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The pursuit of a challenge can be a driving force in life. The accomplishment of something thought to be unobtainable has a certain allure that some find irresistible.

Game designers tend to play off of this concept, creating challenges that seem insurmountable in the context of the virtual world. Typically, there will be an option for the player to affect the likelihood of beating the odds through difficulty settings.

As a designer, the proper implementation of difficulty, in my opinion, is instituting a learning curve and building from there. Once the player has gleaned knowledge from the game, the designer is free to introduce complex obstacles that utilize this understanding in varying ways.

Approaching the difficulty question from this angle allows designers to create more involving situations during the progression of the game. This concept of “learning in order to succeed” seems to eradicate the necessity of a difficulty option altogether.


Portal is a good example of this idea. Its unique concept of solving puzzles with two-way wormholes forces the player to learn how to properly utilize the tools at her disposal. The player is forced to adapt her brain to understand the inner workings of the mechanics presented in the form of the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. The player needs to recognize when to utilize the unique quirks of the device, such as how one can transfer downward momentum into forward momentum.

Once she starts “thinking with portals,” solving puzzles becomes second nature. She has learned how to navigate this new world, and the only difficulty that remains is whether the player is willing to allow her brain to embrace the tagline. Portal 2 adds more rules to the mix; however, it feels easier on the whole because the difficulty is less about understanding how to implement the tools and more about finding that one spot where a portal can be placed.

Another game that lacks a difficulty option is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Typically, the player will find a new item, such as a boomerang or bow, in a dungeon. In order to complete the level, the player must learn to master the new item, which usually is a key component in defeating the boss.

The player will also need to learn how to use the weapon to cross obstacles and on weaker enemies. This method is an efficient way for the player to learn the proper use and benefits of new mechanics that are introduced as the game progresses. It helps contribute to a more immersive experience and adds to the growth of the character through the story.

Unfortunately, designers have a tendency to lean towards artificial or arbitrary forms of difficulty rather than coercing the player to use the knowledge they gained throughout the playthrough to achieve her goal.

Kingdom Hearts contains a perfect example of artificial difficulty. My wife is a major fan of Disney; when we first moved in together while we were engaged, she decided to finish Kingdom Hearts while I was at class. I came home and found her in the heat of battle with Sephiroth.

Now, I hadn’t even known he was in the game, let alone as a boss. I told her I was home and missed her, and she blurted back something along the lines of “missed you, too. Been fighting this guy for two hours. I know the song by heart!” After a good ten more minutes, she uttered a string of expletives, and I realized that those two-plus hours of her play time amounted to nothing. She had lost, and that’s all there was to it.

Nonetheless, she had enjoyed herself — to the point where I planned to give the game a try based on what she had told me and what I had witnessed. When I reached that part during the game, I decided to give it a chance. I realized why my wife had spent two hours battling this overpowered monstrosity. My keyblade zips across the screen and hits him dead on, and yet, his health doesn’t change. Although I managed to get him to use his attack that cuts you down to 0 MP and 1 HP, I never wasted more than two tries on attempting to defeat him.

Later, I found out that he has an invisible health bar, in addition to his other five. I determined the fight wasn’t worth the time or effort. Eventually, I came face to face with Sephiroth again during my playthrough of Kingdom Hearts 2 and triumphed against him on my first attempt. The battle felt more balanced in this iteration — largely because of Sora being faster and having a myriad of different abilities that were not available in the previous game.

Another example of how arbitrary difficulty options can be is found in Dragon Age 2. I had started Dragon Age: Origins on normal, and so, I continued the trend in the new game. My wife had played the first game on casual, and so, she repeated the choice in the sequel. She tends to play most games on casual for a lack of time and, as she puts it, lack of skill.

About the time she made it to Kirkwall, she said something I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say before: “This game is too easy.” It turned out that the complete lack of a challenge siphoned out the fun of the game for her. She was capable of utter devastation, and that was with the mere beginnings of the elemental magic tree! A single fireball could obliterate all her enemies and be out of cooldown by the time her next obstacle appeared. For her, there was no planning involved anymore, and so, she ended up completing the game on normal and enjoying it…aside from a particularly harrowing quest.

My playthrough of DA2 was a bit different. I felt that normal was pretty easy in the beginning. I figured that it was designed to be easier at the start. Also, I carefully constructed my teammates as well as my own character, so I expected a little less resistance from the enemies.

While playing the game, I couldn’t help but notice a significant difference between my wife's playthrough and mine: I had more enemies to fight. My archer would be standing in a doorway, shooting arrows at far-off enemies, and suddenly, more faceless goons would appear out of nowhere on top of my avatar. Not only was this destroying the immersion of the game for me, but I was also annoyed that the game felt “difficult” meant me shooting infinite arrows into these buffoons.

This realization demonstrated how useless the difficulty option can be when the designers have not created a proper balance between a player’s knowledge and abilities and the level’s design. If the game does not respect that perfect state of harmony in the beginning, then the player can’t expect a proper difficulty change when she toggles the option in the menu.

In fact, the only time the game actually felt like the difficulty had been ramped up turned out to be the result of a particularly nasty bug: Hawke’s animation speed decreased over time. Since the bug has been patched, I started a new character. He’s remained untouched because without a real challenge, the game loses some of its appeal despite the fact that there are new branches of stories for me to explore.

The best way for designers to institute an intense challenge outside the normal playthrough would be something in the same spirit as Dead Space 2's hardcore difficulty or The Witcher 2's insane difficulty. These optional challenges are complete with warnings and have a strict set of rules.

For instance, with hardcore mode in Dead Space 2, the player is only allotted three saves. As Curly describes, this changes the gameplay entirely. Having not played The Witcher 2, I can only imagine that playing that difficulty setting will also force the player to adopt new strategies — unless she wishes to start the entire game over because of one tiny mistake. Regardless, each of these examples requires the player to learn how to properly play the game if she wishes to profit from the investment.

The challenge presented by a game shouldn’t be fostered out of enemies with an absurd amount of health or cheap moves. It shouldn’t be having enemies that will appear out of nowhere and are simply annoying to kill rather than entertaining or engaging.

The challenge should come from a game that teaches the player how to utilize its mechanics in order to complete it, which allows her to appreciate the experience as a whole rather than having to exploit her way through something. A game that is designed to have the player grow and learn as much as the character she is controlling is then afforded the opportunity of presenting a challenge. If this requires the player to learn in order to succeed and stays entertaining and engaging, the game has done its job.

This article has been republished from Nightmare Mode.


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