Challenge Accepted: When good trouble goes bad

Here's a hint, it's going to hit the player in a second.

The first time you see these, you understand their attack patterns. The other way around, it would kind of be for crap.

If you’ve played Megaman 2, you know about the disappearing block segments.  It starts as a simple jumping puzzle and gets more dangerous as time goes by – blocks fade in, then fade out after a second or two, forcing the player to jump from one vanishing block to the next, a masterpiece of careful timing and understanding the patterns.  But the game didn’t stop there.  Several of your “weapons” allowed you to make platforms which moved in unique ways.  The result was that even though the segment was tricky, if you had too much trouble with it, you could bypass it.  You’d have less energy on those tools if you needed them again and had to choose the right tools carefully, but there were other options.

By contrast, when the blocks reappeared in a couple of the more recent games in the Megaman X series, you didn’t have access to those extra abilities.  As a result, the challenge became much harder and – really – a lot less fun.  You either did it perfectly or you had no alternative.  In Megaman 4, meanwhile, the platforming elements in many stages were so easy to bypass you could basically ignore them altogether.  They took a good core challenge and wound up making it not nearly as much fun any longer.

A good challenge is hard to find.  It’s pretty easy for one to fall down.

One of the first columns I wrote in this particular series is about the way that games can challenge us, but even without veering into the territory of fake difficulty or not-actually-difficulty (which I need a better term for) you can see that it’s possible for these challenges to go off the rails.  Games based heavily on memorization can require so much stored knowledge that you’re failing and trying over and over rather than really playing.  Those too focused on reflexes turn into a game of slapjack against an automated press.  Too much thinking and you’re mostly engaged in a battle of wits with a designer who isn’t present.

But it’s also possible to have wholly different issues.  A reflex challenge can be perfectly tuned for a specific sort of controller, but becomes miserable when performed via any other interface.  Thought challenges can rely on information that’s either mistranslated or gets mixed in with gossip to create a puzzle which players can’t reliably solve.  Memorization could be so precise that if you start memorizing and only find out you’re wrong halfway through, you have to start all over again.

Not that I'm bitter.

The game could be programmed with reliance upon ancient hardware that means you can’t actually play it functionally on your more modern machine, even though you can get past the ancient and kind of horrid graphics.

Not to mention that all of these things can be suddenly undone by flipping the challenge of the prior game in another direction.  Enjoying this thought-and-memory-heavy RPG?  Welcome to the mandatory reflex section!  It’s the equivalent of stopping a Contra game midway to ask you a riddle about Shakespeare – perfectly valid challenge, but kind of a brick wall to the run-forward-and-shoot-things model that the game had been exploring up to that point.

These things aren’t quite fake difficulty so much as they just derail the challenge.  They skew the challenge of the game in such a way that it weakens the game as a whole, sometimes ruining the end of the game altogether.  So why does it happen?

Sometimes it’s a result of not being sure what sort of game is being made.  A franchise that brings back an old challenge in a much easier or more difficult format can often speak to a fundamental disconnect in the target audience.  Developers might make something easier on the basis of not alienating new players (despite the fact that players were able to handle the challenge in its original form) or more difficult to challenge veteran fans (without understanding how many fans worked around the original rather than through it).  It can also be a result of trying to tweak a challenge that doesn’t have much granularity.  Those disappearing blocks can be made to last longer or shorter, but there aren’t many ways to alter the core concept, and the original timing was pretty firmly balanced.

Other times, it’s a consequence of swapping formats and not considering what that means for an attempted homage.  Final Fantasy I‘s remakes bring in bosses, items, and mechanics from later games, but into an environment not intended to support those changes; it’s hard to appreciate the amount of challenge inherent in early versions of the game when Phoenix Downs are readily accessible from the start and work in battle.  Megaman X5 has several fights meant as homages to the original games, but the huge shift in mechanics and abilities between the original series and the X franchise mean that several bits are trivial and several more are brutal.

Not bad enough to stop, but... kind of bad, still.

“Oh, wow, you brought more than one Warrior here? Wow. I kind of feel bad about what I’m about to do do you.”

Last but not least, sometimes it comes down to not fully considering the implications of character abilities.  Dragon Age: Origins was meant to be a fairly difficult game, and it is – if you’re walking around with one mage, one rogue, and two warriors.  If you bust through the game with three mages using the right specializations, it becomes trivially easy to pin enemies down with massive status effects cast from across the map, even at the highest difficulties.  There are some marvelously strategic battles in place that fall apart with the right applications of force, something not adequately considered during testing.

Again – none of these is strictly fake difficulty.  It’s part of the nature of challenging content that there are sometimes holes in what’s perceived as important, blind spots overlooked through development because they were serving other goals.  And like many issues that can crop up, this is kind of an unsolvable problem.

Thing is, all challenges are products of their environments.  If Mega Man could jump like Mario, the disappearing block segments would be trivial.  It’s why most Mario games that have puzzles of the sort go with platforms that quickly vanish once you land, since that winds up posing far more of a challenge to the little plumber.  Challenges only have a narrow window wherein they’re actually challenging, when you’re straining against your limitations but not to the point of frustration.

When you’re not straining or you’re not having fun, the challenge just went sour.

Next time around, I want to talk about meta-challenges, obstacles that exist not because of in-game features but from what swirls around them.  After that, I want to stop talking about all these setbacks and address something rather obvious: what makes for a good challenge?

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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