Posted on September 4, 2014, Marshall Lemon When Good Games Are Too Hard
Gods Will Be Watching recently implemented its Mercy update, adding new gameplay modes that scaled back its difficulty and the impact of random outcomes. Sure, the original, brutally challenging mode remains untouched, but adding the new mode is an interesting decision.
But at the same time, those who complained about the original difficulty mode aren’t wrong either.
The entire point of Gods Will Be Watching was to hit players with intensely difficult situations, and make them feel the consequences of every decision. But whatever the creative intent, the overall outcry among players was that the game was too hard, prompting developer Deconstructeam to offer alternatives.
On a certain level, Deconstructeam would have been perfectly right if it just dismissed these arguments and stuck with the original difficulty. The experience is supposed to be emotionally frustrating, and complaints that the game needs to be “fixed” miss that point. Gods Will Be Watching wants you to feel upset and like you’re about to lose control. Perhaps more importantly, the intended experience was designed in sync with specific game mechanics; replacing it with a “puzzle mode” runs the risk of spoiling a cohesive product.
But at the same time, those who complained about the original difficulty mode aren’t wrong either. They’re pointing to a vital issue that developers should always account for: is your game simply challenging, or are you actively wasting the player’s time?
Our own Phil Hornshaw recently wrote about his time with Alien: Isolation, describing a sequence where he was dying in a fire before spotting a ladder obscured by smoke. He described the experience as more intense and emotionally satisfying because of its difficulty, and he is absolutely right. It would be more exciting thanks to the challenging difficulty, if that challenge happens precisely once.
Here’s the scenario I imagine happening to me as I read Phil’s words: I play through that sequence, and my character dies without spotting the ladder. Then I reload the game from an earlier checkpoint, and die again. By the third or fourth time, I’d finally piece together what I need to do and pass to the next area, but by that point I’m not really that engaged in what’s happening anymore. I’m just looking for the key that unlocks the next section of the game so I can keep the story going. And the more difficult the sequence is, the more frustrating these reloads will become since I’m no longer immersed in what’s happening.
In other words, this moment will be fully engaging only if I can never encounter that exact challenge again. Either I succeed on the first try, or I die and the scene reloads with some element changed. Maybe the room isn’t on fire anymore. Maybe the alien is in the room. Maybe the alien is in the room and is on fire. But if it’s so difficult that I’m just getting killed repeatedly, I’m not having fun. You’re wasting my time and making me feel like I’m in Groundhog Day.