BITMAPS 54: Can Difficult Games Still Be Fun?

BITMAPS #54

Square

The World Ends With You is just a fantastic game. It’s imaginative, unique, innovative, and startlingly of all, mechanically sound. As such, I have a very hard time believing it actually came from Square Enix. Their games have largely relied on story and setting over raw gameplay for value, and since Tetsuya Nomura’s star has risen, their stories have become so inanely metaphysical that they no longer even have that going for them. Luckily, in TWEWY Nomura’s pen was used to draw stylistic art instead confusing words.

 

Tetsuya Nomura

I’ve been told it actually makes sense, but I don’t believe it.

The majority of the game leaves combat in the hands of the player–something decidedly un-Squareish. Players choose when to scan for enemies and even how many to fight until they approach the final boss. The game starts to force encounters on players as they approach the end of the game. This may at first seem like an annoying break in design, but it’s done to force some experience and levels on players that may have avoided battle until that point. If the player is under-leveled, this will make final boss preparation much less arduous.

This isn’t the only mechanic by which the game ensures players are prepared for the final boss. Another forced encounter pits players against a reincarnated boss. Unless they are already overleveled (and thus already prepared for the final boss), most players will lose this encounter. This may smack of a scripted loss in their grand and annoying tradition, but this one actually serves a purpose. After the match, win or lose, the boss essentially says, "I am as hard as the end boss," before running away. The game gives players a sneak peak of the difficulty in store before throwing them at the end boss.

TWEWY allows players to experience, first-hand, the challenge awaiting them, and flat-out forces them to fight a few fights to prepare for it. Both of these techniques are meant to prepare the player for the final boss and ultimately a frustration-free experience. I can attest; TWEWY is the smoothest gameplay experience I’ve had in a long time (barring games with no challenge like Endless Ocean), due entirely to smart design. Had it not been for these warnings, I would’ve been under-leveled and frustrated when time came to finish the game.

 

Contrast

To find a contrast to this style of difficulty, one need not try very hard. The NES days were practically dominated by the "If the players loses, that’s not our problem," attitude from developers. Using one of those games is too easy, though. Instead, I’ll look at a more modern game that wasn’t bad, but just had a very different approach to challenge and player experience.

Odin Sphere was a very hands-off game. After the introductory tutorials explaining the combat mechanics, level system, and concepts of plant growth, the game does little else to help players progress. Instead, players must face down cripplingly hard bosses and forge their own victories from hours of swearing, breaking controllers, and scaring the pets.

The game was hard, see. Not just any normal "hard," but that special brand of hard that makes it very clear the developers are not on your side. Some enemies in the game still amaze me with the absurd challenge they pose. One boss, a giant dragon, would pound the ground and cause hundreds of pieces of debris to rain down on your character. Not only would this do an annoying amount of damage, but it would also slow down the PS2. Beating one of them was hard enough, imagine how awesome it was to have to fight two AND an annoying little wizard guy that couldn’t be damaged by anything except reflected projectiles.

 

Odin Sphere

Never again, stupid dragon. NEVER AGAIN.

When I first reached this boss encounter, I was as unprepared as a frat boy in physics class. I tried for hours, throwing my controller multiple times. I was convinced that I should be prepared to beat a challenge in the order that it was given to me. In other words, I figured the developers wouldn’t have given a challenge to me unless I could beat it with skill when I received it. Perhaps this is due to excessive coddling from videogames in recent years.

Eventually I had to swallow my pride and re-approach the problem. I loaded an old save, leveled a bit, and most importantly figured out what potions I would need to attack the problem properly. After stocking up with the tools necessary to fight the boss, I passed the challenge with relative ease. While I did (and still do) feel a small amount of pride for eventually finding the proper solution to the challenge, the hours of frustration spent to get there may not have been an even investment.

 Challenge

On one hand, TWEWY takes a series of steps to ensure the player has a smooth experience. Help is given at every bump in the road to make sure the player can always progress. On the other, Odin Sphere puts the onus of victory and progress on the player. The game sets the bar, and it’s entirely up to the player to figure out how to reach it. The easy conclusion here is that TWEWY has better implemented difficulty.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. When developers start to take on the responsibility of ushering the player through the game experience, they ever so slowly start to draw back the interactivity of the game as a whole. While the forced encounters and fake boss may have been in my best interest, forcing me down that path is a step away from what makes a video game such a unique experience.

 

Psychic Detective

 

You only THOUGHT nobody played this.

When this concept is taken to an extreme you essentially just have a movie. After all, the player can’t possibly fail to reach the end of a movie, barring heart attack, power outage, or Armageddon. A step back from that falls into "interactive movie" territory with Dragon’s Lair, Psychic Detective, and those QTE events popularized by Shenmue that are all the rage nowadays. While these sequences are entertaining, they only feature the bare minimum of success/failure interaction. The player has very little investment and immersion in the challenge, and thus gets very little in return for success.

As much as I hate to say it, this will come down to player taste. Some players want a carefree experience with the illusion of interactivity, while others will enjoy the responsibility for their own success and failure in a game. So, which do you prefer? Do you like the guided care-free experience of softer games, or the brutal, out-in-the-cold approach of less forgiving experiences?

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