It is often the case that a video game is conceived as a means for exploring an idea, fantasy, or story. In other words, the heart of the game is not a mechanic. Thus the developer is tasked with contriving a mechanic, and more specifically, a challenge, to engage the player. I have come to feel that not only does the challenge in many games often feel contrived, it is entirely unnecessary to a satisfying gameplay experience. In many cases, developers would be served by understanding “game” as “interactive media,” rather than as necessitating some sort of challenge.
The highest profile and recent example of tacked-on gameplay hampering player experience is Bioshock Infinite. The FPS is not terribly implemented—it is simply less interesting than the setting of Columbia, and detracts from that place’s atmosphere and the game’s narrative.
For example, it would make more sense for the protagonist, Booker DeWitt to be gradually seduced by Columbia, before ultimately turning against it. After all, in a parallel universe DeWitt himself masterminded the floating city. Allowing the player to engage with the city on more peaceful terms for a prolonged period would generate suspense and draw out the cultural and interpersonal tensions driving the narrative. Even if you disagree with me on that point, there’s no question that many critics have essentially voiced the opinion that they would have preferred to explore Columbia unimpeded by incessant gunplay. If I could go back in time like DeWitt, I would have urged Irrational to spend their development resources enriching NPC interactions and environmental details, rather than refining a frankly unnecessary combat engine. I want to explore the theme park Columbia, not the warzone.
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Developers often lose sight of the fact that interactivity in and of itself (that is, without challenge) can provide a compelling game experience. I have found myself increasingly drawn to interactive fiction and visual novels for this reason—I have agency and a place to explore, but am not required to solve a puzzle or kill something at every turn. I actually enjoy interactive fiction in which every choice I make provides a positive (compelling) outcome—where I am not deliberating between right and wrong answers, but exploring a branching story.
There are of course numerous examples of successful games not designed around a challenge. Back in 2006 Tale of Tales released The Endless Forrest, essentially an elaborate chat room in which the players were deer who could communicate only with projected symbols—much like the more recent and successful Journey. For many, Just Dance provided a preferable experience to DDR and other unforgiving rhythm games. And of course who can overlook the popular Sims franchise.
Children’s games provide some of the most amusing examples of tacked-on challenge. It seems every blockbuster children’s cartoon spawns the same abysmal platformer and adventure lite titles. I would much rather be allowed to return to the world of the movie with the opportunity to explore the world at my own pace and have my own interactions with the characters (because there is no actual space in a film, only narrative). What that would look like would still vary from game to game, but I would want to see interactivity organic to the spirit of the story. †
The role playing genre is the worst offender. The player’s “role” is almost entirely restricted to hero, and more specifically killer, because that’s all the game allows the player to do. Pen and paper RPGs are so compelling because players become characters whose role is to tell jokes, or be enfeebled, or contribute any manner of characteristics to the game experience. Contemporary RPGs hint at mechanics beyond combat, but rarely fulfill on the promise of a world enriched by non-combat oriented play. Again, this is largely due to the perceived need to focus player interaction with the game on the completion of challenges, as opposed to allowing players to simply play. †
Fortunately, developers, especially indie devs, seem increasingly willing to experiment with challenge and the lack thereof. There has been a flood of small indie titles, such as Today I Die, which use simple player interactivity to communicate emotion and atmosphere without really providing a challenge. Conversely, the game Cart Life, which communicates to players the hardships of being a poor food cart owner, has an appropriately unforgiving difficulty curve. The game’s almost impossible communicates hardship in a way balanced gameplay never could. While I love a good FPS as much as the next guy, playing as a hopelessly outmanned, disempowered insurgent could prove a powerful experience.
Games designed around providing a challenge, and specifically a balanced challenge, are inherently limited. There are countless activities that could serve as compelling gameplay but that we don’t see simply because they aren’t challenging. Likewise many games feature fun activities, but wall them behind tedious gameplay (you can wear pretty dresses and hats, but you have to earn those garments first). †
I am hungry for games that allow me to explore without tasking me with success. I want to fly into deep space and explore alien worlds and interact with (or merely spectate) the lush fauna and flora. I do not always want to shoot said alien life, or rescue it from natural disasters, or develop its economy, or ward of rival spaceships. I’m not saying games that focus on one of those aforementioned challenges shouldn’t exist. I’m saying that maybe, for once, I could have an experience that fulfills on its core promise without saddling me with contrived challenges.†