Challenge Accepted: First-level hell and the late-game cake
The start of Fallout 2 is pretty terrible if you want to play a diplomatic sort. There’s a reason given, yes, but it’s still unbelievably frustrating. You’re thrown into the deep end of a pit and you have to fight your way out, and despite what you might want to be true, very few giant scorpions can be talked out of stinging you and ripping you to shreds. It’s sort of a hiccup in the game, since otherwise you’re completely free to just talk your way out of lots of problems and recruit followers to shoot stuff on the rare occasions that “talking” isn’t a viable option.
Ideally, a game start easy and gets harder, and in some cases it tapers off again toward the end. But sometimes part of the game just swings wildly, becoming much worse or much easier without any sort of warning. A first-level hell is exactly what it sounds like, a game wherein the first level isn’t just hard to clear but actively harder than most of what you’re dealing with afterward, because the tools that would allow you to deal with the game aren’t in your hands yet.
More often than not, a lot of this comes about as a result of choice.
I’d be lying if I said this is always about choice. Sometimes a level just isn’t designed with the care that it really needs, and it shows. A challenge is made a bit harder than it needs to be, a roadblock is erected, or something that was supposed to slow you up becomes just trivial. There are a couple of late-game levels in Super Mario Bros. 3 that become almost trivially easy if you saved a Frog Suit, to say nothing of the many ground-based levels that become a lot harder if you use one.
But then, that’s a customization issue right there, isn’t it?
In every game, there are optimal choices. A game could feature exactly two skills to upgrade, Lockpicking and Dancing, and there would still be an optimal choice there – if there are only three locks in the game and they all have keys, Dancing is by definition the optimal choice. It’s true no matter how hard the game might try to make everything viable. There will always be better choices, and the optimal method of play is to make all of the best possible choices in quick succession.
A good game also builds in some wiggle room, though. After all, a game with difficulty pegged at making nothing but optimal choices won’t exactly be a fun ride; any mistakes make the game nigh-on impossible. So you can spend a few points in Lockpicking and realize it’s useless, then get through the game just fine with a less-than-maxed Dancing score. The game has to be balanced for someone in the middle of the road.
The problem comes when you hit that hard reality of the game. In a tabletop campaign, you can tailor the game to what the players are good at, but the opening of Fallout 2 will be the same no matter how you build your character. You will be facing a specific challenge every single time. And that first challenge is going to be a lot easier if you make all of the choices necessary to clear that specific challenge, rather than building your character in the abstract.
Environment’s a tricky thing to know ahead of time unless you’re designing the game, but it always has a huge impact in how the game plays. There are character builds that are excellent builds, but completely useless for certain games. I can make a character in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines that works perfectly for a specific style of tabletop campaign, but he’s going to have a horrible time in the actual game, where there aren’t other players to back me up and I have to rely on things other than my wits at times.
Here, of course, is where we get to late-game cake, the point when your opponents can’t even touch you. Three Arcane Warriors and a Rogue in Dragon Age: Origins is a party that takes some time to set up, but once you succeed you are more or less invincible. Again, it comes from the fact that there are some choices that wind up being just plain better than others. In this case, no matter how you play, mages are the most powerful class, and Arcane Warrior allows you to easily offset the drawbacks without significant weakness. Once your choices stack up enough, you’ve more or less won.
In some ways, this is a good thing. It adds in a reward for playing carefully, learning your options, and making the right choices. But in other ways, it actively discourages playing the game past a certain point. Once you’re functionally unable to lose, the challenges of the game become tedious. Rewards are meaningless. All you really need is to finish the game, because it can’t present you with situations that swing out of control any longer.
The only way to avert this, of course, is to remove any sort of ability choices from player hands. There’s no sort of customization choice offered in Super Mario Bros, for instance – you reach the end of the stage and pick up as many power-ups as you can along the way. But that brings its own problems with it, not the least of which being that there’s a certain upward limit of attention for the game.
Best practice is to try and ensure that there are no bad choices without actively choosing to be bad. You have to really strive to make an unworkable build in Mass Effect 3, for example, even though you do face choices that can be sub-optimal. By removing choices that really aren’t and focusing on giving players options that focus more heavily on playstyle rather than raw power, it’s easy enough to flatten the power curve between “untouchable” and “incapable.”
Still, there are choices that sound good but just aren’t as useful in a given environment. Which is the nature of the game, but that’s cold comfort when you’re trying to talk your way through combat with a giant scorpion.
Next time around, I want to talk about exploits and how they factor into how a game plays out in the long run. After that, let’s look at challenges built around holding back relevant information.