Challenge Accepted: What you know you don’t know
There’s an old card game called Mao, and the whole gimmick is that when you teach someone to play, you’re supposed to start off with a simple statement: “The only rule of Mao that I can tell you is this one.” You can be told when you’re breaking a rule, but not what the rules are or even what the objective of the game is. The point is that you have to figure out everything based solely upon inference. There are no explicit ways to find out the rules.
If that sounds infuriating to you, I have some bad news: video games do this all the time. There are whole categories of challenge out there based almost entirely upon keeping information out of player hands until the last possible minute. Sometimes they’re wonderful ways of making the game rely more upon your ability to figure things out and adapt on the fly; at other times, they’re a cheap way to set up artificial bottlenecks that mean nothing as long as you have the information. They’re fake challenges and real ones all wrapped up into one.
For example, Final Fantasy games love having bosses with unpredictable elemental weaknesses ever since Final Fantasy III. A boss uses Barrier Shift and suddenly you don’t know what he’s weak to or what he’ll absorb. This winds up forming a genuine challenge, something that you have to react to and account for as you plan your attacks. That’s obvious genuine difficulty.
The same games, though, will often feature shops that force you to choose between a handful of expensive items when you can only pick one or two. Jump into the dungeon, and what do you know, you’ve found a major upgrade over those expensive items just sitting in a chest a few steps into the dungeon, thereby meaning that you wasted your money and could have picked something else. That’s completely fake difficulty. So what’s the difference?
I once heard a developer opine that the central problem of RPGs was that at a given point in the game, you’d have to choose between a Fire spell and an Ice spell, and only one would be useful in the next dungeon, but you’d never be told which one. The result is a setup that looks like you’re making a choice, and you are, but you’re making a choice deprived of information that’s highly relevant to your situation. I’ve said recently that you always will wind up with some better or worse choices over the course of playing a game; this is one of the ways that games can bait you into making sub-par choices even when you would otherwise know better.
What’s different between the scenarios I described, though, is that in the former case you have options to find out the information you need within the context of the game. A quick spell to scan for weaknesses will tell me what spell I need to start using; by contrast, unless I look at a walkthrough I can’t know that I don’t need to buy a Mythril Sword in this town because there’s a Rune Sword right in the dungeon. In one case, I can account for my lack of information; in the other, I can’t.
That’s not to say that “baiting” players into buying swords they don’t need isn’t still an acceptable tactic, even one with good uses. (Or, you know, things other than swords.) My next playthrough, I’ll know better, and all it really means is that I’ve lost some money which I can easily earn back. Heck, that sword might be swiftly replaced, but it still works as long as it takes me to get its swift replacement. It’s a bit of a dicey way to introduce a challenge, but it’s hardly the worst.
What makes things get really uncomfortable is when you are functionally crippled, irrevocably, by game information that you simply didn’t have beforehand. This is the scourge of the old-school adventure game, where you could miss picking something up and then leave the area… and only find out after a few more hours that you made the game unwinnable. Or, if the game is feeling particularly sadistic, you used an item to solve a puzzle… and thus prevented yourself from using it to solve a later puzzle which could only be solved with that one item.
One of the elements of Choose My Adventure books that a lot of people dislike is that you can have two options with no logical or obvious reasoning where one is more or less right than the other, even though one of them is the “correct” choice and the other isn’t. You’re left with books where you can choose to turn right or left, but turning left gets you eaten by a wolf and turning right gets you a free car. There’s no sense of skill or accomplishment.
When players don’t know the impact of their choices and have no way to discover the impact of those choices without making them, you wind up with frustrating situations. It’s why Mao, as a game, relies entirely upon novelty as you’re guessing at the optimal means of play and the core objectives of the game. It’s what I like to call the coin test – if flipping a coin to make a decision sounds like a reasonable choice, the game has not given you enough information about what you’re supposed to be doing and how to accomplish it.
This doesn’t mean that a game should tell you how to beat it or unlock everything in detail; it means that you should have enough information that you can make reasonable guesses and adapt. In a game where the ability to scan your enemy for weaknesses is freely available and only costs you a turn and you’re likely to have all of the elements needed to hit weaknesses, that Barrier Shift stuff makes for a fair challenge. But if you can only scan or hit weaknesses with very specific setups and have no other reason to bring along that setup… that’s veering into the territory of just not letting you know what you need.
Next time around, let’s expand on this discussion and talk about mechanics which are meant to trick the player, for good or ill. After that, let’s talk about AI, perfect play, and human challenge.