To play a game is to perform a series of tasks it asks of you. Most of the time, these tasks are some sort of challenge of dexterity, cognition, perception, or some combination thereof. There are also, though, a number of tasks that games ask of us that aren’t challenging – that are simple, rote, and obvious. The example which first brought this to mind is the act of feeding in Vampire, The Masquerade: Bloodlines – in this, since you play as a vampire, you have to find isolated people to prey upon, either by luring someone away from the crowd or just finding someone who wandered away on their own. This is rarely actually very difficult to do, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that it significantly contributes to the challenge of the game – but should it? As a vampire, you should find this act of supernatural predation easy and natural – and so you do. However, one could easily imagine a designer deciding that there was no point to having so much play time dedicated to something obvious and easy to do and either cutting the gameplay element or tuning it to be more dangerous, to be less trivial – and the game would be the lesser for it.
We have a tendency to think of game mechanics solely in terms of the challenges they pose. When we consider a game’s systems, it is most often to see how they collide to provide an interesting problem for the player to solve – that is, a mechanical element ought only to exist if it interacts interestingly with the challenge of the game, a sort of Chekhov’s Gun of game design, where if a gun exists in the world there must also be a terrifying monster to be killed with it. What we tend to devalue in this mindset are the simpler pleasures of existing and acting and being acted upon. Often what provides the most enjoyable sensation in a game is not solving an especially difficult problem, but of feeling entirely a part of the world of the game and of performing the role assigned to you.
Of course, you don’t need to perform your role – a great deal of enjoyment can be head from playing games ‘badly’, from refusing to perform the tasks it assigns or performing them in an intentionally awkward and absurd way – but intentional subversions of the role still position you as a part of the game’s world, albeit an incongruous one, like the Marx Brothers at an opera. Challenge, while it can be enjoyable and can serve to contribute to the plausibility of existence within a space, is not what makes the game – the tasks are the game, whether they are challenging or not.
However, the difficulty of the tasks is still important. There’s a certain amount of wiggle room – games depict herculean tasks managed by fairly simplistic and easy player input all the time while some games, like Bennett Foddy’s QWOP, do the inverse, offering very simple tasks than can only be accomplished by incredibly difficult feats of coordination. There’s a lot of charm to be found in this incongruity at times, but it can also work against the simple joys of partaking in a game’s world – which is why, in general, we are better served by trying to map the systems and challenges of the task reasonably closely to the methods and difficulties such a task would present. This is where a lot of the discourse around challenge in gameplay tends to fall apart – the obstacles in the game begin to be viewed entirely in terms of the difficulties they present, and not in terms of how they express the world of the game and how the difficulty inherent to those obstacles fit into that expression.
Another example of mundane tasks presented to provide a feeling of satisfaction and investment in a space is the house cleaning game in The Beginner’s Guide. This is a fairly small part of a fairly short game: You walk into a house, and someone there, who looks like a generic placeholder dummy, welcomes you as though you’re a friend and starts asking you to do small tasks around the house, picking things up and cleaning them and so forth, and eventually these tasks start to repeat because there’s only a few of them to be done – and, as in life, it’s only so long after the floor has been swept that it must be swept again. Nevertheless it creates a small and intimate atmosphere of participation and care which has interesting implications within the greater narrative of the game. Similarly, many of the interactions in The Walking Dead games from Telltale weren’t challenges so much as they were prompts asking you to participate in the story, in tiny unpleasant chores and in the mechanical necessities of survival. These are tasks which must be done, but which aren’t meant to challenge.
Even when tasks aren’t meant to be challenging, though, they’re still part of the mechanics of gameplay, and can have significant consequences. Though feeding in Bloodlines is usually trivial, under some circumstances it can become much more pressing and far more difficult because you’re already dealing with other problems such as pursuit by police or vampire hunters. Similarly, in Far Cry 2, you occasionally have to contend with short debilitating bouts with malaria, during which you can’t do much of anything. You have medicine you can take to recover, and all in all it only takes a few seconds, but a few seconds is all it takes for something to go disastrously haywire, a car to run off the road, a barrel to blow up, an ambush to be sprung – so depending on timing this mundane but necessary task can become a huge wrench in the gears.
There are plenty of games that press against the presumption of challenge, but most of these are presented as open-ended, with no particular required tasks but many possible activities. As many options as we have to make games that aren’t based around proving technical skill, that still tends to be our fallback position. The earliest games were entirely about such skills, with paper-thin narratives built up around them to contextualize and justify the simple gameplay – as games got bigger and more complex, as the actions they could offer gained more capacity for nuance and expression, the stories got more complex as well, but stayed largely in the mold of their predecessors, simple stories that justified simple mechanics. The restraints that held us back from envisioning wildly different experiences at the advent of the medium still hold us back today, just because so much of what we understand a game to be is rooted in the simplistic challenges that the technology once held us to.
Perhaps it’s time to make more games that are as much about existing, about being in a world and performing to the expectations of that world, as about solving, discovering, and controlling.