Difficulty in Games

I’ve been thinking for a while about the concept of difficulty in art, and how it applies differently across media — how we mean different things by the word, depending on what we’re applying the label to.

The spark for this line of thinking is usually encountering a particularly hard section, or element, of a video game. In games — and, specifically, PvE (player vs environment) games — the person with the controller in their hands pits their wits, reactions, and sometimes temperament, against the game itself. At a very basic level, progress through the game is measured in successful actions taken. Bopped an enemy on the head? That’s a little bit of progress. Collected a coin? That’s progress. Reached the end of a level? Progress.

That’s a very reductive way of thinking about it, and there are uncountable different ways in which these variables can be altered by the game designer, but regardless, the heart of games is that progress is attained through player action.

This isn’t the case in any other artistic medium. Nothing is required of the listener for a song, or even a whole symphony, to play out and conclude. I can attest from personal experience that films and television shows will run uninhibited before even the most disinterested viewer. Paintings and sculptures do not care whether you pay attention to them, but leave Sonic alone for a few seconds and he’ll start tapping his foot, impatient for you to make progress.

Books present an interesting middle ground. Unlike those artforms that can be received (even enjoyed) passively, reading takes work. The reader must make an effort to translate graphemes into concepts, and to parse meaning from a sustained series of them. And where there is effort required, the concept of difficulty necessarily arises. A children’s picture book requires far less of the reader than a work of literature intended for adults. This difficulty is denoted in, and results from, the complexity of both language and ideas employed by the author: a greater number of graphemes to translate, a denser web of meaning to discern.

However, unlike in games, the difficulty of a text does not prevent progress in at least one form. It is perfectly possible for anyone who has attained the skill of translating letter combinations into sounds, to make their way through Finnegan’s Wake. That reader will recognise a good number of words in the text, and can take a phonetic stab at the rest; step-by-step, one unit of the artwork at a time, they can make their way through to the end. The degree of meaning that this particular reader is able to discern from the work is going to be minimal, but a lack of comprehension can only slow and not halt their material progress.

Only in video games is progress gated by player skill. Moment-to-moment the player is called upon to assess game state, make mental calculations about their next move, and then perform the physical inputs on a controller so as to effect it. If you are not capable of doing this, you will fail to progress: you will not be able to manoeuvre your character to reach the door, you will not solve the puzzle that rewards you with the key, or you will be repeatedly defeated in combat by the enemy on the other side.

• • •

That’s the way I’ve conceived of this issue for a long while, but lately I’ve been wondering whether some more consideration needs to be made of the derivable value of the artwork in question.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the core value of a game is the joy it elicits, and the core value of a literary work is the meaning it provides. In this respect, whilst little may prevent one from making one’s way through the physical form of a text, the meaning one is able to extract from it will vary depending upon the ‘skill’ of the reader. (This may include vocabulary, imagination, understanding of context, emotional availability, and any number of other factors.) In this respect the text as artwork operates as a partnership between writer & reader: how effectively the former is able to capture in writing the ideas, emotions, and meaning that they desire to convey; and how adroitly the latter is able to decode the same1.

In the case of a game, the responsibilities that lie more or less solely with the author in the above example2 may be distributed across any number of individuals depending on the game: designers who work to construct narrative, atmosphere, mechanics: the world of the game, the way it sounds, its characters, what the player can and cannot affect, and how. By virtue of the inextricable link between player action and progress, the player’s role is shaped by the designer(s). They can certainly choose to move their character in a circle ad infinitum, but no progress will be made. Progress depends upon overcoming the challenges set by the designer(s), and doing so requires skill. Thus, whilst games uniquely gate progress based on player skill, both games and literature require audience attention, effort, and a form of skill in order for their inherent value to be realised.

• • •

All of this is just me thinking out loud, and the binary I’ve constructed here is pretty weak. Plenty of writing prioritises enjoyment over meaning, and there are certainly games that seek to provide something to the player other than (or beyond) simple enjoyment. However, I am increasingly convinced that value is an important concept here beyond the simple question of being notionally present for an artwork’s duration.

  1. This is certainly not to say that the value of any artwork is dependant on the clarity with which it communicates the artist’s specific intent. The immense value of personal, individual meaning being derived by the audience is precisely what makes art beautiful and powerful.   ↩︎

  2. Though potential contributions of an editor and/or translator shouldn’t be overlooked.  ↩︎

Adam Wood @adam