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Challenge & risk/reward


The NZA
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the end is fucking nigh

 

I've been thinking about this since another board's topic on Ultima Online, and how very different it was (for a while) vs most modern MMO's: by allowing the players more freedom, they essentially created a world of several hundred thousand potential serial killers, and you were in constant danger of losing everything. You can see where this was off-putting, and where the carebear mentality has led us to something much more appealing for the masses like the more sterile environments of WoW, but it was interesting reading about the side-effects of this sort've wilde west environment: for all the PKers, there was a void filled by white knights who'd hunt them and defend the hapless noobs like myself back when i gave it a go. Stories of griefing/anti-griefing and assassinations always struck me as more interesting than WoW jokes/events, but then to be fair, seeing Lord British himself get taken out is more interesting than most online game events ive seen.

I don't want to stay on this MMO example too much, as it's a complicated thing as it is, and im told that titles like EVE online try to do stuff like this (albeit poorly) but it does kinda speak to some of what ive seen/played of MMOs that turned me off to the idea: social interaction can be great, but without a strong focus on risk/reward, a lot of it feels just like numbers and a linear scale for me, kinda hollow. i get that making it safer creates (on average) a more enjoyable experience for a greater number of people, but i do feel something is potentially lost here.

 

Another relevant example as far as challenge is with achievements/trophies: many, even the ones ive worked for, are about grinding. Grinding is a time investment that practically anyone with the inclination and open schedule can manage, but there's certain feats - platting Wipeout XL, beating all the challenges in SF IV, etc - that not everyone can do. this had me thinking about challenge, and what we want (or perhaps should want) from it.

 

Demon's Souls is my go-to here because i too found it off-putting for quite a while, as the record shows. Gunsmith was here the other day questioning if part of the hype/love issome esoteric throwback to bad design, but that's an easy assumption to make having not really given it a chance: if the game's guilty of one thing, it's that it goes so far out of its way to not hold your hand, that it gives no indicators to the depth that's present, and unless you're willing to really experiment (or study the demon's souls wiki) it's going to be a bit uphill for you. For me, not having seen enough of what the world/bosses had to offer, i wasn't compelled to invest the time/energy, and i again thank Los for correcting this. As it turns out, the game's difficult at parts, no doubt, but with few exceptions (5-1 and certain huge boss fight camera angles), the game is fair, which is more than can be said for high challenge accomplished by kind've breaking the rules like off-screen rockets in NG2's mater ninja mode.

 

The tension created by having leveled into the several-hundreds and still being able to die for rushing and taking a few wrong hits - then only getting one chance to get my precious souls back - it no doubt made for some controller-throwing moments, but couple this with some of the spirit of taking down Shadow of the Colossus-esque entities, and the sense of accomplishment was so awesome, it can't really be compared to many games ive played this gen where the achievement unlocked for QTE'ing my way through a lackluster final boss fight on hard mode. I began to see some of what i imagine mal takes from Monster Hunter, and games like that: if the world really draws you in, pitting your character against seemingly brutal and hopeless odds isn't cheap (so long as well-designed), it's a challenge to rise to.

 

I'd say this is an experience id like to see more often, but that's not entirely true, as again, i personally have to be compelled to stick with it, and DS is a fine example between its environments and depth, as well as (tying into my prior MMO example) a bit more freedom as to how i want to go about handling the obstacle. But i can't help but vaunt something like this, then kinda shake my head at so many titles that handle harder modes by either level-scaling, enemy spamming or just beefing up their respective stats a bit, so as to take 10 shots to the torso instead of 5.

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Of COURSE games are holding our hands too much. Difficulty modes, Continues? Games hold our hand constantly. It's an important element to ensuring that they are fun.

 

The game that creates a fun challenge is few and far between. A lot of games can be played on hard starting out without any real detriment. Wipeout was a fun challenge, as was Demon's Souls, as was Crescent Pale Mist, a game I haven't discussed before and have no intentions of discussing now. But I don't think a challenge relates immediately to fun or enjoyability. There's a place for more of these types of games, and I'm hoping they make more soon.

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well, let's talk about continues.

modern games often do have much use for a score (beyond perhaps grading/ranking sometimes), and others argue it's pointless to have lives with infinite continues and checkpoints. me, i can quietly celebrate some of this because a lotta games i play, i value not having to watch the same CG's over and over or run through a boring section repeatedly just to insta-die on a QTE or the like, but this has something to do with design i find uninteresting and my own lack of patience/commitment to certain games. ive reached a point where if this keeps happening, i come to terms with not really being interested and play something else.

 

i have lots of fun on games that offer no real challenge, and not nearly as much on games with a challenge that strikes me as unfair (outside of the rules the game seems to present to me) or uninteresting, and i don't wanna contradict myself here: i was just bitching the other day about kinda half-assed platforming in Splatterhouse, and how i'd rather games do that auto-tard "HOLD RIGHT AND X BUTTON TO NOT DIE" jumping in games like Enslaved than try to incorporate elements that they don't seem really interested in bringing.

