Two words that strike terror into the heart of every gamer. Except they really don’t, any more, because that concept has fallen by the wayside long ago. It seems that nowadays games don’t end when a player fails, they just stall. If you jiggle your key in the ignition they’ll start back up and you’ll be merrily on your way, presumably to save the world from… something.
There are exceptions, of course. In particular the ‘roguelike’, a complicated single-player RPG where dying once will force you to create a new character, has seen a recent resurgence: Both in traditional form (now using ascii graphics out of preference rather than necessity), and in new formats which bridge the gap between roguelikes and classic arcade games, which had similar harsh consequences softened by a smaller time investment.
It’s curious that two of the strongest recent examples of both consequence-free and consequence-heavy failure have come from the same designer, Edmund McMillen. In Super Meat Boy, the levels are savagely difficult obstacle courses wherein a single momentary twitch (or lack thereof) can lead to an instantaneous and bloody demise. However, dying merely sends you back to the beginning of the level, and those levels are usually quite short– the longest of them being about two or three minutes in length. It’s remarkably easy to get lost in the hypnotic skill game of trying to time each button press perfectly, and each time progressing a few pixels further into a murderous labyrinth.
Conversely, in The Binding of Isaac, a strange top-down Zelda-inspired shooter, a single play-through of the entire game can be done in about an hour. However, allowing your character to perish will completely end the play-through and force you to start the game over from the beginning. While Isaac is certainly far less prone to dying suddenly than Meat Boy, it is still a fairly common outcome.
So, in one case the consequences of failure are negligible and in the other they are dire, but both games work. They’re both fun, and both have been described as somewhere between quite difficult and tooth-grindingly infuriating (but still fun). Certainly, neither game could be improved by importing the consequence model of the other; this would result in an unplayably difficult variant of Super Meat Boy and a downright tedious version of The Binding of Isaac.
You may be saying, “All right Mister Machine, if that is your real name, but what’s your point?” My point is, Mister Smarty Pants, since you asked so very rudely, that challenge and consequence are not the same thing, but when we say a game is hard we encompass both. Knowing which is which, and what kind of difficult we want our game to be, is important.
Challenge encompasses all of the obstacles which make success more difficult, and the formidability of such. For a long time there seems to have been a trend of reducing the actual difficulty of obstacles while making them look more and more formidable; there has been some backlash against this recently, and a resurgence of punishingly difficult games has found an audience among those who feel alienated by this shift to challenging the protagonist through narrative rather than challenging the player through gameplay.
It is possible to fail at designing challenge. Poorly crafted and arbitrary challenges result in trial-and-error gameplay which streamlines the player directly into the game’s negative consequences for failure. The player is not given adequate opportunity to avoid failure using the mastery which the game has taught them. Well focused game design avoids this by clearly delineating what skills the player needs to know to do well in the game and making sure the player acquires them, to some degree, early on. From that point on it’s merely a question of mastery.
Consequences (in this case referring explicitly to negative gameplay consequences) are what happens when a player fails to pass the obstacles placed in his way. Such consequences have been even more universally deprecated in modern game design, though some bizarre shadows of past consequences still find their way into games in the form of extra lives which don’t actually do much of anything. People don’t seem to clamor for negative consequences the same way they clamor for challenge, but it makes gameplay feel important and engaging in a way that just throwing more and harsher obstacles at a player can’t. When the slightest mistake could cost you hours of work, you will be engaged.
It is possible to fail at designing consequence. When consequences are poorly thought out they can, for instance, force the player to endure challenges he has mastered long ago only to fail again and again on the real challenge which keeps him from progressing. This problem grew especially commonplace during the early 3d era of games, where companies clung tightly to the techniques of extra lives and continues that had been the mainstay of traditional platformers, despite their growing irrelevance. Of course, whenever these games had poorly designed challenges the players would end up routed directly into the poorly designed consequences for an exponentially unpleasant gameplay effect. Unfortunately, designers took entirely the wrong lessons from these missteps and strove to eliminate negative consequence altogether. Which brings us to now.
By avoiding challenge and consequence, big-budget games have undermined their own ability to mean anything. Do we crave inconsequential fluff– do they think we do? Though they sometimes have difficulty settings that allow the player to access more challenging challenges, just as often these will be only incrementally more difficult or the challenges will be poorly designed (excessive numbers of enemies or excessive enemy damage forcing the player into a trial-and-error mindset). Of course, the fact that any challenge can also then be bypassed by the simple expedient of turning the difficulty down devalues the accomplishment somewhat as well.
Conversely, only a few games have any option at all for enhanced consequence, and usually the difference between optional consequence modes is that between night and day. For instance, in Diablo 2 there is a hardcore mode available that lets you play a character who, if he or she dies once, is permanently unplayable thereafter. Either you can have essentially no consequences at all for failure, or you can lose hundreds of hours of progress. This contrast seems absurd in comparison to the fine gradation one often sees in difficulty settings, but at least it recognizes that harsher and more meaningful consequences are something that people want, if not necessarily in tremendous numbers. Some of these will improvise their own hardcore modes in environments which support it; for instance, a small but enthusiastic community of people play the survival first person shooter Far Cry 2 with player-enforced permanent death, where they will delete their save if their character perishes.
Obviously, for some people, gaming is not just escapism. It’s a world of powerful hypotheticals, and excising challenge or consequence while trying to maintain that compelling experience is a fool’s errand. If you build a man out of muscle with no bones, it won’t make him stronger. It’s exciting to see a resurgence of the ideas of challenge and consequence, but we must be careful not to conflate them. We see how easy it is to misapply these ideas and ruin their delicate balance.
Next time: Challenge and consequence in multi-player games.