Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Penalty For Death - Difficulty & Death in Games

Difficulty has changed a lot since the early days of electronic gaming. Back then most games were brutally hard, probably since they were born on arcade machines designed to destroy your quarters in a relatively small amount of time. Failure in most games comes in the form of death, and in the past we were dying a lot. Now we have games where you literally can't die. At some point publishers probably realized that there's no need to torture the player with heinous difficulty since you've already dropped $50 or $60 on the title, and that all they need to do is make sure you feel like you got their money's worth so that you'll buy the inevitable string of sequels. Make a game too hard and it's likely that your audience probably won't even finish it, let alone buy the next one. Games do need to have some kind of challenge though, otherwise they don't feel satisfying. Where should developers draw the line, and how do you punish failure and keep the player coming back for more at the same time?

Demon's Souls is a pretty good recent poster boy for gratuitous difficulty. Its reputation as a game for the truly hardcore and the legacy of previous From Software titles like King's Field were able to garner enough sales to see a sequel announced, much to the joy of mashocists everywhere. This was a game that innovated by making death matter in an era where save games and frequent checkpoints have all but eliminated its relevance. You could spend 45 minutes navigating the dark corridors of the game's world only to get struck down in mere seconds by a tentacle faced-wizard, losing your night's progress. You heard his bell chiming in the distance before you even saw him, and then at the critical moment the trajectory of your dodge maneuver is slightly off and you're paralyzed by his ranged attack, left to watch helplessly as he comes to devour the contents of your skull. This is the sort of thing that happens in Demon's Souls the time, and for some it was too much but for many it was just what the doctor ordered. The possibility of succeeding against a machine so expertly designed to destroy you was motivation enough to keep throwing yourself back into its gears.

Super Meat Boy, on the other hand, is a game that managed to be incredibly difficult without having any penalty for death whatsoever. Playing the later levels of SMB for even a few minutes means you will die countless times, and after each death you will be ready to attempt the stage again within half a second. An errant jump that sends you into one of the game's many spinning buzz saws doesn't send you back to some loading screen, or cost you a life, or penalize you in any way really. When you're going to fail thousands of times, this is an inspired design choice. It's not all plummeting into lava and getting disintegrated by lasers though. Between all of the death and frustration there is the moment of exhilaration when you discover that the path to victory you thought was just a naive fantasy is actually possible. The carrot can barely be seen dangling over the horizon, but it is within your reach if you're willing to try for it. You may have to try many, many times, but when the consequence of failure is so minimal why shouldn't you?

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