Stairwell Philosophy – Easy Mode or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love No-Fail

They don’t make games like they used to. Back in the day you’d see the first quarter of a game about a million times and the rest only if you were lucky (or had enough time to get a good gaming zen going). We ran out of lives and got kicked back to the beginning of the whole game and we hit start and got right back in there to try again. It was the way of things and it was good.

But then came games with a new way of handling difficulty. Games with no ‘game over’ screen. Games where they just hand you the ending if you keep playing long enough. In some cases the game will effectively play itself and you just watch it like a movie. Where has the challenge gone?

Thing is, back in the day there was basically only one type of gamer to appeal to. Everyone had their genre tastes but it was pretty easy to make a game with universal appeal in a universe so small. Plus there were other good reasons to build a nice steep hill to victory. Arcade games don’t make good bank if the player can win it all on a single quarter, and stretching gameplay out with a few hours of game over screens made console game prices a little easier to justify.

Every so often you need to step back and take a look at why you do what you do. Does brutal unforgiving difficulty make this game more fun? Does it help draw you into the narrative? Does it serve some artistic purpose?

An easier difficulty setting can certainly be handy for the older gaming crowd. I for one usually play on the normal difficulty (assuming it’ll be the most balanced of the selections), but I’ll turn it down to easy if I just want to see the story or know I won’t have a lot of free time anytime soon. As real-life responsibilities build up over time I find I’d rather sacrifice some of the challenge in return for getting to see two or three levels tonight rather than playing one stage over and over and maybe having to play the same part again tomorrow night.

Another case for dialing back the difficulty of a game is accessability. Nintendo blazed a rather profitable trail with the Wii by making games with a much lower barrier to entry than was common to gaming at the time. Yet I think it’s a mistake to assume accessability and difficulty are automatically opposing forces.

Your mileage may vary, but for my part I like my difficulty best when it requires me to think. I enjoy comprehensible rules and systems, especially when an understanding of them allows one to achieve victory through superior tactics. By contrast I tend to lose interest after awhile in games whose challenge is predominately in execution, when the goal and method are quite clear and the difficulty is in performing the required actions with sufficient speed and precision. I do enjoy a good reflex challenge now and then (I have two drawers full of the games that coined the term ‘Nintendo Hard’), but I tire of them when it’s nothing but.

You can arguably have a bit of both in games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and the various descendants of Lego Star Wars. There’s virtually no barrier to hacking your way through all of the game’s content and seeing the big finale. If you like to get all the extra shinies it’s gonna take a little more work. L.A. Noire approaches interrogations in a similar way. If you totally bugger the investigation the story will still muddle through, but if you’re dilligent in clue-hunting and good at reading people you get a better score and a more satisfying narrative.  Rock Band and Guitar Hero also straddle the line (as referenced in the title): both provide great execution-based challenges, but if you just want to rock out with your friends you can flip on the no-fail and not worry about getting kicked offstage if someone’s not getting the groove.

One might even say the same of Prince of Persia ’08, the game that inspired this ramble. Ubisoft has often toyed with weaving a game-over into the narrative. In the first Assassin’s Creed you got ‘desynchronized’ if you sucked too much, and the Prince in Sands of Time had to start his story over on occasion if he misremembered one of the hundreds of alternate timelines where he fell to his death. In both cases when the player fails to complete the game’s challenges it’s explained in such a way that the narrative can logically continue (as opposed to most games where you just die and go back to the last checkpoint because that’s how it’s always been done).

For those not in the know, in Prince of Persia ’08 there is (almost) no game over screen. Early on in the game you team up with a sidekick character who generally fixes things with magic. If you’re about to fall to your death due to flubbing a jumping puzzle sequence she teleports you to safety. Likewise if you’re fighting a boss and about to die she blasts it back and bamfs you out of the melee, though this gives it a chance to regenerate a big chunk of its health.

I’ve heard complaints that the game is too easy because you can’t lose. What’s actually going on is that failure is redefined.  There’s more than a few faults keeping this PoP from standing tall amongst its brethren, but in my book this new method of handling difficulty isn’t one of them.  It’s true that if you set the controller down the game will go on an endless cycle of the boss nearly killing you and the sidekick rescuing you for all eternity, but look at it another way.

Method a) Fight a boss down to 10% health, make a few too many mistakes, die, loading screen, title screen, select load game, loading screen, select proper save file, longer loading screen, try again from the last checkpoint when the boss was at 75% health.

Method b) Fight a boss down to 10% health, make a few too many mistakes, sidekick bamfs you to safety, boss recharges to 75% health, get back in there.

You may notice one of these methods has you able to try again after a wait of maybe 3-5 seconds. The other makes you wait half a minute, maybe a full minute or two inbetween attempts. Time spent looking at loading screens and menus and reminding yourself that you’re faffing about with an electronic toy and not actually experiencing a thrilling adventure about space marines or wizards or whatever. And that’s if you’re lucky and the developers were kind with checkpoint placement. If not you’ll also have to spend who knows how long running through preceeding jumping puzzles or re-watching cutscenes or driving around town listening to repeated dialogue or whatever.

Older and wiser heads have gone into great detail at how it’s far easier to learn something you can keep trying at right away than to have to successfully compelete other tasks first, especially unrelated ones. Imagine for example you wanted to learn to play the trombone, but every time you wanted to practice it you had to go pass your driver’s ed class first. And then watch a music video that might be about trombone players, or might not. And sometimes sit staring at the trombone case for a while. Something like that.

To wrap things up, I’m hoping we’ll see more of this sort of experimentation in the future. By recognizing the differing applications of difficulty and accessibility we can create games that pose the kind of challenges that make old gamers and new want to press start to continue.