I think we’re all aware now that video game storytelling has entered the arena of art where it can begin to compete on equal footing with traditional mediums like books, film, and television. In time, it could even surpass them. After all, there is one thing that video games have that no other art form does: it puts the player in control. In a sense, you are the main character.
This is great in that it allows a sense of choose your own adventure in some games and allows you to alter the dialogue and sequences of events to represent what you would do in a given situation. This level of immersion is what makes gaming such fertile soil to plant narratives like BioWare’s Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead that not only serve as a mere distraction, but really get in our heads to the extent that we can regret our in-game decisions as if we’d made them in real life.
But as awesome as that is, it’s not the only way to immerse players in the world of a game and engage them on an emotional level. It might not even be the most effective. A lot of games these days are so focused on story that they forget that a serious challenge is what hooked many of us on video games back in the day, and it can still be an extremely effective way to further immerse gamers in their world.
General George S. Patton once said “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory”. Being faced with a hard-fought challenge and overcoming it is its own reward, but in video games you get extra incentive because you get to advance the narrative and get more loot in addition to the personal satisfaction of kicking all of the ass.
This isn’t a new thing either, obviously. Old school games are renowned for their difficulty, even if the rewards weren’t always as rich. In the before time, your reward for beating a level was usually a quick death on the next level so you could start the game over from the beginning and try again. If you beat all of the levels, you got a poorly-translated congratulations screen at best, and then maybe start the game over again on an even harder difficulty.
But consider old school RPGs for a minute. With threadbare storytelling, the tribulations of the player’s avatar was the main source of character development. But what about that moment when story became the focus? Enter the game that changed gaming for me forever.
That’s right, another patented Verboon Final Fantasy IV gushfest is on the way. Playing the DS remake – which is much tougher than the original North American SNES release – made me really appreciate how well-crafted it was in the sense that it used its own difficulty to deepen the narrative even beyond my nostalgic memories of it.
The best example of this comes early when you rescue a little girl, Rydia, from a village you sort of burned down. Having lost your partner it’s just you and her crossing a hostile desert. Keeping Rydia alive with her meager abilities is harrowing. The enemies instinctively home in on her and you have no real way to protect her other than killing them as fast as you can and using up all of your miniscule item stock reviving her, trying desperately to gain her a few levels of experience so she can at least take a couple of hits before she drops.
This very challenging stretch works on several levels. It deepens the protective bond with a character who will later become a powerhouse and even save you from oblivion when you are at your most helpless and it highlights the evolution of your main character, Cecil. He begins as a dark knight only capable of dealing death, but his experiences lead him to seek the skills of a paladin, which include healing and the ability to use yourself as a human shield to defend your allies. That last one is key because lacking that ability is exactly what made you feel so helpless trying to get Rydia across that fucking desert.
In FFIV and other old school role-playing games, your party did not usually auto-heal up after every battle, and you couldn’t save anywhere you pleased. This made going into unknown dungeons extremely risky and pushing through a difficult one drained your resources considerably, stressing the player and adding to the immersion of traveling and living off the fat of the land; every chest and item drop a potential life-saver, every encounter a potentially deadly fight that could cost you an hour or more of progress and send you right back to where you started. In a sense, you felt what your characters were feeling.
In subsequent years, gaming has become less about the challenge and more about the experience. A lot of players n the old days would hit brick wall levels that they just could not pass and eventually give up on a game. This may have been acceptable in the 8 and 16 -bit days, but modern games have such massive budgets and such a plethora of content that developers are often worried about stonewalling players with too much challenge. With so many games on the shelf, it’s too tempting to just move on to something that isn’t going to slap you around and then laugh at you.
Imagine if an early level of The Last of Us was so hard that most people couldn’t pass it. Much of the cast performances, animations, pacing, twists, and various other perfections of the game would go unexperienced by all but the hardcore few, essentially wasting all of the blood, sweat, tears, and money that went into crafting it.
So now we’ve got constant checkpoints and save anywhere functionality so that even the toughest stretches can be inched through and when a game like Dead Rising reverts to the old school save point standard, people freak out. Heaven forbid they have to do the same thing TWICE upon dying or experience any sort of urgency when surrounded by a horde of the undead.
But it seems like some gamers are coming back around to embracing gaming as a challenge. Dark Souls is renowned for its difficulty and deliberate tormenting of the player, garnering almost universal acclaim for its peaks and valleys of exhilarating victory and crushing defeat and risk/reward exploration.
One of my favorite experiences from the past generation was Catherine, which balanced days and evenings spent on exploring character development and plot with nightmarish gameplay at night that had me dreading going home from the in-game bar every night knowing the immense challenge awaiting me.
In that game, going to sleep each night leads to nightmares that represent the fears and challenges that the character is experiencing in regards to his romantic and social relationships. He has to climb to the tops of towers of blocks that he has to manipulate in order to navigate while the tower crumbles from the bottom up. It’s really freakin’ hard, but then again since when is a nightmare supposed to be pleasant?
Every level cleared felt like a gift from the gods, every mid-level respite was a warm welcome, and every night survived yielded the greatest treasure of all, another day to spend with your loved ones and get your life in order. The time spent on story and character was wonderful and contrasted perfectly with the nerve-wracking nights spent battling your towering insecurities alone and familiarizing yourself with the instant classic “love is over” screen while failing miserably.
I can’t think of a more artful game from recent years or one where almost everybody I recommended it to told me they skipped it when they couldn’t beat the demo. Maybe it’s just me, but when I played that demo, I dreamed about it all night. The game literally got in my head. Would it have been the same if I’d been able to just breeze through it?
I’m glad to see that there are still some games that embrace challenging gameplay as a technique to immerse players in the worlds they create. It’s become unusual for adventures to really feel like adventures anymore so much as cakewalks. While it can be a good thing to allow players to relax and do what they please, I find a lot of my most memorable and cherished gaming experiences from childhood to present day come from games that really challenged and frustrated me. Meanwhile, a lot of the easier games I’ve played quickly faded from my memory.
The rush of finally locating the final dungeon in the original Legend of Zelda after searching for weeks, of beating the insane last level of Megaman 2, or being pushed to the limit by a superior opponent in UFC Unleashed before knocking my opponent out with a sick combo and jumping out of my chair with a Chuck Liddell-stlye celebration like I’d just won the title in real life; these are moments I remember forever. Who was the last boss in Fable 3 again? I genuinely don’t recall. I just recall that I got an achievement for never getting beaten even once in the entire game. That just shouldn’t ever happen.
Part of experiencing a virtual world and its characters is engaging the players’ emotions. Sure, you can use sight and sound to have an emotional story play out in front of us, but that approach is ported over from film. What sets games apart is the ability to share the in-game characters’ tribulations.
When you experience struggle within a well-crafted story, it can tie your emotions into the narrative in a way that only video games can do. Failing in a game with a great story feels like failing in real life and likewise the characters’ victories become your victories.
In a way, this is a deeper bond than any other medium has because the player is in control. You can’t really be challenged by a film or novel (other than intellectually), you can only watch or read and go along for the ride. It seems a shame to waste this kind of potential by making games easier and easier as the stories get more and more complex. In other words, bring on the rough stuff! A little tough love never hurt anyone and we’ll be better gamers because of it in the end.