When I think about the games that inspired me to design games, I inevitably think of Final Fantasy Tactics. I have played a lot of FFT over the years. When I first started back in 2001, it could be a very difficult game. Back then, I didn’t understand how to abuse certain character builds in order to make every battle comically easy. Auto potion? Lame. I want Mind Break thanks, that sounds badass. (That is “Rend Magick” if you only played the re-translated War of the Lions.) However, I persevered through the numerous “protect person X, even though person X clearly has no sense of self-preservation whatsoever” missions and did beat the game after putting in about 80 hours of play. What kept me going was the amazing story. Even the poorly translated Playstation version completely entranced me. I was fascinated by the intrigue, class war, religious commentary, and historical skepticism. But in order to get to all that, you have to stop Rafa from getting murdered, and that can be quite an obstacle.
When I design games, I don’t want them to be very challenging. There are a few reasons for this. First, I want my games to be seen as art, and beyond that, to convince people that games can be art if they don’t already think so. Second, difficulty is a very limited expressive tool, so it doesn’t have very much utility in creating the experiences that I am interested in. Finally, difficulty narrows the potential audience for games and results in fewer people being able to complete games. I want people to find expressive value in my games, in addition to being entertaining experiences. There are plenty of games that a person can play for free if they just want to be entertained. For me, the value of game design lies in creating emotionally and intellectually affecting experiences on par with great novels, comics, poetry, film, music, painting, sculpture, and other expressive art forms.
The community of gaming criticism is slowly but surely moving away from the question of whether or not games can be art. It is clear that they are, from an intellectual standpoint. But that is different from the practical question of whether or not games are living up to their potential as an art form. I think that most people in the game criticism community would say that modern video games, with very few exceptions, are not. To design games that are emotionally affecting, it seems as though challenge needs to be greatly reduced. I want people to be able to experience the full range of content that my games offer without spending hours and hours to build up the skills necessary to complete the game. A notable exception to this is games like Tetris, where all the content is available regardless of how far you progress through the game. In this case, challenge does not create a barrier to content. Very difficult games are also hard to critically analyze, since it is hard to revisit specific sections in order to investigate them more thoroughly.
In short, if I design something, I want everyone to be able to experience it, especially those who don’t necessarily have a lot of video game skills. People who have played many games with a strong narrative or expressive element have probably already found a game that resonates with them. The new audience for expressive games are not the dedicated players who are willing to sink twenty to eighty hours into a game. The new audience is made of players who don’t have as many game experiences and want to play games for twenty minutes to an hour at a time and get satisfaction from it. I think if we can start reaching that audience, we will be a lot closer to realizing the full potential of games as an art form.
From the standpoint of expressive tools, challenge is not particularly interesting. Making a game difficult can help it convey a feeling of triumph, or fiero, a term I ran across reading this great article. They are also good at creating “grip,” the sense of wanting to try one more time, since success felt very close on the last attempt. However, having difficulty be a constant part of a game makes fiero and grip the primary feelings involved. If you think about a classic sport movie, like Rocky for instance, in which triumph is one of the central feelings that the movie communicates, you can see that fiero is not the only emotion that you feel while watching it. The movie communicates many things, such as the friendship between Rocky and Mickey, the romance between Rocky and Adrian, the sense of accomplishment in training, and the sense of mutual respect between Apollo and Rocky at the end of the movie. Triumph is only one aspect of what makes Rocky a great movie. Furthermore, notice that the movie communicates triumph very effectively even though Rocky doesn’t actually win! Even in a story in which triumph is centrally featured, many other things also need to be communicated, many of which are not well-suited to being communicated with game difficulty. Would playing the romance between Rocky and Adrian really be more interesting if you had to retry the “level” ten times because you did it wrong? I doubt it.
I want to use games to be able to communicate many things. I want to use my games to talk about sadness, joy, nostalgia, jealousy, shame, peacefulness, awkwardness, and many other things. Sometimes I may want to communicate fiero. But that’s not my main interest, and I think it is tired territory. Games have covered fiero pretty well, I want to see what else we can do with this amazing art form.
Communication through art is very important to me. I think that art can make people’s lives better and can help people get through situations that they couldn’t otherwise. I think art can help people feel like they’re not alone in the world, even when things are tough. I know that games can do that for people, and I want to contribute to that body of work. Many people play games, but not all games are particularly expressive. Games like Solitaire, Farmville, and other games with low barriers to entry and very little required time investment are very popular. Most people don’t want to be required to put a lot of time into a game, they just want it to be there for them when they need it, kind of like a TV show or radio program. Watching Parks and Rec wouldn’t be nearly as relaxing if I was first required to run a mile before Hulu would load the newest episode. There’s nothing wrong with these types of games, but I want to make better ones. I want to make games that have the same easy-to-access qualities, but which are also expressive and say something about life.
At this point, I think it’s important to distinguish between optional challenge and mandatory challenge. Mandatory challenge is the traditional kind of challenge found in most video games. You must defeat Bowser to win the game and see the ending of Mario games. Optional challenge means that you can try to accomplish designed objectives, but completing them is unnecessary to experience all the game content. I think that optional challenge gets around all the issues that I bring up in terms of difficulty limiting access to content and limiting the audience. In fact, 40% of Angry Birds players were willing to shell out $1 to make the challenge of Angry Birds optional. People expect some challenge in games, so providing some element of it may be a good idea, but making it optional means that difficulty doesn’t drown out the other things a game is trying to say.
Designing games has always been something that I’ve wanted to do, but what inspired me was never the challenge of a game. Despite the huge sense of triumph that I felt when I beat Final Fantasy Tactics, that wasn’t the feeling that stayed with me the most. What continues to influence me to this day were the characters, the story, and the ideas presented in it. I am lucky enough to have had the time to complete that game, but many people will never experience how great it is because it’s too challenging, because the meaningful messages of the game are drowned out by level grinding, and because it takes too much time to complete. I want to make games that make people’s lives better, the way FFT made my life better. And the way I want to do that is by making something beautiful that they can experience without having to “get good at” or spend twenty hours to complete. I don’t want to make the player throw the game across the room because DAMNIT MUSTADIO WHY CAN’T YOU JUST HIDE IN THE CORNER UNTIL I SMOKE THESE BASTARDS!
This post was written as part of Critical Distance’s January Blogs of the Round Table. They posed the following question:
“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?”
The banner image for this post is by eldi13.