 

likewise, another potential contradiction here is depth/complexity, an element in some of our favorite titles but its equally off-putting in others. I practically needed a guide to grasp all of FF Tactics (tutorials be damned), but i loved it for it. On the other hand, FF proper titles that require guides to unlock top-tier weapons (or worse yet, story events) are often called cheap here, and im one of the ones doing so. I needed the wiki (and Los, again) to unlock the potential in DS, and i must've used several FAQ's (and some pointers from Bish) to grasp the unkind system Planescape: Torment had. In these examples, i guess you could argue the games could've been done without those things, but id've missed a great deal, and potentially really enjoyed the experience less.

 

...so where does that leave us? i don't necessarily want every title dumbed down, or every element laid out for me in a painfully long intro either. SOTC exists as an example of a beautiful, largely HUD-less game that barely told me shit about how things work, but despite clunky controls/framerate, offered a lot of what im talking about here - there's not a lotta depth/freedom in how you go about taking the colossi down, but the other elements im referencing were there in spades.

 

are we talking different kinds of "fun" here, or are these ideas compatible? to what extent would you rather learn (or worse yet, miss) stuff but be allowed discovery and challenged? again, i only managed to plat DS because even replaying it, it was mostly fun with a few exceptions like flamelurker and those motherfucking cheap tentacle guys in world 3 @#$% i wish i could rez them just to kill them all again

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Unfocused fucker. Start talking about continues, go into flawed game design and overall game complexity. Top it off with "discovery" as a game element, sure, why not. It's not like this is a topic about challenges, risks, and rewards.

 

Continues: These are a function of common game length. Dead Space 2 has a Hard Core mode which only allows you three saves from beginning to end, as well as eliminating all checkpoints. There are people who are complaining about their inability to finish this mode due to it being "unfair," where "losing hours of progress for bullshit reasons" is their main concern. Contrary to that, there's easy, normal, and zealot - modes that have checkpoints and unlimited saves, and NG+ carryover between them all for weapon and armor progress. Zealot is what's expected of a hard mode nowadays - chock fucking full of handholding. Sure, the monsters kill you in one hit but you only go back five minutes. Meanwhile, a mode like Hard Core is bullshit because the monsters don't kill you in three hits, but you fuck up and have to start over from the beginning.

 

Continues, check points, and prolific saving are all hallmarks of the modern game. Mass Effect 2 saves before every big firefight. Prince of Persia saved you from every death, every time. The trophy challenge for that game about not being saved - not wholesale throughout, but no more than one hundred times. That's what I meant when I brought up continues and handholding - people so concerned with moving forward that they grow upset when their lack of ability hinders their ability to progress at a steady and constant rate, and the system designed to cater to them.

 

Flawed Game Design: Enslaved held my hand for platforming, and had easy combat. I started on whatever the hardest difficulty mode was, and it was full examples of bullshit handholding game design. Invisible walls that killed you for deigning to explore, a jump mechanic entirely contingent on mobility, the most linear kinds of puzzles possible. Enslaved was supposed to be a movie, the studios said no, they attached a shit game to a decent story. It's a pity, but it's reality. What you bring up with splatterhouse? That's not challenge, that's bullshit game design. That's creating an element and refusing to fine-tune it, and it's something that needs to disappear from game design as a whole.

 

Complexity: It's not the answer. A refined system is superior to a wide-ranging system every time. MvC3 is streamlining shit. Ally summoning gets its own button, rather than a combination of buttons. That's streamlining, it's progress. And in fairness to tactics, you didn't need a guide to understand the game, you needed a guide to understand every element. It's different than FFXII, where you don't know how to create a unique character because each square's fruits are hidden until purchased, or the fact that some mystical spear is only available if you don't open five random treasure chests somewhere in the world. Making things complicated isn't the way. Making things automatic, like in XIII, isn't the way either. An active system that can be creatively controlled is the ideal balance.

 

Discovery: What the fuck are you trying to say here, man?

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see, you can talk about several related ideas at the same time. ive seen you do it! yeah, im gonna blame you here for my topic being all over the place and not respecting thesis statements.

 

Continues:

 

huh, didnt know that @ Dead Space 2, that's an interesting challenge. it reminds me of Big Boss mode in MGS 2/3 where you not only had to go unnoticed, worse yet you had a single-digit save cap, meaning your mistake could cost you hours of work. fucking hardcore.

im inclined to say that's an interesting medium, but the idea of restarting an entire level - also a staple of demon's souls, and one that's hard to not describe as "punishing" when playing - absolutely hinges a fair/balanced system in place. obviously cant speak on DS2 yet but if certain challenges hinge on things like poor AI (escort missions), poor controls (meteor shooting), etc i can see where it'd feel cheap at points.

