Red Frustration: game difficulty vs. storytelling
In narrative games, what comes first? The story, or the game? This thorny question posed itself yet again recently when I reached the final mission of Red Faction: Guerilla, discovering to my irritation a sudden leap in difficulty that proceeded to turn a nicely paced and exciting finale into a tedious slog. This may have happened to you or it may not – perhaps you’re a destruction expert and breezed right through on the hardest difficulty. Or perhaps you’ve never actually completed the game due to the final mission being noticeably trickier than the rest of the game.
To rewind for a moment, Red Faction: Guerilla was a pleasant surprise. Having picked it up in a Steam sale without any real fanfare, it turned out to be a game blending remarkable physics technology to a compelling story of revolution, set in an open world that geniunely changes according to your actions. In fact, the fundamental design of the game requires you to alter the world, gradually chipping away at the infrastructure of the corrupt Martian government with your trusty sledgehammer (or a thermobaric missile). Along the way the game takes the time to explore every tactic of insurgency and suppression, from the propaganda war to rooftop snipers targeting protesters. While the game never explores any of the ideas in more than a superficial capacity it still manages to resonate, particularly if you are playing during a spate of revolutions in northern Africa, as I was.
The story is told via missions that you find dotted around the landscape, in a similar fashion to the GTA games. Where Red Faction surpasses GTA is in marrying its story directly to the gameplay. In GTA the story attempts to tell a serious, pseudo-realistic tale while the freeform gameplay encourages you to drive off buildings and blow stuff up. In Red Faction the temptations are similar – steal vehicles, crash into things, blow them up – but in a genius move the story supports the gameplay, giving you genuine plot reasons for causing mayhem.
A good challenge is provided throughout, with the game always treading the fine line between difficulty and frustration. It’s a balancing act that is absolutely crucial in games that are telling a scripted story. In a puzzle game or an old school platformer it’s perfectly fine to have the player repeat a level 20 times in order to solve it, or to get that jump just right. In a story game, it breaks the narrative into clumsy pieces, especially as the difficulty spikes have a tendency to coincide with climactic moments in the plot. It’s the equivalent of reaching the final chapters in a book to find the pages all glued together, or watching to the finale of a movie to have the DVD glitch and jump and get stuck, or the film reel bounce out of the projector. Unfortunately, Red Faction loses this balance right at the last moment, with the final mission being excruciatingly long and hard, spoiling the dramatic build-up.
In other storytelling mediums this would only happen due to an accident or a mistake. Yet in gaming, developers sleepwalk again and again into the same problem. The two worst encounters I can think of are the final fight with the Dahaka in Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, which left me rather detesting an otherwise enjoyable game, and the climax of Final Fantasy X, which I never did manage to finish due to an absurd difficulty spike. This is made all the worse when you’re supposedly playing a hero character, a conceit which rapidly falls to pieces if he keeps getting killed by the enemy, or keeps missing that last jump. The Dark Knight would have been rubbish if, in the Hong Kong sequence, Batman had misjudged his night-time cape flying and landed awkwardly on the street, having to take the lift back up to the top of the skyscraper to try again.
Again, in a puzzle or non-story game this is fine. It’s a challenge. Something to work at, to hone your skills until you’re able to succeed. In a story game, it not only breaks the story but leaves you with a sour memory of the rest of the game, even if it had been enjoyable up to that point.
On the other hand, story games can’t go the other way and make everything easy. Without any kind of gameplay challenge, it might as well be a movie. So how is it possible to find the right balance? One option is to change the nature of the challenge – the frustration that comes with a difficulty spike is usually caused by having to repeat the same section several times, robbing the sequence of any dramatic impact. Point-n-click games have been avoiding the issue for years, by removing the possibility of failure – you can’t die in The Secret of Monkey Island, even if you can get stuck, which results in a pause in the story rather than a complete break and rewind. The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy cleverly resolved the issue by building the concept of reloading and trying again into the fabric of its storytelling, so that no matter how hard a particular puzzle was, it still made sense in the story – except in the aforementioned case of the Dahaka, a boss fight which was also guilty of jettisoning most of the game’s acrobatic appeal. Even in games where ‘having another go’ is part of the plot, there’s still the chance of having to have one go too many.
