Some players see death or failure in a videogame as something that should only happen if you are careless. Other players see it as inevitable part of the process. (This article sums up a lot of my thinking on this subject.) Beyond that, different players have different expectations for the penalty they expect to endure for failure. Some players are comfortable with replaying the last five minutes. Others resent the setback and would rather simply retry the game from the point just preceeding their failure. (See also, Jay’s recent post on saving the game, which outlines the fiendish details of this problem.)
But the most overlooked thing that governs both difficulty and the enjoyment of the game is how well the player understands what the developer was thinking when they designed the challenge. It’s possible to have a game which does not require great skill, but which results in repeated failure until the player “learns” how to complete a particular scenario. Here is an example of this problem in action from the game XIII. (For those of you following along at home, I’m talking about Mission #25, “Bristol Suites Hotel – Surveillance”)
(I’m going to be really negative here because I’m focusing on a major weak spot in the game, but XIII has a lot of neat ideas and isn’t the train wreck you might think it is based on my comments here. I might have more to say on this game later.)
The goal of this mission is to eavesdrop on a conversation between a couple of leaders in a take-over-the-world cult. The bad guys are meeting in a hotel. The meeting is supposed to be super-secret, but the bad guys seem to have reserved an entire floor of a hotel for themselves. Not the most clandestine move, but this game has an over-the-top silliness to it and you just have to go with it. The pre-mission cutscene tells me I have to sneak around on their hotel level, go to a certain room, and listen in on them. It does not elaborate. Ummmm…. ok? I guess I’ll work out the particulars once I get there.
I emerge from the elevator at the start of the mission. A woman is coming. The game clues me in that she’s with the bad guys, so I get the drop on her and knock her out. She falls right in the middle of the hallway. Hmm. I really should stash her someplace. I check the nearby doors. One is a broom closet, the other leads to a laundry room. One door is marked with the “you cannot open this door or pick the lock”. I recognize this as a plot-driven door. The rest of the doors are non-interactive, meaning they aren’t really doors at all, they’re just scenery to make this place look like a hotel. Since this place is a dead end in terms of gamespace, I leave the body where it fell and move on.
I don’t have a map or anything. I’m not even sure what direction I should be heading, so I have to bumble around a bit and feel my way through the maze of fake doors. I find that I have to go through a laundry room to reach the rest of the floor because of the locked doors. This doesn’t exactly make sense, but there it is.
I move on. Once I’m a few rooms away a little icon appears to let me know that someone has discovered a body. But how? The place behind me is a dead end! Oh right. The plot door. It must be scripted to release a bad guy when I move on, to make sure I’m hiding bodies.
The alarm sounds. Mission failed.
I emerge from the elevator. I knock out the enemy. I grab the body. I move very slowly when carrying a body, so instead of dragging this thing all the way to the broom closet I drop it off in the laundry room on my way through.
I move on, defeat another guy, and before I can do anything else I get the “body discovered” message again. I guess putting the body in the laundry room wasn’t good enough? Fine. The broom closet next time.
The alarm sounds. Mission failed.
I emerge from the elevator. I knock out the enemy. I grab the body. Haul it to the broom closet. Move through the laundry room. Encounter next guy and put him down. I’m in an area for hotel staff right now, but I’ve learned that it’s not a good enough hiding spot. I need a broom closet. There aren’t any handy, so I have to go all the way back to the one near the entrance. This takes a while.
Once I get him stowed, I run into yet another guy. He’s way down the hall from me, but he must have ESP because even though I’m in plainclothes he knows I’m an enemy and not a lost hotel guest. He starts shooting at me. I can’t knock him out from here, so in a panic I switch to my machine gun and blast him. The noise alerts people elsewhere.
The alarm sounds. Mission failed.
Elevator. Enemy. Knockout. Drag to closet. Get next guy. Drag to closet. This time before going out into the hall I get out my silencer pistol. I drop the guy in the hall before he can cause trouble.
But now what do I do with him? Does the game really expect me to drag him all the way back to the original broom closet? That will take forever. I look around this hallway to see if there is another closet closer by. I can’t peek through doorways though, so I just have to run around kicking each door open all the way to see which ones are real doors and which ones are just scenery. As I explore some employees-only area looking for a closet I stumble into another bad guy. While we’re fighting, the body of the hallway guy is discovered. Sigh.
