An enduring problem with single player games that rely on challenge for appeal is that they allow for mastery. Once these games are mastered, there is no longer any challenge to them, and thus no appeal. Due to fluctuations in human physical performance this rarely happens in difficult action games, but it can fairly easily happen in difficult strategy games since optimal behavior can there be fairly easily boiled down to a set of rules.
I first mentioned FTL a couple of weeks ago, right after my first play-through. I find myself now to be, though perhaps not quite at the point of total mastery, close enough that the slot-machine guts of the system are laid bare to me. I know what the optimal strategy is for success at any given moment, and I know that if it doesn’t work out then it was probably just me getting screwed by a random number generator. It kind of kills the appeal, but that’s okay– the game is, in essence, a puzzle that it took me 40 incredibly enjoyable hours to solve. I’m fine with that outcome.
However, this experience has highlighted two things for me.
First, it’s shown me that for every single player strategy game, at any given moment there is an optimal strategy. This strategy might not always work, but it statistically provides the best chance of success under the circumstances, and given the static system of a single player game is always the best choice. One could create a sophisticated AI which attempts a mix of useful strategies based on what it projects you to be most likely to try. The balance between player and AI strategies would then become a classic game theory problem, and solvable on that basis– at least until we create an AI that can genuinely think like a human. Because between multiple human players something different happens– there’s a connection. You can say to yourself, “I see what this guy is doing. I know how he thinks. He’s going to try this strategy, and I’m going to be ready for him.” There is a very intimate human connection there which is rarely acknowledged.
Second, it’s shown me that even the most meritorious of us can be completely fucked over by random chance. You can do everything, everything right, and still end up in a horrible situation– or you can do everything wrong and, uh, I guess end up in politics. I already knew this. We all know this instinctively, as much as we like to create moral fables where the skilled and virtuous triumph while the lazy and depraved die out. However, just as the good and bad things that happen to us don’t happen because we’ve been good or bad, they usually don’t happen because we were competent or incompetent either.
Most things just happen.
So what can you do? You can start over and hope for better. With all of your wounds and your tragedies, you can start over and hope for better.
It might not always be the most enjoyable game design, but there’s a grain of truth there, isn’t there?