Challenge Accepted: Breaking out of the challenge box
Playing The Secret World was in many ways both satisfying and infuriating. On the one hand, here’s an MMO that genuinely wanted its players to be engaged with puzzles beyond simply clicking on the right answer from a short and obvious list. That’s kind of awesome. On the other hand, the actual puzzles it had were highly reliant upon you scanning through fake websites, assembling clues very vaguely hidden in context, and then producing a synthesized answer. Or, as was far more often the case, looking up the solution online and skipping that whole tedious and unenjoyable aspect.
Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that the game did earnestly try to provide a challenge for its players that stretched beyond the norm. It was trying to challenge players beyond the usual sides of gameplay (which ties into that bit I outlined near the start of this feature) or simple common-knowledge trivia, asking players to flex a different skillset. They’re challenges that rely partly on things you’re not usually asked to do and partly upon the fact that you’re taught there’s a certain way video games play.
The first time I encountered something like this was when I was introduced to the concept of the hopeless boss fight in Mega Man X. Here I was in an arena with a boss, and I needed to kill the boss… except I couldn’t. No matter how well I did while fighting him, I would wind up getting brought down to a sliver of my remaining health and I would need to be rescued. It’s a little thing, and in many ways it’s the anti-challenge, but it runs counter to what you are taught is a basic rule of playing video games, that when you encounter an enemy in a closed arena you are meant to fight and win.
Some enemies are just there to be avoided. Some are there to be beaten by, no matter what you do. And there’s no on-screen indication of which is which, you just have to launch in expecting that any given battle is winnable while knowing full well that not all of them are. Once the “unwinnable battle” thing started to become an outright trope in RPGs, a lot of games subverted it by providing nigh-impossible challenges that can nonetheless be beaten, but the game doesn’t end if you do lose. You think it’s impossible, and so you give up, but you can win after all.
Metal Gear Solid pits you against Psycho Mantis in a fight that’s slow and tedious if you fight him straight… or incredibly easy if you swap the port your controller is plugged into. There are enemies in The World Ends With You that are beaten by closing your DS and putting it in sleep mode. Challenges that don’t really fall into any sort of traditional category and wouldn’t be challenges at all if not for the fact that games have taught you to overlook these things in the past.
And then you have challenges, like The Secret World‘s investigations, that just offer you a very different set of riddles and requirements than what you’d see in a normal game. Star Trek Online presents a daily quest in which a player is tested on their ability to remember dates, names, and places, just like a normal history test. Mass Effect 3 is a single-player game that still gives you an overall state to manage with the multiplayer aspect, asking a player to take on more diverse versions of clearing the game. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was a thinking challenge, but it required a lot of research and knowledge that wasn’t presented inside the game, counter to the assumption that the information you need to solve the puzzle is presented as part of the puzzle.
Unfortunately, going this route is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as I pointed out just now, it has a distinct advantage insofar as it gives players something that they’ve never seen before. Suddenly elements of play or expected parts of the game are blossoming in ways that aren’t expected, and you have to sit up and accept the novelty of being challenged in new ways.
On the other hand? There’s a possibility that the players don’t want to put that effort in.
I’ve seen no shortage of players complaining that video games are still focused relentlessly around combat, and then in the same breath deride games that don’t feature combat as not really having any gameplay. If we’re being generous and assuming that the speaker in question isn’t just trying to be contrary for whatever reason, it illustrates the simple point that most players aren’t actually as interested in these features as they say they are, possibly even as much as they want to be. There are a lot of indie games out there willing to present you with a very different sort of challenge compared to a run-and-gun title, but that means you’re asking for a game like Papers, Please – a brilliant title, to be sure, but not necessarily what people want as much as they think they do.
Even external challenges like screwing with the hardware can be problematic. Sure, it was a neat trick in the X-Men game on the Genesis to force a reset in order to get to the last stage… but it only works on the actual console, and the Nomad can’t handle it. How do you swap controller ports on a PSP playing a Classics version of Metal Gear Solid? Or on the PS3 with only one controller, for that matter?
This is why more games don’t go that route. Because sure, the novelty is great, but if the game stops working when a website goes down or entirely relies on looking up answers that your players don’t feel like looking up, you’re going to run into problems down the line. As many blessings as you can reap, there are no shortage of pitfalls. The tried-and-true methods of doing things become that because, well, they’re tried and true. They work, consistently. Trying something new is great, but it always gets tempered with the knowledge that if it turns out badly, it’s going to have long-term undesirable impacts.
But it’s a fun diversion when it works.
Next time, I want to talk about how games teach players to reach their challenges. The installment after that, I want to talk about spikes and curves and how difficulty can change over time in a game as well as where it should.