So, over from my home-from-home Offworld, I wrote a piece about the majestic God Hand, particularly praising its adaptive difficulty. The more dudes you pummel successfully, the more dudes attack you. The more you get pummelled by dudes, the more other dudes leave you alone. It’s a system I like because it preserves the absolute challenge – you can only go toe-to-toe with other player’s high scores by pushing for the highest difficulty – while ensuring progress through the game is possible for poorer players. And it does it all transparently, letting you see what difficulty level the game is setting for you and therefore allowing you to make decisions and plan strategies around how hard you want the experience to be.
It’s kicked off quite an interesting debate, which seems to be focused around two issues. The first is whether or not adaptive difficulty dilutes the purity of the challenge, and therefore the satisfaction of victory. As is so often the case, the right answer to that conundrum is the cop-out answer: it depends. There are undoubtedly games where you want unwavering, unalterable hardness: lines in the sand you can measure yourself against. Sometimes it’s more important to guarantee progress. I had a rather marvellous meeting yesterday for a sex education game I’m helping out on, and its designer very astutely pointed out that it’s pretty much essential that everyone who plays the game is able to finish it. No use clueing teens in to the perils of herpes if they get stuck before they find out how to spot syphilis. What prompted me to write yesterday’s column, though, was delight at how often truly hardcore games manage to balance those two needs. It’s not that God Hand lets you coast, flailing aimlessly through a challenge-free experience. It uses its adaptive difficulty to lure you in to harder fights, teaching you as you go. It’s the perfect teacher, constantly advancing the goalposts to stretch your skills, whatever your natural level.
The second issue was best summed up by commenter Inverse Square:
But damn, to give in to the desire for a power fantasy is a terrible thing to do. Escaping from reality is nice, but it’s indefensible. To flatter it, to trade in it, to treat it like it’s useful is wrong. It’s helping no-one; it’s teaching you nothing.
Are all games just power-fantasies? By no means (although – fair cop – I did say they were in that piece, mostly cos I was feeling a bit grumpy). They have long done much more to inspire, challenge, surprise and educate. Are some games just power fantasies? Yes, absolutely. And do I think that’s a bad thing? Sometimes. Sometimes I’m delighted to have a ready-made range of sand-castles I can kick over, oceans of virtual balloons I can rampage through with a pop-gun, virtual plates I can smash and virtual pencils I can snap. Often though, I go back to Geoffrey Miller’s eminently scary article (you’ll need to do a text search for his name to find his entry) from a few years ago which posits that the eventual downfall of all intelligent civilisations will be our seduction by fitness fakers – virtual constructs which gives us the feeling of achievement without actually achieving anything. The natural extension of the argument? That videogames are the reason we haven’t got to Mars, and the reason that other advanced alien life-forms haven’t got to Earth. We’re all too busy playing God Hand. Sorry ’bout that.