeringly unfair game. There are a lot of ways to break parts of the game, ways to bypass huge chunks of levels, secret routes that allow you to opt out of entire levels from start to finish, and so on. There’s a part of the game designed solely to let you get powerful items and then leave, as well as feeding you as many lives as you want. But by and large, the game is very accountable. When you die, it’s not a result of fiat, it’s a result of your reflexes and choices not being up to the challenge. There aren’t a lot of games where you feel as if you lost just for the hell of it. Stepping away from video games again, a lot of miniatures games are unfair, but they’re specifically meant to let you make the choices necessary to win in an unfair environment.
You could argue that this is semantics, that whether it’s fairness or accountability it’s the same principle. But it’s not the same thing, and it ties into why we want accountability. What we’re looking for in a game is a feeling that our success or failure hinges upon our own decisions. We want agency. We ant to feel as if we died in a fair fashion.
More simply, we want to feel like we chose to screw up.
The problem with fairness is that we don’t really want a fair fight, ever. If you’re dueling someone with swords, you’ll make it clear that you want a fair fight right up until it becomes clear that the other guy is stronger, faster, and more talented with a sword. Yes, it’s ethically wrong to cheat, but ask yourself – is you cheating making the fight unfair? Or is the fight already unfair? The better opponent really just wants to make sure the fight isn’t unbalanced against him. He wants to feel accountable.
Ask yourself how many games that you own are games that you’re naturally bad at to begin with. I’m not talking about games that you turn out to be bad at, I’m talking about ones you bought with the knowledge that you’re not good at playing them. I’m guessing it’s a pretty small number. If you’re crap at rhythm games, your wall is not covered in Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band and Elite Beat Agents. I have a lot of RPGs, and a good reason for that is that crunching numbers and formulating ornate builds or strategies comes pretty damn naturally to me.
I think this is why a lot of people who played MMOs for years feel like the current swing toward action combat is explicitly unfair. It’s not that you’re losing accountability, it’s that you’re now accountable for something that you might be bad at. It’s always been unfair, but to paraphrase Calvin & Hobbes, you want it to go back to being unfair in your favor.
I’ve said in the past that part of challenge is how you sell it and how you balance player expectations. If you go into a game expecting to die more than once, you’ll feel better than average if you don’t, even if 75% of the people playing the game have the same results. Accountability is much the same way. We want to be challenged in such a way that we feel as if our actions are the root of our success, not random luck. It’s all about accountability, about being in control of what happens during the game.
The trick of non-frustrating challenge, then, isn’t really about fairness. It’s about creating that feeling of accountability, that no matter how hard the game gets you are ultimately responsible for your own success or failure in the field. Or to put it more simply, it’s not about whether it is fair, it’s about whether it feels fair to us.
Fairness is kind of weird like that.
Feedback is welcome however you choose to leave it, like always. Next time around I want to talk about fake difficulty whilst even offering up some words of praise for the concept, as odd as it might sound. After that, I want to discuss self-imposed challenges and how they aren’t really a solution for an easy game (but they certainly don’t hurt).