As someone who likes games, I find the vocabulary that people use to describe games that they didn’t like, or that they found frustrating and infuriating, quite interesting. When you describe a game as mean-spirited, unfair, or disrespectful of your time, you probably mean something different than if you were to use similar terms to describe a written narrative like a book or film. We ascribe malice to the designer, call the game sadistic or cruel or condescending, based on the challenges it presents to us.
This is particularly curious because one of the main reasons we come to these games is to be presented with challenges – and yet, when the challenges prove to be, well, challenging, there’s a common reaction of declaring those challenges invalid. At the extreme end, those challenges may be declared unfair or the game may be accused of cheating – but, just as often, saying that a particular challenge is poorly designed or that the player isn’t given adequate tools to prepare for it.
The common thread through most complaints, extreme and minor, is usually that of fairness. And what we consider to be fair in game design is something that has shifted a lot over time. In the 80s, as the scope of game design rapidly exploded, anything went. People got frustrated, sure, but because their expectations were largely unformed by other games and they were approaching each game largely as a new experience they didn’t feel especially put upon. As the language of game design established itself and came to be understood by its audience, people grew angry when games would disregard those established conventions of game design. Then, on into the end of the 2000’s and beginning of the 2010’s, it started to become clear that a lot of what we had considered ‘good game design’ was really just the most facilely approachable style, that we’d created an industry of the interactive equivalent of children’s books, made with large type and short words to be simple and enjoyable – and there was a backlash.
It is, perhaps, helpful here to distinguish between fairness and game balance. Game balance is not so much a concession to the player, to make sure that they don’t feel put upon, as it is a way to ensure that the different aspects of the game work well with each other, that the player isn’t encouraged to just always pick a dominant strategy and stick with it. The clearest difference is in the intent behind them: The intent of fairness is to avoid frustrating player, while the intent behind balance is to ensure that the player is encouraged to explore the design thoroughly.
A game like Dark Souls, would have been considered fair and fun if it was introduced in 1991, unfair if it was introduced in 2001, and was considered largely fair again when it was actually released in 2011 – though the consensus there is far from complete. Demon’s Souls, its predecessor, came out just a couple of years earlier – and, while people were starting to get on board with what the series could offer, at the time many people still regarded it as little better than an arbitrary and cruelly punishing curiosity.
Thus, while I tend to dislike the approach of selling Dark Souls as the most difficult game ever, as with the ‘Prepare to Die’ edition of the first game, this presentation does serve a purpose. While it may mislead the player as to what’s actually good and interesting about the game, this cues the player to modify their expectations regarding what to perceive as fair. What’s we expect in a fantasy action RPG and what we expect in a fantasy action RPG that says “Prepare to Die” on the cover are vastly different: for one thing, we are prepared to die. Within this framework, we can expect that much of the constraint that many developers take on in the quest for fairness will be lacking. The irony is that in a post-Dark Souls world this kind of signaling is no longer quite so necessary, since these games have redefined genre norms to an extent where, as long as you communicate some degree of reflex challenge and obtuseness of systems in the game’s description, people will largely be on-board with what you’re selling – especially once word-of-mouth about a new Souls-like game spreads to the eternally hungering fan base of the series. If Dark Souls were released now, it probably wouldn’t have such a ham-fisted subtitle – but that ham-fisted subtitle is part of what it allowed it to have the success that now obviates the need for a ham-fisted subtitle.
Another trend away from fairness and towards unpredictability was enabled by the modernized incarnations of the classic ‘Roguelike’ genre. With Spelunky and its ilk, because the game environments were no longer created by the designer but by an algorithm players quickly came to accept that some situations would be unfair and regarded them as opportunities for clever inventiveness rather than frustration. Any challenge was allowed as long as it wasn’t literally impossible to solve. However, some designs realize this more effectively than others: Whereas in Spelunky a challenging level generation is brutally difficult and dangerous in a way that is exciting to overcome, in The Binding of Isaac it’s merely slow and tedious, forcing the player to slowly chip away at opponents a few points at a time for potentially a couple of hours – one of the few flies in the ointment of an otherwise very exciting and interesting game design.
While it may seem obviously desirable for a game experience to be as fair as possible to the player, trying to always present a fair experience will inevitably tie the designer’s hands. A world with no unpleasant surprises, where all choices are equally valid, where nothing is ever out of reach and every problem has an immediate and obvious solution, sounds like a paradise. However, in the context of a medium that thrives on presenting its audience with interesting problems to solve, it more often than not creates a flat, dead, world, so painfully blandly sweet it rots the teeth from your jaw.
Not only does it remove life and spirit from the experience, it also sends a kind of weird mixed message. The plots of video games are frequently about a loner, outnumbered and outgunned, fighting for what’s right – and yet the mechanics of these games are tortuously dedicated to fairness, to making sure the player never actually feels endangered and alone the way their character does. To put it in the words of dads everywhere: Life Isn’t Fair. Creating games whose main purpose is to create worlds that are merely fair, at the expense of creating worlds that are challenging or interesting, is one of the least rewarding ways to use the resources we have as designers.