The alarm sounds. Mission failed.
Elevator. Enemy. Knockout. Drag to closet. Get next guy. Drag to closet. Drop Mr. Hallway with silencer pistol. I don’t know what else to do with him so I drag him allllll the way back to the broom closet at the start of the level.
I return to where I was, and meet yet another guy who’s decided the best way to guard this super-secret meeting between criminal masterminds is to run around shooting civilians. He’s right outside of the hotel room where I’m supposed to go, so after I kill him I just drag him into the room with me and shut the door.
Cue scripted sequence. I’m supposed to be eavesdropping on these guys, but the mission never explained the particulars. One of the other characters starts talking to me (through my radio) and he lets me know that if I look out my window I should see that I’m right across from the target. Sure enough, the hotel is U-shaped and I can look out my window and see him in the facing room. My friend explains that I’m supposed to use the “shotgun microphone”, which was added to my inventory for this mission. It looks like a little satellite dish. I aim it at the guy dressed as an army general I can hear him talking. If my aim strays, the audio cuts out and all I can hear is static, so I have to be careful. Interesting. From the conversation, it sounds like they’re planning a coup. (Duh.)
He’s moving around his room. It’s hard to stay with him. I’m looking at him through a sort of sniperscope which zooms in too far, so when Evil General suddenly changes direction it takes a second to get on him again. My friend warns me that we need a complete recording, which I intuit to mean that if I don’t stay on him I’ll fail the mission.
Evil Senator shows up to talk to Evil General. They cross the room together, but as I follow them there is suddenly a wall in the way! Ah! I pan back and fourth, looking for him. I drop out of “sniper” view for a second so I can get a wider view, and the audio cuts out. For whatever reason, the mic only works when I’m looking through the scope. I instantly fail the mission.
Elevator. Enemy. Knockout. Drag to closet. Get next guy. Drag to closet. Drop Mr. Hallway with silencer pistol. Then drag him allllll the way back to the broom closet at the start of the level. Knock out last guy and bring him into the room with me.
I again endure now-needless explanation of my goals and how to use the mic. While I’m ignoring that, I get my first solid look at these rooms and how they relate to each other. We each have two huge windows side-by-side, with a three-foot section of brick wall between them. I see that last time the Evil General was moving from window 1 to window 2. Because I was on the far side of my own window, the brick wall blocked me. Hmmmm. So, I guess this time I’ll try to stay directly across from him at all times. Instead of panning back and forth, I’ll move around my room to stay with him.
Evil Senator shows up and they repeat the conversation. They move towards window 2, but I keep getting caught on furniture as I try to move with them. It’s hard to walk around a room while looking through a dang sniperscope. I know I can’t zoom out even for a second or I’ll fail. As I move from window 1 to window 2 (and thus the wall is right in front of me) I get caught on a potted plant or something. I try to go around but it’s spoiled my aim. Mission failed.
This is really stupid. I missed five seconds of the conversation and I failed the mission? I imagine bringing the recording back to my boss:
EVIL GENERAL: Once we assassinate the president we will have total control, and then we can take over the wor- (hiiissssssssssss)
EVIL SENATOR: (hiisssssssssss) -agree with you. We will totally take over the world once he’s dead.
MY BOSS: Dang! If only you’d gotten the entire recording, we would know what they’re planning!
Elevator. Enemy. Knockout. Drag to closet. Get next guy. Drag to closet. Drop Mr. Hallway with silencer pistol and drag him allllll the way back to the broom closet at the start of the level. Knockout last guy and bring him into the room with me. This is getting old.
I’m not sure where I went wrong last time, so I’m not sure what to do different this time. I’m obviously not understanding how this is supposed to work. This conversation between the two Evils is both cliché and long. Listening to it once would have been fine, but it’s really grating on me now.
I try standing still again, only this time I’m at (my) window 2. Again, I lose Evil General behind the wall as he moves from window 1 to window 2. But this time I realize what I’ve been doing wrong. The mic can hear through the brick wall. I’ve been assuming the mic only worked through windows, and so I’ve been moving around trying to keep an unobstructed angle on Evil General. What I needed to be doing was intuiting his position behind the wall based on his trajectory when he went out of sight.
