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Erring on the Easy Side

I just came off a review of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.  The consensus?  It’s an artful Shadow of the Colossus or Ico but entirely made for hipsters.  Now, I am far from a hipster—my fast-food diet and appreciation for lesser things keeps at least that moniker at bay—yet I remain a big fan of the game.  More specifically, I’m a frustrated big fan of the game, and I’ll tell you why.

Artful games like those mentioned above, or Flower, or Braid, or any other pressing an emphasis on an experience versus a more layman form of entertainment are to me more vulnerable to criticism.  There’s a certain degree of pretention surrounding games of this order; they attempt to convey a resonating message, feeling, or commentary, or aim to instill the zen-like flow state in the player through story, aesthetics, creative mechanics, or an amalgam of these.  Though what has become more traditional shooter-of-the-week fare can certainly carry with it some of these things, they are never the selling point.  Rather, shooters in particular are sold to be slightly prettier than those of the last batch, or perhaps slightly more innovative.  Artful games’ reason for existing rests heavily upon whichever creative pillar was chosen and pursued, and so when these are jostled or fumbled in design, they are exceedingly noticeable very much to the detriment of the package itself.  Allow me to convey via a recent example with Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP exactly what I mean.

The audiovisual adventure of S&S is, at least for the first session or two, an unmistakeable joy.  The subtleties used to guide and train the player through their first aptly named “session” are remarkably effective (and I’m not referring to the “tap tap” first-time user orientation to the controls, though those are fittingly concise as well).  A barking dog just out of reach against a still backdrop demands an interaction, which guides the user from screen-to-screen without interference.  A slow-moving and startling boss creature punctuating the first session effectively communicates run away rather than engage, and the few battles dashed throughout are, though simple, particularly paced and designed for the audiovisual experience that is decidedly S&S.

It is evident that the first-time user experience was iterated upon quite a bit to make it feel just so.  By the end of the first session in particular, the game feels wonderfully paced and generally seamless.  It is a remarkably fresh experience leaving the player craving more of what can only be described as hand-crafted pockets of expertly rendered interactive storytelling.

But like so many other games, S&S stumbles in the pursuit of more content.  A rich experience though the first bits may be, ambiguity, confusion, and frustration (not to mention the insidious glare that comes with daytime gaming on the iPad and a particularly dark color palette) undoubtedly tears the player out of their amorous relationship with the game by session three.  The rest of the game is thus a battle between falling in and out of sync with the pacing and flow.  Worse, hard-fought zen-like feelings in the player are struck down by casteless irritation: not so much from frustratingly ambiguous directions on how to progress, but in the damned despoilment of an otherwise unhindered, fantastic adventure.

Though the game teaches its mechanics beautifully, by the climactic final moments of the game, chased again by that repugnant 8-bit monster, I died over, and over, and over—completely removing me from the experience and replacing my connection with the game with fruitless frustration.  The solution to the last puzzle was well taught throughout play and clearly within sight.  I’d orient the iPad vertically to enter battle mode just there, and strike!  Yet over and over the device was unresponsive.  Frustrated, I thought to myself did I lose my sword and shield? I backtracked to several other screens looking for something unusual to tap-tap (an experience which is also painfully too prominent—not tap-tapping or backtracking to be sure, but doing so randomly everywhere because so little indication of how to proceed is given).

Just when pacing arguably matters the most—at those triumphant final moments of struggle, allowing the user to complete the experience on the very highest of notes—I was orienting the iPad vertically wrong.  The game recognizes vertical orientation when the Home button is on bottom.  I had been orienting the device with the Home button on top. Immersion broken, pacing destroyed, joyful experience crucified—all warm feelings were replaced with controller-flinging frustration.

Though this was where my frustrations climaxed with the game, it was not the only point.  The Songs of Sworcery sung perhaps once or twice are not irritatingly ambiguous in what is happening, what to do, and how to progress.  More often than not when the player identifies when to use this mechanic, gameplay is reduced to just randomly tap-tapping everything on screen until something happens and the puzzle is “solved.”

