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Difficult Games and Narrative

Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Wed, 07 May 2008
Subject: Pickford Bros.

Ste Pickford

I got an email from Mr Kieron Gillen this morning telling me that he'd quoted my blog in an article of his about the demise of difficult games over at The Escapist.

He makes a good point about increased development budgets leading to easier games, as publishers need to reach a wider audience to recoup the costs of more expensive games, but I can't help thinking that he may have missed a bigger point about the influence of narrative. It could be that the rise of narrative in games, which has coincided with the fall of difficulty and challenge, is a more important factor than dev cost.

If you think of games as a challenge then their difficulty is at the heart of what they're about. Tetris or Street Fighter or online Halo are like a sport, and increasing levels of challenge or difficulty make sense. You're testing yourself when you play.

Once you start adding narrative any difficulty becomes problematic, because the nature of narrative means the user wants (or needs) to reach the conclusion.

Narrative in games probably started off in adventure games and RPGs.

Text adventures were certainly a challenge - a series of tests - but if you ever got stuck you could always find out the answer somehow (some text adventures even used to come with little sealed cheat books) and still continue to the end of the story, albeit without completing every puzzle.

RPGs always had the clever and elegant gearing system of 'levels'. If any section of the game was too difficult you just levelled up and it became trivial. Skillful players could complete the game more quickly, at a lower level, and less skilful players would just take longer time and have to grind more. The end of the story was still available to every single player, no matter what their skill level, so long as they could be bothered.

Mess with this formula, and you run into problems. Oblivion levelled up the enemies in the game to match your own level, as they obviously wanted players to be able to play through the multiple story strands in any order they liked, and having different levels of baddies at different points in each storyline would have required the player to be a certain level to beat each mission, and thus force the player to play through the game in pre-set order. So in Oblivion the designers lost the traditional RPG system of levelling up to get past difficult sections, as everything levelled up with you. This created a new problem: some people might not be good enough to beat the game and see the whole story. So they added the slightly clunky idea of a difficulty slider.

I must admit to sliding the difficulty slider right down to a really low position in Oblivion when I first came to a section I couldn't do easily, and 'accidentally' forgetting to put it back for the rest of the game. I had about 70 hours of enjoyment out of the game though, and played every storyline to the end. Would I have enjoyed it more if I kept failing difficult sections and had to play them again? I suspect not - I probably would have given up earlier and not followed the story to the end.

I'm playing GTA4 right now but I'm not very good and shooting / aiming games, so I'm struggling with some of the missions. I think the story is great though, and I want to play it through to the end and see where Niko ends up. The game itself doesn't have any of the traditional mechanisms to help weaker players described above. You need a minimum level of gaming skill to beat the missions and thus follow the narrative to its conclusion.

Is this right? They've made a story - a narrative - that cannot be experienced without gaming skills. If I get stuck on a mission at 50% of the game should I be able to demand to experience the rest of the story, despite my inability to aim a gun? Should I be able to get my money back from the shop if I can't see the end of the story, as I would with a DVD that got stuck half way through?

None of this would matter without narrative. A player would have no grounds to complain if they couldn't get to see the Space Shuttle in Tetris, as that game is purely a measure of skill, but if the player can't get to the end of a story they've been drawn into maybe they have a legitimate complaint?

It's hard to argue that Rockstar have made any kind of mistake with GTA, as the sales say they've got everything as right as it's possible to get. But I can't help feeling that any kind of difficulty is somehow incompatible with a game driven by narrative.


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