Challenge is Conflict: How Difficulty Makes Game Narratives Work

Technically, you're supposed to dribble the Link. Ganon is just showing off.

Back when Twilight Princess was first released, my girlfriend—who has liberated Hyrule almost as many times as it’s needed it—had only one complaint: it was too easy. The puzzles were well enough designed but a misstep hardly left a scratch on Link. Combat was as solid as ever in a 3D Zelda game but all the enemies, even the bosses, were wimps. Even though my girlfriend and I agreed that Twilight Princess was one of the best in the series (an opinion that nobody seems to share with us), because none of the dungeons or enemies had any teeth, much of the game felt dull and insubstantial.

These days, one of the most frequent complaints about games opening up to new audiences is that they’re becoming too easy. Once legendarily difficult games, like the Ninja Gaiden series, are being streamlined to the dismay of long time fans. To those that remember how merciless the NES could be, the regular checkpoints, regenerating health and internet walkthroughs of today’s games can take the edge out of the experience. Realistically though, developers couldn’t still be making games as hard as Contra or Ghosts’n’Goblins and still expect games to be as popular and relevant as they are now. It’s good that they’re more accessible and it’s good that more people play games. But even if it is necessary for games to get easier to welcome newcomers to the medium, removing the difficulty from a game threatens to undermine the value of the central conflict.

The buzzwords that are most used when evaluating the artistic merits of a game are “immersion” and “interactivity.” If a game is immersive, it means that the game is good at pulling the player into the experience and building a world and a story around them. To immerse the player in the world, the game must give them a path to travel on; it’s not enough to simply build a world around a stationary avatar just as it isn’t enough to dump a block of exposition onto the player: neither will involve the player in the world. There has to be a direction to go and things along the way to encounter for the world to feel real and for the player to feel a part of it. The player must be threatened, or goaded, or enticed to walk a path in order for a game to come to life. On that path there must be credible challenges that the player has to overcome to be drawn into the experience.

To be interactive, a game must make the player feel like they have a direct impact on the events as they unfold. The player must have to accomplish something through their decisions, planning or skills. To feel like an active piece of the story the player/protagonist must succeed in overcoming a group of enemies, or outsmarting a rival, or figure out a puzzle, or successfully outmaneuver a trap. There must be a challenge to defeat. It’s not enough to see a character overcome a conflict like it is in other media, a player has to be personally responsible for overcoming a challenge for the obstacle and the victory over it to have any weight.

It other media we can sympathize with characters when we’re a third-party to their experiences; our emotions resonate with theirs when we aren’t responsible for their behaviour. But in a game, everything that isn’t cutscene falls on the player (unless it’s a skippable cutscene, in which case that too is up to the player). We can feel the tension of Luke flying through a canyon on the Death Star because we were told what the stakes are, but if we’re put in the pilot’s seat and it turns out that the X-Wing flies itself, the mission instantly loses its severity.

Games progress at the command of the audience, if the hero is able to navigate past an obstacle with little or no input from the player then the obstacle can’t possibly pose a threat: the player literally didn’t have to try to get past it. But on the other hand, if the player is forced to exercise extreme skill and utilize every mechanic at their disposal, only to barely scrape by, then it can be understood that the obstacles pose a real threat. It isn’t enough to involve the player, there needs to be pressure put on the player for the goals and consequences of the story to mean anything.

Join the Nintendo Fun Club today, Link!

A game doesn’t even have to constantly hang the threat of death over their player. It’s enough to demand that they put effort into succeeding. Level grinding, for instance, makes the player directly responsible for their characters’ abilities. When the player is responsible for their characters’ survival, they become more invested in the heroes’ safety and drama. Likewise, information that is or becomes relevant to the plot often feels like an encyclopedia entry unless the player had to put some effort into obtaining it. When the player is responsible for learning more about the world by meeting a challenge, the narrative becomes integral to the experience; the player doesn’t just put up with a story alongside a game anymore; they’re playing it.

Playing a game that’s too easy isn’t just boring; it’s pointless. Even going through the motions for the sake of a story rings hollow because the distinguishing features of games as an art are cheapened without a compelling challenge. Imagine if Limbo saved everybody the frustration of repeated deaths by taking out all the threats out of the game. The environment would be considerably less haunting and mysterious if it the player didn’t face death at every second jump. Or what if Valve, upon realizing how strong their writing and character actually are, decided to spare everybody all those puzzles and enemy encounters to get to the next plot development. The setting would be entirely un-fascinating and the characters would be impossible to relate to if the player didn’t have to claw their way through the Aperture Labs or shoot down striders with the resistance. If the player doesn’t have to earn the right to be a part of the story by facing challenges, then it might as well not be there.

Taking challenge out of a game dilutes its impact. For example, in spite of the strong writing and unique art direction of 2008′s Prince of Persia reboot, the game fell flat because it was impossible to fail. There were no health bars, almost no combat, and making a mistake on any of the railroaded platforming sequences led to a quick recovery and an unlimited number of do-overs. None of the titular prince’s setbacks or accomplishments meant anything because failure was just a minor inconvenience. For a game to engage its players in the story and even the atmosphere and the setting, it has to demand that players exercise a degree of mastery over the mechanics. There’s nothing wrong with a heavily story-based game, or even shallow mechanics, but if the player should have to work at getting to the next cutscene or next conversation.

It’s no revelation to say that winning feels good. Nor is it much of a surprise when researchers demonstrate that winning is more satisfactory when there is a constant possibility of failure. And as valuable as difficulty is to experiencing the mechanics of a game, it’s just as valuable to the aesthetic aspects of the medium. The player connects more deeply to the narrative when they have to earn their way to the next checkpoint or when they know that they’re responsible for the fate of the characters on the screen. Of course developers should keep the casual modes and the merciful tutorials for new-comers so long as they understand that whoever is playing should never be allowed to get away with napping at the controller.

It truly is great that so many players can feel welcomed by games. The reduced difficulty of games plays a good part in how accessible they’ve become. But the more that games try to play themselves and eschew player challenge, the more they threaten the uniqueness of what they are. Games don’t have to go back to Battletoads difficulty, but at the very least, they need to offer a reasonable challenge to all of their potential players for the experience to mean anything. After all, my own household didn’t develop its love affair with Twilight Princess to its full extent until we completed the 3-heart challenge.

Mark Filipowich writes regularly for PopMatters, Joystick Division, Dorkly, We Got This Covered and Nightmare Mode. His personal writing blog can be found at BigTallWords.

Further Reading: Bad at What: The Question of Skill and Games Criticism (Medium Difficulty)

Talk Tough: The Language of Play in Final Fantasy XI (Medium Difficulty)

About Mark Filipowich

Mark Filipowich is a mute orphan from an idyllic village in the hills. After it was burned to the ground by an evil empire, he began his quest for video game criticism. His journey has brought him to PopMatters, The Border House, Nightmare Mode, Joystick Division and Medium Difficulty. Quest updates can be found at big-tall-words.com and on Twitter @MarkFilipowich.
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  • David Gutsche

    This. I like this.

    You’re totally right about games in which you are attempting to “win.” But if you are attempting to experience, like in Dear Esther? That game poses no challenge, but has as much to offer in terms of narrative as written fiction — arguably more.

    In all sorts of fiction, conflict is necessary. The best narratives revolve around tension. It’s just a question of the sort. When I read a book like A Clockwork Orange, I become more intimately involved because I had to work a little harder to extract meaning. What if that sort of puzzle, that sort of challenge, connects with the player in a different way?

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