I am a frustrated fan of S&S because it is so close to reaching a seamlessly immersive experience, but like so many other games coming this close to perfection, is ruined by what amounts to a poorly designed learning curve, difficulty, and frustration.

That’s not to say there aren’t games out there were difficulty is among the strongest selling points.  Demon Souls, Ninja Gaidan, the Mega Man series, nearly all classic arcade games, hyper-difficulty modes in the God of War and Halo franchises—these are all games, genres, and areas where toughness is championed and worn like a badge of honor.  But it has no place in an artful game about an experience, unless that experience wholly revolves around irritating the player.

It’s a delicate subject to be sure.  An artful game like Braid or LIMBO revolves around stumping the user in deviously clever puzzles.  Perhaps there are points where they may be at fault for blocking forward momentum too.  Personally, LIMBO is about as close to perfection for what you get in that package as I can think of in recent memory (check out my review at www.huftopia.com for why).  Braid was wonderful for a whole slew of reasons as well which I don’t have time for here.  Both, and most those games listed in this article, have room for cleverly designed dynamic difficulty systems.

According to wikipedia, dynamic game difficulty balancing is

the process of automatically changing parameters, scenarios and behaviors in a video game in real-time, based on the player’s ability, in order to avoid them becoming bored (if the game is too easy) or frustrated (if it is too hard).

Sounds positively sexual, doesn’t it?  Almost too good to be true?  The truth is, there are loads of examples, both good and bad, of games utilizing systems like this.  Josh Tolentino at Giant Bomb writes here about many of them.  He points to the very best designed systems as those the player doesn’t even notice, and I couldn’t agree more.  Like health caches in Half-Life 2 which spawn amounts of health based on how much health the player has.  Or a combination of auto-aim help and enemy health adjustment in Max Payne based on how accurate the player is firing.

The most obvious examples in the other direction—poorly, or shallowly designed dynamic difficulty systems—is found prominently in the rubberbanding AI of racing games.  Everything from Mario Kart, to Need for Speed, and Motorstorm carry this functionality, where opponent AI racers drive faster or slower based on how far ahead or behind the player is.  Mario Kart notoriously gives last-place players a significantly higher chance of picking up the most powerful items, often changing the tide of the race in a single power-up.  Or, check out my review of Motorstorm: Pacific Rift to glean how winning tough races means not ever going too fast.  In a racing game.

Unfortunately, poorly designed dynamic difficulty systems are far more prevalent, and not only in the racing genre.  Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is notorious for the enemies and dungeons which scale as the player levels.  Here the designers rendered their game nigh unplayable for players who don’t pick and stress at least a couple battle-related aspects to their character (and when not choosing a battle-ready avatar is entirely too possible).  The new trend by Nintendo is also an understandable, though uninspired system: allowing the computer to beat a level for the player when the player become stuck (triggered by dying umpteen times in a row).  This “Super Guide” system can be seen in Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mario Galaxy 2, and Donkey Kong Country Returns and is at the very least a step in the right direction.

The point of all this is, games like S&S come so close to the quintessence of interactive storytelling, but fall just short from an entirely remediable reason.  Experience though they may be, games are also games, meant to entertain and encourage continued play.  Where the industry average game completion rate sits at around 20 to 25%—and the you-can’t-lose Heavy Rain blowing these numbers out of the water with 72%—developers need to stop thinking about punishing the wrong behaviors.  Rather, designers need to think of ways to channel and direct player energies within a constantly changing system.  Of all the games heretofore mentioned, I’d argue Flower comes closest to reaching that unattainable ideal of getting the player into a flow state and keeping them there the longest.  And akin to Heavy Rain, that’s another game where you just can’t lose.

 

One comment

  1. good points, I am a major thatgamecompany fan and I've read quite a few interviews conducted with their staff. Flower's difficulty was a critical balance. During testing, any time some one vocalized frustration with cussing, the thing in the game that caused the reaction was removed.

    The iterative game design process is truly wonderful. Just gotta stick with it.

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