Saturday 25 January 2014

Difficulty Isn't the Point & Often is a Problem

Here's something about what games are. Only weeks ago I was also riffing on the idea of how we all experience games differently, but I believe this piece is taking us down a path we should not travel. It's a very narrow definition of difficulty that tries to strip it from other mediums; the traditional narrowing of the definition of computer game to exclude things like Dear Esther, Proteus, Sim City, Gone Home. To try and point to competitive games as the origin and then rob the computer of player status if it does not participate enough and reject the notion that solitaire games have always existed, where there is no other player with agency in the system.

Computers are interactive, computer games can thusly be made to react to the player, to reform the words and images in such a way as to allow the continued consumption and understanding of the message despite the issues of the consumer. This, not their offering of roadblocks, elevates them beyond a book or a film, which must be repetitively consumed in the hope of being able to understand it for anything which wishes to have a message beyond the surface or being fully read by audiences of a range of abilities. Difficulty is not the enemy, but saying one size fits all and difficulty should not be complained about (as a wall that should not move to meet the height the player needs) is holding the medium back. Also, just immersing the playing in a virtual space has no traditional difficulty, it's still a game. There is nothing special about being blocked from continuing, which is the very specific form of difficulty being expressed in that piece, and nothing core about games that ties them to that design choice.

Here is Jeff Vogel talking about the repeated consumption of something to grok it, to endlessly mine it for more meaning, as being a sign of great art. You may not like his assertion that games have not reached that point but he does point at both the opening fallacy of the first piece (that a book is read by merely looking at every page or a movie is completely consumed by sitting in the room as it plays) and that games have the potential to really be incredible as adaptive systems that can work on many levels and tune what comes out for which level you want to read at, one size does not need to fit all. And it's got nothing to do with difficulty as blocking progress, of giving a path to some mastery or repetitive task.

That difficulty is certainly not THE POINT of games. Failing to understand the variable skills of the many players that will engage with the system, hiding anything beyond mechanical mastery of a system as the proposed pinnacle of gaming, is part of the problem. We can do so much more, we can make reactive systems that guide the player to different readings and provide alternatives to repeat consumption to see a piece on a different level, we can adapt. We must adapt. That's what makes games able to do things books and movies cannot, but we're still maturing and we've got plenty of work to do to get to a place of strength, to our truly great works. If we (not to say we will) start to get there in virtual spaces, using the power of VR to put the player somewhere as a jump from immersion to presence then I'm not going to be there complaining that there are no roadblocks in this interactive virtual space and it isn't a game and misses the point of games to be difficult. Computer games can be so many things, difficulty is a tool in many dimensions and the single dimension talked about in the original piece is something that must be tuned to the player as we move forward.

Edit: the repost of this on GiantBomb got some conversation flowing in the comments. I also ended up responding with a second piece on difficulty which half-stole a post I've been writing for here 'More on Skill & Flow' so maybe I'll actually finish that soon and post the complete, developed point. Think of my comment on the GB blog as a sneak peek of what my next blog post will be about.