Nothing like a mission that assumes I’ll understand unexplained fictional technology. Jerks!
He goes back and fourth between the windows a few times, and I fail to track him properly. I miss a few seconds and the mission fails.
Elevator. Enemy. Knockout. Drag to closet. Get next guy. Drag to closet. Drop Mr. Hallway with silencer pistol and drag him allllll the way back to the broom closet at the start of the level. Knockout last guy and bring him into the room with me. Sigh. I’m getting really sick of this.
I make it to my room and endure the tutorial. Evil Senator shows up and the show starts, but I have the hang of it now. I track them as they move all over the place. What is with these guys? Too much coffee? Hold still you hyperactive geezers!
Suddenly, the conversation ends. I did it! But now they’re running for it! I get orders to not let them escape. I’m told to not let them reach the elevator. A timer appears. I have two minutes. But where do I go?
They are on a side of the hotel I can’t reach. I can only get to my half of the “U”. I assume that one of the plot doors I passed earlier has opened, and I need to use it to go to their side of the hotel. I figure their side will be populated with guys I have to fight, since I’ve already cleaned out my half of the hotel. But which set of doors do I use to get there? There were several plot doors, and It’s been a while so I can’t tell at a glance which doors are real.
I run around like a madman. These hallways are long, and I can’t ignore little side doors. I remember that I had to go through a laundry to get to where I am now, and I may have to take another such employees-only route to get to where I need to go. So, I have to sprint down the hall, hovering over each door to see if it can be opened. Suddenly I run into bad guys. I’m not really ready for it, since I expected this side of the hotel to be empty, but whatever. Somewhere around here is probably a clown-car style room that spits out bad guys.
I find nothing, so I backtrack, moving closer to the entrance. I’m almost out of time and I don’t even know where I’m going yet!
The timer runs out and the bad guys get away. Finally I understand: I didn’t need to get over to their side of the hotel. They were coming to mine! When the game said “don’t let them reach the elevator” it was talking about the original elevator where I started. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. This is a really big hotel, and it’s ridiculous to think one little elevator would serve the whole place. There would certainly be another elevator on their side of the hotel, and it would make no sense for them to cross to my side of the U to escape.
Uh, No. I’ve been at this for the better part of an hour, and I think I’m done now. (I’ve left out all of the failed attempts that were more or less my fault, such as when I was killed by enemies or repeated previous blunders. All told, I did this mission a lot more than 9 times.)
What we have here is the essence of DIAS gameplay. Now, there is nothing inherently HARD about this mission. Almost all of my failures were the result of me misunderstanding something that, in reality, my character would already know. The person who designed it would probably say it was pretty easy. They designed the shotgun mic, they set down the rules for when bad guys would show up, and came up with the idea of running back to the start location. I’m sure they thought it all made sense, and my own interpretations of what was going on probably never occurred to them. Yet this morass of misunderstandings led to repeated failure, and the penalty for failure escalated as I got further into the mission and invested more time into it.
The repeated failure finally drove me away from the thing, but that isn’t the my real problem with the game. My gripe isn’t that it encouraged metagame thinking, discouraged exploration, and harshly punished the player for failure. It did those things, sure, but the big fundamental problem was that it failed to properly convey the gameworld and bring the player into it. If I was allowed to save at any time I would have muddled through, but my enjoyment of the game was still ruined. It’s hard to stay “in character” when you don’t know simple facts that your character should know, such as how your tools work or where you are going.
Designing a game involves communicating with the player. I think what went wrong here wasn’t a lack of save system or a poorly calibrated challenge. This was, at the most basic level, a communication failure on the part of the storyteller. I’ve used XIII as my punching bag here just because it’s a glaring example, but this is a fairly common problem. The problem has actually gotten worse as games have evolved and become more complex and ambitious.
Bethesda felt the need to jam a morality system into Fallout 3, and they blew it. Good and evil make no sense and the moral compass points sideways.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
A wild game filled with wild ideas that features fun puzzles and mind-blowing environments. It has a great atmosphere, and one REALLY annoying flaw with its gameplay.
Two minutes of fun at the expense of a badly-run theme park.
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