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Challenge and Life in Video Games

January 10th, 2010

My dissertation was handed in over a month ago, but here I am writing about games again. I wrote this in a forum and thought it deserved recording here.

I don’t think anybody has ever got ‘challenge’ right in a video game. The inclusion of a ‘life’ system does not necessarily make a challenging game. For example, factoring out stress, hitting a moving ball with a baseball bat is no more challenging because the number of attempts you’re given is limited. The difficulties in directing the bat to where the ball will be and redirecting it where you want are still there. Recharging ‘life’ is just an imperfect alternative to this technique. The only reason these systems persist is that for now the only way for titles to be a game and not simply an interactive experience there must be a way to fail.

Now of course in the real world when you never really fail utterly, life goes on (unless of course that failure means your death, but bear with me) but with today’s technology it’s impossible to handle the outcome of every possible failure in what quickly becomes a massively complex tree of consequence. For this reason there must be a way for the player to fail utterly.

In these circumstances, when the player fails you can either ask them to retry the task until they don’t fail, or give them a break with a ‘revival’ mechanic, allowing them to continue as if they hadn’t failed at all.

So you have two choices:

A. Limited lives. The player has to repeat sections until they succeed, which is potentially frustrating, but at least failure has meaning and you understand why you cannot progress.

B. Recharging life. The player will rarely have to repeat sections, but challenge is basically removed, so there had better be a compelling plot or another device to retain their interest.

Luckily most of the games the hardcore crowd consume are about killing and trying not to be killed, so when you fail, you’re dead, it’s easy to accept that you can’t just go on and option A isn’t so hard to swallow. However, retrying the section that was giving you trouble is unrealistic as you do so with a foresight you didn’t have before, you know where enemies are going to come from, how many of them there are, what aspects of the environment you can exploit to your advantage etc. Arguably the ‘challenge’ is thereby diminished.

I suppose it all boils down to what you’re looking for in a video game. A game in the traditional sense is a device for limited play. Nowadays some people are looking for an immersive experience rather than a true game with rules and winning and losing. I’m not saying that the two are mutually exclusive, or that either is right or wrong, but it’s very difficult to find a middle ground between the two.