The central goal of Dynetzzle is to trick you a little bit. Even beyond the obvious challenge, there’s the simple fact that you’re dealing with making a six-sided die every time, which has sides that add up to seven. But that just plain sounds wrong. You can’t get a seven from a single six-sided die without a marker and a willingness to vandalize numbered surfaces, after all. It’s a little thing, but it’s just enough to throw you off your stride and force you to remember that the opposite sides always add up to seven.
Assuming you can work around that little mental block, it’s not a hard game. It needs that block in there to trick you, essentially.
If you’re going to look at games as a series of decisions to make – which I’ve argued in the past – then you have to provide players with a reason to make those wrong decisions. When you don’t have skill as a barrier (i.e. “I know what I want to do here, but I can’t manage it”), you sort of have to fall back on tricking the player into doing something they shouldn’t.
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.
There are two words that are basically interchangeable when dealing with games: “exploit” and “trick.”
Oh, sure, they’ve got different connotations, but they both boil down to the same thing. There is a spot in this boss room where the boss will never hit but you can keep attacking him. This merchant allows you to resell experience potions as long as you don’t leave the shop interface, but you still gain all of the experience as soon as they enter your inventory. Pause the game on these bosses once an attack hits and the game will keep registering the attack as hitting, so you can unpause in a minute and win.
Pretty much none of these things are intended design elements of a game. They’re broken. Yet they’re also a part of the game, sometimes in a way that can’t be patched out. So why do we call some of them exploits and some of them tricks? How do you factor in these elements of the game that are broken just by kicking the tires?
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.
The most irritating part of playing through Guitar Hero III, for me, were the songs that made it easier to get a Perfect rather than a five-star rating. Since the former relied on you hitting every note while the latter relied on score, there were lower-difficulty songs where the sheer sparsity of notes meant that it was easy to use your star power at the wrong time and wind up without enough points to clear the upper threshold. It made playing a lot more frustrating, because for most of the game the real difficulty was a perfect streak, not getting that star rating.
Back when I discussed difficulty levels, I mentioned that a lot of the stuff used to tweak a game’s difficulty didn’t really alter the fundamental challenge of a game. Sure, you can alter how hard enemies hit and how hard you hit in a lot of games, but that doesn’t necessarily make the game harder. What does make a given game harder or easier than another? That comes down to a series of questions.