What role should frustration have in the player’s experience of a game?
It’s a tricky question. For a while game designers assumed the answer was ‘none’, that frustration was an inherently unpleasant experience with nothing to offer, that it stood opposed to everything that players play games for. This opinion seems to have eroded over the years, as attempts to reduce player frustration ended predictably in tepid, milquetoast game experiences.
This question is made more complex because frustration is such a personal reaction The game can present the challenges and the unpleasant surprises, but whether the player finds them frustrating is a matter just as much of their personal outlook as it is of the content of the game. Some people get frustrated by even the slight puzzling challenges of a narrative adventure game, while others find the die/restart loop of ultra-hard ‘maso-core’ platformers relaxing. Sometimes these may even be the same people! In fact, being frustrated has as much to do with how hard we think something should be as it does with how hard we think it is. Thus, the unexpected challenge presented by the narrative game feels like an affront, while the repeated deaths of the hard platformer feel like, well, pretty much what the player signed on for when they booted up the game.
One reason why Dark Souls has done well from being difficult is because it’s extraordinarily up-front about being difficult. This has a number of unfortunate side effects, such as its more ignorant or obstreperous players believing that because they’ve beaten a video game they know what real adversity is or putting down players of other games as being somehow lesser gamers – or, conversely, the game’s reputation scaring away potential players who might otherwise be amenable to its patient and minimalistic, if unforgiving, approach to gameplay and storytelling. Demonstrating to people up front what they can expect from your game, what kind and what degree of challenge, is a way of nipping unpleasurable frustration in the bud, of saying beforehand “if you’re having trouble here, it’s because you’re trying to do something hard, not because there’s something wrong with you.” That is, at least, on the first playthrough: After a hiatus, I’m always dismayed when I come back to Dark Souls and find that all of the things I’d remembered being easy have suddenly become difficult again. I was supposed to be good at this, dammit!
Thus, as designers, we can reduce player frustration, not by making everything easy, but by making it clear what is going to be challenging and why. Which answers one question, but leaves another open: Players are still going to be frustrated, even if you make efforts to reduce this, but can frustration be a rewarding experience itself? I would contend so, for the same reason that it’s impossible to completely remove frustration from the gameplay experience: Being frustrated is a big part of life, and learning how to cope with that in a safe environment can be useful and interesting – even, dare I say it, fun. Working past the frustration, finding the calm within the storm, not just solving the problem but addressing the anger that is keeping you from solving the problem, these are moments of epiphany that games can offer.
Conversely, as a player – no, rather, as a person trying to solve a problem – avoiding the expectation of being great at something, avoiding the belief that something should be easy for you, is the best way to avoid frustration. This is, I believe, why humility is a virtue: It lets you approach problems as they are, difficult or easy, without preconceptions as to how hard they should be. Come to that, it’s also why confidence is a virtue, since if you believe something is too difficult for you that is also an obstacle to performing well. Confidence and humility, together, let you tackle a problem as it is, serene in the knowledge that you either will or won’t be able to solve it, and the only meaningful way to find out is to give it an honest try. These two concepts, believing in your ability to handle what’s coming and knowing that there are things that you will find difficult or undoable, are difficult to resolve, but powerful in tandem.