Abstract image evoking bird silhouette

This month’s Blogs of the Round Table received the biggest response ever: a cavalcade of contributions so intimidating, I can feel my wrists hurting in mere anticipation of the impending writeup. “Don’t do it Alan”, the sentient tendons whisper, but that would be a disservice to all of the writers who took part. Also, I’ve already written this paragraph and so may as well finish. Here we go.

January’s theme was Challenge:

“The past few years have seen a resurgence of challenging games: Dark Souls, Spelunky, FTL: Faster Than Light, XCOM: Enemy Unknown to name but a few. Do you think videogames have more value in providing a stern challenge for the player to overcome, or does difficulty serve to alienate and deter potential players, impeding their potential for inclusiveness?

Alternatively, write about the greatest challenge you have overcome in a game (this can be a personal or emotional challenge rather than one of dexterity).”

Gods and Demons

Jeremy Voss isn’t a fan of challenging games, instead praising the ‘God mode’ offered by older shooters like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D as a way to explore these worlds without fear of death. The problem I’ve always had with God mode, noclip and friends is that they allow you to reach places you were never meant to visit, find those places empty or unfinished, breaking the illusion of the game’s world.

Brett Douville looks back on his fifteen years in the games industry, the challenges of the past and the prospects of the future. It’s interesting to read about the difficulties of programming games rather than playing the finished products, also detailed in an interview with Brett on the Bethesda Blog.

Daniel Lipson totally cheated at Final Fantasy VII by letting someone else defeat the Demon Wall. It’s alright though, because he can beat it himself now. In the age of YouTube, it’s possible to watch incredible feats of skill (apparently some people can actually complete Ninja Gaiden!) but nothing can match watching a friend beat a challenge in person.

Oscar Strik argues that the endless reloading and fruitless interactions of videogames are our own Groundhog Day. Interactions and battles become puzzles with finite solutions to be discovered by repetition, and “if the real world doesn’t work this way, why then should games?”. But who wouldn’t want to be Bill Murray in that film, freezing time for forty years so he could save lives and learn French with the torturous cost of hearing Sonny and Cher every single morning?

Give Me Challenge or Give Me Death

Donald Conrad has bucked the trend by playing Demon’s Souls rather than Dark Souls, offering a good explanation of why the Souls games are appealing if you’ve not played one yet. Since I spend a lot of time on Twitter, I just assume everyone is constantly playing Dark Souls.

Nate Paolasso draws a distinction between the deliberate trial-and-error pacing of Dark Souls and the lightning reactions of Super Meat Boy. Are all these blogs going to be about Dark Souls? Is every blog about Dark Souls? Is this the game that launched a thousand Tumblrs? Paolasso states games “that lack challenge are simply not worth playing”, but it’s just not true people! Ever played Rez?

Tom Battey is sick of meaningless death in games like Far Cry 3, and I know how he feels. I recently finished Uncharted, a game with worse checkpoints than Berlin in the 1960s, and they really do detract from your enjoyment. I disagree with Battey’s assertion that “games that aren’t challenging are dull”, though. Ever played Journey?

Sinclair Target is also a proponent of the “challenge is fun” school of games philosophy. To be honest, a piece containing the sentence “Dear Esther isn’t really a game” and using the anti-description ‘gameplay’ is a good way to troll your humble curator, but I can acknowledge the argument that challenge is a useful way to analyse mechanics- separating Bayonetta from Barbie, if you will.

Ben Hallett thinks the consequences of failure in XCOM and Dark Souls separate them from the inconsequential Civilization V and Arkham Asylum, for example; these consequences give them more in common with difficult online games like Counterstrike.

Let’s Talk About Games That Aren’t Dark Souls

Jackson Lango makes the compelling argument that The Walking Dead has moral difficulty, where the pressure comes in justifying our decisions, but without excluding players in the way mechanical challenges do. There’s also the traditional pressure of having to kill zombies before they eat you, of course, but Walking Dead has the tension of consequence where the situations in Oscar Strik’s aforementioned blog piece do not.

Nick Degens reaches a similar conclusion: that challenge can also rely on the affective state of the player, such as in horror games or the ‘psychological shooter’ Spec Ops: The Line. Some of the difficulty in Mass Effect comes from the torture of choice (or “die Qual der Wahl” as I heard it in high school), even when the consequences of choice are obvious.

Mark Filipowich sees difficulty as a glue that holds narratives together, whether it’s Luke piloting an X-Wing down the Death Star trench or Link snagging Ganon in the groin with a hookshot. Winning does feel good, and beating a hard challenge feels better for some, but I still don’t see why the existence of ‘Hard’ mode precludes the existence of ‘Easy’ mode as well.

Also, since when did Medium Difficulty look so snazzy? Great job with the redesign.

Mark Filipowich… wait a minute, he’s written two blog posts! In the second, he talks about the virtues of persevering with the weaker character Agnes in Final Fantasy Tactics. Investing time and effort into a character also increases our emotional investment with them.

Joseph Miller also talks about Final Fantasy Tactics, but calls difficulty “a limited expressive tool”, at least in the context of the games he wants to make which are about other feelings than “fiero” and “grip” (those are going into my lexicon).

Christopher Floyd has completed PGR3 on Platinum: we mere mortals should remain humble in the presence of a true thumb warrior. Even if PGR3 was utterly lacking in personality, its courses still had character – none more so than the Nordschleife.

Psepho wrote about the ‘accessible challenge’ of Super Hexagon, the magic of muscle memory and when the word “begin” becomes “again” through repetition. Have we all played Super Hexagon by now? You really should. It’s ace.

Peter Shafer challenges himself to be a pacifist in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, living with the consequences of his augmentation choices.

Taking It Easy-ish

Cha Holland confronts the all-too-real challenges of Dinner Date, a bizarre role-playing game where you play the subconscious of a man being stood up. I watched the trailer for the game since I’d never heard of it before. Is that what the inside of a person’s head really sounds like?

Jordan Erica Webber plays games on Easy, without shame. I’m glad someone took the bait on the topic of inclusion: challenging games are exclusive and elitist by necessity, and I’m not sure that’s what the medium needs right now.

Last but not least, some guy compared the ‘Nintendo Hard’ Jet Set Radio to its easier sequel. Difficulty isn’t enough to ensure satisfaction: games need a sense of reward to match, and it’s not just hard games that can be truly rewarding.

Wow, what a month. Massive thanks to everyone who submitted a piece for BoRT this month, especially our new contributors.

If you’ve participated, don’t forget to add the BoRT Linkomatic 5000 to your blog. Just embed the following code on your blog’s page:

<iframe type=“text/html” width=“600” height=“22” src=“http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=January13” frameborder=“0”></iframe>

And you’ll get this:

If you have trouble embedding the Linkomatic 5000, let me know on Twitter and I’ll try my best to help.