Monday, April 18, 2005

Story and Skill

[Note: I'm going to try to keep this relatively spoiler free, but I will be broadly discussing the last few levels of God of War. You've been warned.]

This weekend I finished God of War. It's a great game, and I highly recommend it (for adults, of course). I'm still amazed at how fresh the whole thing felt. There was never any real repetition of locations; each level offered new and different sights and experiences.

However, there were some interesting design choices in the last few levels that got me thinking about the conflict between story-based play and skill-based play. While I found the combat in God of War to be immensely enjoyable, I have to say that story was the driving factor that kept me playing. I found myself looking forward to each new portion of the adventure, anticipating each new flashback/cutscene. I also derived a lot of enjoyment from the playable story elements, the set pieces and environments.

In light of all that, I find it amusing that, after constant defeat at the hands of Ares in the final showdown, I refused to drop from Normal difficulty to Easy, even when the game prompted me. A little background info [this may contain some minor spoilers]: the final fight with Ares includes three sections. The first two are relatively straightforward and contain some great twists. In the final segment of the fight, pretty much all of the powers that Kratos has developed over the course of the game are taken away. The player is left with no magic, and no blades of chaos. Instead, the player has a single sword and is forced to learn a new style of fighting.

Since much of the fighting style that I had developed over the course of the game relied on magic, this final showdown proved difficult. I played the same segment over and over for hours, literally. I can't remember how many times I told the game that I didn't want to set the difficulty to Easy.

I eventually gave in, and after setting the difficulty to Easy, I finished the game in one go. I don't think that I saw a different ending than anyone who finished the game in Normal mode. In fact, I'm pretty sure that aside from the battle itself there was no difference. If story was my main reason for playing, then why didn't I just downgrade to Easy immediately? I would have gotten to bed earlier, that's for sure.

A similar contradiction in my play style came up in an earlier level. Some devilish plaforming took me longer than it should have because I refused to "just get through it." Instead, I insisted on exploring the entire configuration of platforms, looking for orb chests. My desire to move quickly through the story was temporarily suspended by my need to find all the orbs.

Here's where the design choices of God of War come into conflict. David Jaffe has said multiple times that he wanted the game to be story-driven and cinematic. However, some mechanics seem designed to cater more to standard, skill- and achievement-based play. In videogame tradition, different difficulty levels usually offer different rewards. Thus, by presenting different difficulty levels, God of War implies that finishing it in Easy mode might result in a less satisfying ending. After playing the entire game in Normal mode, I was loathe to finish it in Easy mode and risk missing out on a better (or more complete) ending. Likewise, the leveling up of weapons/magic through the red orbs leads to my obsession with finding all the orb chests in a difficult platforming situation.

Now, I'm not necessarily advocating the elimination of difficulty settings or weapon/magic levels. I just think that marrying classic gameplay with an attempt at greater accessibility is tougher than you might think. God of War did a lot of things to make gameplay more accessible, but it seems to me that it could have gone further.

Or maybe I'm just more obsessive than I need to be (or think I am).

The next part of this train of thought is contemplating ways to overcome the issue of story and skill.


At 6:42 PM, Blogger Clubberjack said...

Similar comments over at Zen of Design.

At 3:57 AM, Blogger Foopy said...

I agree with your thoughts here, but at least GoW offered to change the difficulty settings. I recently finished Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory; interestingly, the game has no "easy" difficulty setting, instead opting for "normal", "hard", and "expert", which I guess is a decent idea since calling it "easy" just makes the player feel like a putz. I tried the first mission or two on "normal", but enemies were too unperceptive and I could take far too many bullets, which reduced my sense of immersion. So I upped the difficulty to "expert"--which I came to really regret near the end of the game, when I was faced with opponents who had thermal vision and could kill me with a shot to the head from hundreds of feet away while looking the other way.

Needless to say, the game didn't let me change difficulty settings, and I ended up having to save/load every few seconds, which was utterly ridiculous.

I remember when playing Prince of Persia: Sands of Time last year that (if I recall correctly) the game had no difficulty settings, yet remained quite challenging for me and everyone I knew who played it. I think part of this was due to the dagger of time feature, whose "undo"-esque mechanics allowed me to correct a lot of my mistakes without reducing my sense of immersion. Still, I came out of playing that game thinking that perhaps the whole concept of "difficulty settings" was a bit inhumane, and that a really good game (like PoP:SoT) would somehow manage to make itself enjoyably challenging to all varieties of players without forcing them to choose a difficulty level; in fact, the very idea of choosing a difficulty setting before playing is a bit absurd, since there's no way for a player to figure out what level is appropriate for them until they've actually played the game on different settings. And even then, there's no guarantee that one of the 3 or 4 difficulty settings is "just right" for them.

It also seems like difficulty settings are a hard thing for developers to deal with, since it effectively means they have to create a different (albeit very similar) game per difficulty setting; I imagine that means a lot more playtesting.

> If story was my main reason for
> playing, then why didn't I just
> downgrade to Easy immediately?

Another question that could be asked here is "why didn't the game just downgrade to easy immediately?" I mean, if the game just lowered the difficulty without actually telling you, would anything have been lost? I'm not entirely sure how I'd feel about that myself, although I think Max Payne tried to do something vaguely similar and I recall not feeling very pleased by the result.

Anyhow, sorry this comment was so long, but you've certainly hit on something that has been on my brain for a long time. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the topic.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Clubberjack said...

As I alluded to in the original post, I think that the question of difficulty levels has a lot to do with the intended audience. A "hard-core" audience, one that plays for the enjoyment of exercising their skill, will want difficulty levels, so they have something to measure themselves against. "You're not truely hardcore unless you've beaten God of War in God Mode." I'm not hardcore, btw. On the other hand, a more casual audience, interested in the story and cinematic elements, is probably less interested in measuring themselves against a gradient of difficulty.

I'm somewhere in the middle, which is what leads to my internal conflict. I want to enjoy the game for it's story, but I've been conditioned by years of gaming (and probably a few of my own personality quirks) to think in terms of skill-based interaction. A game like God of War that tries to sit in both camps confuses my subconscious.

I think I would rather play a game that either dynamically adjusts the difficulty without telling me or incorporates mechanics that balance the difficulty. I think Max Payne sits in the former group and PoP:SoT in the later. Both are games that I enjoyed immensely.

The dynamic adjustment of difficulty, if implemented well, also has the added bonus of keeping the game pacing in the sweet spot.

Scott Miller, CEO of Max Payne developer 3D Realms, has some good comments here.

PoP:SoT is just beautifully elegant in its incorporation of a thematically appropriate game mechanic that eliminates a lot of frustration and sort of automatically balances the game. Brilliant stuff.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Clubberjack said...

God of War, in trying to appease both sides, is largely successful. It has the difficulty levels for the hard-core folks. Anyone who wants to prove their mettle can take on God Mode if they want. On the other side of things, someone who wants to experience the story can play through on easy or normal difficulty and get what they want. The only nagging issue, in my mind, is the feeling that I haven't experienced everything. I feel like I won't have completed the game if I haven't beaten it on God Mode. But I don't have time for that, and the simple exercise of skill isn't enough of a reason for me to do so.


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