What's More Important - Challenge or Story?

By Chad Awkerman

April 19, 2010

There is somewhat of a conundrum these days in the gaming industry. When games are designed, they are designed to cater to a certain audience, presumably the developers know this, the publishers know this and the end-user – us gamers – know this. We know ourselves well enough that we can spot a game that appeals to us from a mile away. Some games are designed to be controller-crushing-difficult and some games are created just to tell you a story and the audience goes along for the ride. Yes, indeed, there can be a happy medium, but what should be more important? What is more important to you?

There are many angles to look at when it comes to talking about challenge vs. story, and it all depends on the genre of the game and what you’re trying to ignite within the player. As amazing as a game like Demon’s Souls is, the biggest problem I had with it wasn’t the challenge itself, but the accessibility of completing the game and seeing the story. While it is obvious many people, including myself, saw the challenge as a fresh change of pace from all the seemingly watered-down, easy-as-cutting-butter-with-a-chainsaw RPGs that we’ve seen in the past, to some extent the challenge could block a well-intentioned player from experiencing the entire game, its lore and its story.

Another recent game we can look at is Resonance of Fate. Now, I’ve been slowly making my way through this title, but there is a steep difficulty curve for the entire game – it is hard to learn, the battle system and how to take out enemies is so complex and convoluted and things aren’t explained well enough in-game. On the other hand, the game is aesthetically pleasing, has great characterization, excellent customization and a decent – although slow-moving – story. What if I just want to experience the story and don’t have time in my busy life to attempt the same boss fight half-a-dozen times or more before I figure out how to do it just right? I give up, that is what I do. At least, if I was an “average” gamer.

There has to be a fine line to walk between challenge and accessibility of the story, or games in general will fall flat. Now, some of your most challenging games lack in the story department. They aren’t as deep and intense as other games that focus on the story above all else. One game that balances things out rather nicely – and you’ll probably lynch me for saying this – is Final Fantasy XIII. It is one of the most difficult Final Fantasy titles to date, yet it isn’t so difficult that it blocks your progress for very long. It is complex to the point of being interesting, but not so complex that you get lost in a vat of unneeded, over-the-top battle mechanics that are seemingly just placed there to give the appearance of deep, involving gameplay, but are generally just more annoying than useful (see Resonance of Fate).

What also comes into play is the ability of the gamer. Some gamers, regardless of the complexity of anything, or any real or imagined difficulty curve, can overcome it. But, I’ve seen even “hardcore” gamers have issues with titles at times. Developers attempt to combat this spectrum of possible players with various difficulty levels. However, these tend to just change the surface difficulty of the game – lower health for and weaker attacks from enemies, more powerful attacks from the player characters, and other such things. What really needs to happen between these various difficulty levels instead of or in addition to these surface elements, is to change how the game is played to some extent.

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My biggest issues with Resonance of Fate isn’t the combat mechanics themselves, it was how convoluted it was to kill more complex enemies. First you had to damage or destroy various outer shells, which required you to position your characters in certain ways and use certain types of ammunition. Then you could actually damage the boss…assuming he doesn’t rematerialize the outer shell in the meantime. If you are too slow, don’t use the right attacks or perform those attacks in the right order, you lose your “resonance” and get into a situation where you can easily be eliminated. This is fine for a hard or “insane” difficulty, but what if someone chooses easy or normal? It is likely if someone chose those lower difficulties, they are more interested in game progression and seeing the story than they are the challenge, so why not just eliminate certain, more difficult mechanics within the game? This would lower the difficulty by requiring the players to learn less, thus causing less trouble and, ultimately, less frustration. This goes way beyond just changing damage outputs and character health and recognizes that there are more than just “slacker” players that want to get easy achievements by playing something on easy mode.

Ultimately, I’m pointing the finger at game developers, and asking them to look for ways to acknowledge the various types of gamers out there, especially if your game is very story-driven. Allow a way for the players who are only interested in the story to progress in such a way that the difficulty or mechanics of the game doesn’t hinder their experiencing the story. If someone is more interested in the challenge, they can bump the difficulty up and cry themselves to sleep at night when it takes them the better part of a day to beat a boss. The best case scenario would be to create games that balance things out and cater to both – never going to either the very difficult or very easy extreme. However, balanced games seem to be the minority these days.

What do you guys think? First off, are you more interested in the challenge of the games you play, or in the story progression and just experiencing the game world and all it has to offer? Next, how do you think developers should handle the large spectrum of gamers out there without going to the extremes? I see it as an issue that can be fairly easily overcome if the time is taken to understand the audience. On the other hand, my argument tends to be blown out of the water when you see how well a game like Demon’s Souls sells, although I do think it is the exception rather than the rule. So, what are your opinions on the matter?

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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