So, last week I talked about games of all kinds and the distinction between a game as experience and a game as challenge. As I said there, video games have special issues with the challenge vs experience dichotomy, and it all comes down to the fact that, in a video game, we have the ability to save and replay sections of the game if we fail at a challenge, which you typically can’t do in other sorts of games.
Let’s look, then, at what happens in other types of games when you hit a challenge that you simply aren’t prepared for. In sports, you hit a team that’s too strong for you, or they spring a strategy on you that you weren’t prepared for and run up a big lead. In a board game, you get a string of bad luck or you don’t understand how to play the game and so end up behind, and perhaps even in an unwinnable situation. In all of these cases, you have two choices. Either you keep playing the game, or you simply quit completely and start over. Thus, either you stay in the experience — even if it isn’t one that you particularly enjoy — or else you end the experience entirely, and often go to do something else. Either way, the situation doesn’t drag you out of the experience only to reinsert you into it a few minutes later. hoping that you can pick up the experience as you go along.
Video games are different. If you hit a challenge, or something that leaves you in a tough situation, you can and are generally encouraged to restart from an existing save file and pick up from where you left off, preferably in a way that will let you get past whatever obstacle you encountered. Thus, a video game can present ending the game entirely as a speed bump on your way to the end of the game, as if the game ends you can just reload pretty much where you left off. Thus, a video game can present harsh challenges — and harsh consequences to failing the challenges — without forcing the player to pack up the game and move on to something else, or restarting the game entirely.
The problem is that from an experience standpoint, every time you actually die it drags you out of the experience, as you go through the cutscene that kills off your character(s), and then through the loading screen, and then back into the game where you left off, without having all of the preamble that got you caught up in the experience to start with. And even if you have to replay large portions of the game, some of the tricks that it used to drag you into the experience will be lost. There’s a reason why Shamus Young recommends that survival horror games might want to threaten death but never actually kill the player, in that being threatened with death is great and immersive and generates fear, but actually dying drags you out of the experience and ruins the fear the game is trying to generate.
So, with saves, video games can ramp up the challenge, even using — and over-using — DIAS-style gameplay. But if they do that, they break up the continuity of the experience, and thus make for a disjoint experience, where potentially just as you’re getting into the experience, you die and get yanked back into reality and get reminded that, yes, this is really just a game. Video games have a remarkable ability to get players to suspend disbelief, but overusing the challenge notion of games can ruin that, all unintentionally. Other games either keep going or end when the challenge becomes overwhelming. Video games are the only case where you can keep retrying and retrying, and thus have a disjoint experience based on how challenging the gameplay happens to be for you in those cases.
I think Bioware’s “Narrative” difficulty might be first step towards resolving this, where at that difficulty level the challenges are minimized in favour of maintaining the experience, while at the other end the focus is on challenge rather than on maintaining a continuous experience. If this catches on and games start doing more things to focus on one or the other, games might move from having this dichotomy as a unique problem to having this dichotomy be a unique benefit, as the same game can provide both without impeding the other.