This month over at Man Bytes Blog’s Round Table, the topic is game difficulty.
When I try to think of examples of games that I played that are either “too hard” or “too easy”, I usually wind up going way back to the King’s Quest and Hero’s Quest series of games by Sierra. Of all the games I have ever played, I think that King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human is probably the most difficult game I ever played. Not because it was really all that hard to figure out or challenging, but because the game used a typed interface and required keywords, which were not provided to you. If you wanted to pick up a duck and put it in a pot it might take a good thirty minutes or more to discover that you needed to “get pot”, then “hold pot” and finally walk to the duck and “put duck in pot”. It was, in a way, very similar to the maddening “open eyes” command you needed to execute at the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text game, only it happened a lot more frequently. On the other end of the spectrum, Hero’s Quest employed an almost entirely mouse driven system. In fact, to win the game all you really needed to do was walk into a room and drag the mouse across the screen over every object and see if the cursor changed. If it did, you clicked on it.
It is those two ends of the spectrum that determines how much effort I am willing to put into any game. If a game’s control system is so obtuse that even when I am sure I know the answer I can’t seem to actually solve the puzzle, or if I walk into a room and it is covered in highlighted objects and glowing question marks and exclamation points, I lose all interest in playing.
This even applies to MMOs… when I first tried out EVE Online, it was clearly an example of the first. There were no tutorials on the UI, nor was there much in the way of any sort of quests or missions. I ended up doing the things in game that were the easiest to figure out (mining) and was bored out of my skull. I quit. Later, I would return after they added in a number of tutorials and more missions, and it has gotten much better. On the other end you have World of Warcraft where if it isn’t marked by a giant floating exclamation point there is almost no reason to investigate at all, and once you have investigated the exclamation point you are rewarded with a bullet list of things to do before you return to the giant question mark.
To me, from the point of view of having to figure things out without struggling and not being given “the” path, I understand why I played EverQuest for so long. In that game you entered the world with a note saying to visit your guild master. You did, and in most cases were rewarded with your first quest, where they asked you to do something, but you weren’t given a bullet list. Learning that talking to people got you quests, you would then talk to other folks, some of which had quests, and some of which just added flavor to the game. As you traveled, you talked to more folks… visiting an inn? Talk to all seven NPCs while you are there. Of course, some people played the game in such a manner that they felt required to talk to every single NPC in a town, running themselves ragged and making detailed maps and notes to be sure they had talked to absolutely everyone. I never did that, I just talked to the NPCs as I found them.
Of course, EverQuest is not like that any more. Now they have co-opted WoW’s features so that new quests do give you a quest log bullet list of highlights. You don’t even need to bother reading the quest, and if the NPC doesn’t have the appropriate level range in the tag over his head, you can just avoid them altogether.
I can see the argument that some people use against EQ, in that its quests didn’t properly lead you from one area to the next. Breadcrumbs. But in newer games, I feel like they’ve got so far as to bypass breadcrumbs and just install a rail system. They don’t suggest I should try the next town so much as they point all my quests to the next town and if I don’t go there I won’t have anything to do. The problem is that often I would like to go some place that is personally more interesting, but I get there in WoW and find there is nothing to do because I went the “wrong” way.
Outside of MMOs, whenever I play a single player game, I always feel that I need a good strong narrative to keep me going. I enjoy Half-Life 2 and Bioshock because as I progress of location to locations, even though I know I am on a rail and there is no other way to go, the story and the action keep me wanting to go that way. Then I pick a game like Lost: Via Domus and I barely played into the game at all… I just didn’t want to go the direction the story wanted me to go. I want to explore the beach while the game wants me to run into the jungle, and just as they finally manage to make me interested in the jungle they are now forcing me to go back to the beach. Someone is shooting at me and I want to fight them, but I’m not allowed to, whereas in HL2, someone is shooting at me, I’m not supposed to fight them and the I don’t want to fight them, I want to run.
Anyway, this post has been enough of a rambling mess, so I am just going to stop now… I’m not even sure I managed to cover the Round Table subject…