Games are insistent on the player's attention, but they're not always good at keeping it.
It's a problem I ran into recently with one of my favorite games of the year, Kingdom Hearts III. Don't get me wrong, the game is fantastic, but it had, at launch, one major problem in the way the game's combat was structured. For anyone who had played earlier games in the series, it was, well, easy. These games have always been accused of being button-mashers—games where you can just hit the attack button over and over again and win most encounters—but Kingdom Hearts III, being balanced primarily for new players in all of its difficulty settings, was a particularly glaring example for the vast majority of the game.
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The ease of the majority of the game meant that most encounters could be played in the same way, and for a game heavy on combat, that's a huge problem. Without clear downsides, certain dominant strategies began to define my entire play style, and I would spend entire fights sort of zoned out, doing the same actions over and over again, thinking about dinner or composing a tweet in my head.
A lot of games have this problem, which I would put thusly: They are mechanics-driven games, designed to keep your interest and entertain you by having you engage with a set of rules and actions to solve challenges, but they do not force you, as the player, to actually engage with their mechanics. Instead of being creative, or thoughtful, in the game's problem solving exercises, you can instead get by simply by relying on easy answers and sheer luck.
For some players, this might not be a problem. Difficulty isn't everything, after all, and challenge is only one of the many reasons people play videogames. Yet, the question of challenge has become a bit of a hot-button issue in games recently, as players wonder what it takes to make hard games accessible for disabled players, and what difficulty and accessibility do and don't have in common. (See this piece on IGN for a great run down of that discussion.)
It should go without saying that a game ought to be designed in a way that makes them interesting and playable to as many players as possible. But well-designed challenge also has substantial merits, particularly in games based around their mechanics. A good challenge can force a player to engage thoughtfully with the game's systems and ideas. It turns a game into a sort of teaching tool that shapes the player into the type of person who is adept at this type of videogame, by cutting off boring strategies and encouraging the most interesting play. Good challenge makes you think, and learn from an experience, and become a better player. Good challenge is a solution to boring ease.
A good challenge can force a player to engage thoughtfully with the game's systems and ideas. It turns a game into a sort of teaching tool that shapes the player into the type of person who is adept at this type of videogame, by encouraging the most interesting play.
And for me, Kingdom Hearts III is finally delivering on that good challenge. Last week, the game updated with a new Critical Mode difficulty setting, which halfs your health and magic points and makes enemies tougher, braver, and more aggressive. But, critically, the game doesn't make you weaker—you still are powerful, hitting hard, and able to wield incredible combos and weapon transformations.
The change this has on the game is hard to overstate. Critical Mode transforms Kingdom Hearts III into a fast-paced game of risk and reward, where you can dish out high damage but also die extremely quickly. In the first few hours of replaying the game, I've had to rethink everything about my approach. Encounters that used to give me no trouble are now intensely challenging. I've learned so much more about how the game works, how its flashy combat system actually creates synergies and tricks that you can use to make things easier. I've learned to look at, and use, every resource the game gives to me. It's thrilling when I succeed.
That's what well-made difficulty settings can do: They can let you tune your experience until it feels absolutely taut with excitement, until it demands and rewards your own mastery of the game experience. Challenge, used rightly, is a tool in a game developer's toolbox. It can bear expressive weight and make games better.
So, next time you play a game that seems neat but that doesn't quite keep your attention, try turning up the difficulty setting before you shelve it. It might make something work that didn't otherwise. Some games need challenge to really sing.
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