 

That's what I meant when I brought up continues and handholding - people so concerned with moving forward that they grow upset when their lack of ability hinders their ability to progress at a steady and constant rate, and the system designed to cater to them.

 

a mod @ GAF insulting replied to this once along the lines of "the game is getting in the way of my cutscenes". this actually made me think for a bit, as being a fan of JRPG/other story-driven genres, ive basically felt this way when dealing with poor combat engines and the pain of redoing certain parts just to move the plot forward, as if i'd really rather be watching a less interactive anime or something. again, trying to blame myself as well as the design here.

 

Flawed Game Design:

What you bring up with splatterhouse? That's not challenge, that's bullshit game design. That's creating an element and refusing to fine-tune it, and it's something that needs to disappear from game design as a whole.

 

preaching to the choir, but we both know why this is: a lot've blame this gen gets put on metacritic/aggregate review score sites for devs/publishers looking for trends. this is how we got so much tacked-on stealth last gen, and so much half-assed multiplayer this one. the other angle is the inclination for design to sort've break up the perceived monotony - and to be honest, in Splatterhouse's example, 2D levels and jumping over chasms were obvious staples in the prior games, but no, its certainly not a pass to force them in without much polish. Contrarily, when DMC1 and Bayonetta both decided towards their endgames to switch genres for one stage, i recall finding both kind've refreshing, where others have hated it.

 

Complexity: It's not the answer. A refined system is superior to a wide-ranging system every time. MvC3 is streamlining shit. Ally summoning gets its own button, rather than a combination of buttons. That's streamlining, it's progress. And in fairness to tactics, you didn't need a guide to understand the game, you needed a guide to understand every element. It's different than FFXII, where you don't know how to create a unique character because each square's fruits are hidden until purchased, or the fact that some mystical spear is only available if you don't open five random treasure chests somewhere in the world. Making things complicated isn't the way. Making things automatic, like in XIII, isn't the way either. An active system that can be creatively controlled is the ideal balance.

 

well, ive also not yet played MvC3 but: does it unbalance the game more than usual? unless the limits on assits are lifted to the point of spamming them, i cant see simplifying it as something bad, but there's pro players in SF IV who say simplifying focus attacks (instead of III's parry system) took a huge element away from the series. now, Mass Effect 2 streamlined inventory and other systems and i thought it was a huge improvement for doing so; im not saying complexity for the sake of it is a good thing, but when you take something like Dragon Age where the PC version was said to be more isometric/allow for more control over your party members (ME2 likewise with kb/m), i think we can agree that's a negative. Refining is an excellent thing that im not at all against, but if its done at the expense of player options/freedom, it's a shame. I've played Fable III for all of an hour or two and a lot of the magic is lost, though this can't entirely be placed on oversimplifying an already simple engine, to be fair.

 

Discovery: What the fuck are you trying to say here, man?

 

well, you mentioned a bit've it back there with Enslaved (newt has pointed to this with Bionic Commando), and ive always hated how invisible walls take you right out of any enveloping/magic it had accomplished by reminding you its a game. inversely, im not saying every title should be a fucking sandbox, but rewarding exploration is something i havnet seen as much this gen.

but by my prior examples, im saying that fighting the colossi in Castlevania: lords of shadow dindt really allow me to decipher how to take the big fucker down, because there's huge arrows telling me what needs to be done. part of SOTC's magic was looking at something a screen or more high, fleeing for my life (and looking at the terrain around me) and trying to put the pieces together - then feeling like an incredible badass when/if it worked.

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Every death I've experienced has been my own fault. I jumped into Zero-G too fast, and I went through what I thought was going to remain an opening but was, in fact, a giant motherfucking fan. I took too long to go through an open portal, so the door closed on my head and chopped it off. Other... things have also happened. Every death is my own fault.

 

That's the problem, though - there are games that are poorly designed, where the deaths are cheap and arguably the fault of the system, and there are games that are adequately or well-designed, and the deaths are the fault of the player. Most players don't fucking own up to their own stupidity. Arguably, I do games more than most other people, but rare is the time I die and I say "what fucking bullshit that thing what happened was." It's almost exclusively "Shit, I fucked up." Demon's Souls required a lot of people to own up, and I think that once you start owning up, you ask what you can do to fix your basic skill set. Good games have systems that players adapt to that make the game easier.

 

Lords of Shadow, you were right - there was only one path up, and you couldn't proceed until you'd attached each weak point in turn. Shadow of the Colossus - you hung on for dear life until you stumbled across where you need to be. But the tools to do what needed to be done? Those were always available. The "Discovery" you mention is, to my mind, a revelation of mechanics that help you identify with the character and their struggle and makes it easier overall.

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