Another route is simply to balance your game carefully. Half Life 2 is a good example for me, a game which had me on edge throughout, constantly almost failing but always just scraping through: thrilling but never frustrating (well, except for that damned bit in the prison cells…). The problem, of course, is that this only works for me. I’m sure there are players that found Half Life 2 far too easy, and some that found it too hard. Developers Valve have attempted to solve the issue in their more recent games, most notably the Left 4 Dead series which actively monitors the players and adjusts the difficulty and pacing of the game to suit their performance. It’s a remarkable system that creates an authentic zombie survival experience, but one in which death and failure are expected outcomes for at least some of the team. Would it work in a single player game?
Well, prior to Left 4 Dead there was a game called SiN: Episodes, which lasted only a single episode due to nobody buying it, which was a shame as it did a few things rather well, not least having automatic difficulty adjustment in a single player game. It meant that the game scaled for the player, with superior gamers encountering more abundant and better equipped foes and noobs being given some slack. These automated systems also ensure that each playthrough is different, with the variables constantly changing based on your decisions. In SiN it felt pleasantly natural, with the bad guys leveraging a small army against you if they thought you were a big enough risk, but only sending a handful of goons if you’re weren’t worth their time.
What other options are there? How about changing the concept of failure in action games altogether? Every action game, especially shooters, uses player death as the failure state, forcing the player to go back to an earlier point and try again. Bioshock tried something different, having you regenerate in a nearby tube of goop, from where you could rejoin the battle and carry on where you left off. A nice idea, but one that left many of the fights feeling more like tedious attrition than clever strategy, with enemies being gradually eliminated with each player regeneration.
A decade-or-so ago, Deus Ex rewrote the rulebook, although it still used player death as the ultimate fail state. Except for one crucial moment in the story, which found you fighting for you life against almost invincible opponents. There was a chance of winning, though, and escaping onto the New York underground, only to encounter an even bigger enemy force at the next stop. After another valiant battle for survival, eventually you would see your health dwindle away and the screen would fade out to black, as had happened many other times in the game when you’d failed in your mission. In this one case, though, the game did something unexpected – after the fade to black, it then brings you back, locked in a cell in an unknown location. Your apparent defeat wasn’t a failure leading to a reload, it was a key story moment. The designers wanted the player to be defeated in the battle, and then be surprised at the reawakening in the cell. It’s a hugely powerful moment in the game and one that I still remember clearly.
This isn’t to say the games should always have you wake up in a cell, or in a hospital – the GTA games do this and it never really works, only functioning as a superficial and largely unnecessary justification for respawning, which may as well have happened anywhere in the city. But perhaps the key problem is the prevalence of failure situations which result in death: can we have some more imagination from our games designers? Most people aren’t presented with deathly situations every 5 minutes of their day. Even people in dangerous situations aren’t usually in perpetual danger. Maybe keeping death as a fail state but making it rarer would work, so that you have to be exceedingly stupid or unlucky to encounter it, much like real life. If you have to have fail states, and death as one of them, then at least build your narrative around it so that it makes sense.
But even better would be to have more variety and imagination in the concepts of success and failure. Where are the rom com games in which the fail state is to not get the girl/guy? Where are the crime games in which the fail states are not being shot or caught by the cops, but in not securing a good enough deal with a supplier? How about a war game in which being a soldier isn’t just about killing and being killed, but about making (or not making) difficult moral decisions along the way? There have to be more exciting and imaginative ways to convey winning and losing to players in narrative-based games – I’ve been shot quite enough times in my games already, thanks.