Electron Dance
10Nov/12Off

Is Challenge Superfluous?

Richard Perrin tweeted about an article called "Why we need to kill gameplay to make better games" written by Adrian Chmielarz on the blog for his new indie studio, The Astronauts. Chmielarz was previously the creative director of People Can Fly, so we're not talking about someone wet behind the ears when it comes to game development.

The article noted that all the best videogame moments have nothing to do with actual gameplay, that you could take the challenge away and be left with an awesome moment. The Astronauts are clearly heading down territory marked out by the notgames crowd, especially when you check out their list of "indie games that will make you feel things".

I've no problem with games that offer no challenge, but I felt it was a mistake to think there was no connection between challenge and some of our finest moments. Chmielarz recently tweeted about last month's Electron Dance essay "A Slave Obeys" so I thought I'd engage him directly on Twitter. Here's the conversation with a few minor corrections...

@ElectronDance: Great moments are often charged through gameplay. Sometimes taking the play out of the game will fuck the moment. Cart Life is feeling the struggle, day by day, the grind. Failure, for the right player, is powerful. My eyes did moisten.

@adrianchm: I am against ever taking interaction out of a game. But are those gameplay moments you cherish really *pure gameplay*?

@ElectronDance:  I'm not going to say they're pure gameplay, but some are hybrid even though they don't appear so. I'm not disagreeing with your message! I recently said my best level of World of Goo was one without gameplay! But I can't say great moments are *always* unrelated to play. Some need it (Andrew Ryan Bioshock) - some don't (Bioshock opening)

@adrianchm: Not sure how is Andrew Ryan connected to gameplay (understood as something that needs a "challenge" element)? :)

@ElectronDance: The power of the Andrew Ryan showdown depends on you understanding how your gameplay actions have been manipulated.

@adrianchm: But it was Fontaine who manipulated me, not Ryan, right? My memory is hazy :)

@ElectronDance: Yes, you're right! But Ryan has choice and the game highlights everything up to that point... was *not* your choice. It is far more effective with gameplay leading up to it. It thrives on the player experience to mean something.

@adrianchm: But... Food for thought: would the entire thing be less effective if I played the game in god mode?

@ElectronDance: Personally? Yes. I know challenged play tends to invest me more. I find the Ryan bit far more memorable than the Rapture intro. I am averse to using trainer/cheats to making games easier. Maybe my personal psychology... but I wouldn't think I'm unique.

This is all thought experiment opinion-type stuff and I'm not sure we have solid evidence going one way or the other. Is challenge always superfluous to single-player moments that elicit emotion?

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  1. I killed the final boss of Ys: Ark of Napishtim with 1 HP left due to a strange mechanic that disallows changing your quick healing item during boss fights (and you can’t use them from the menu, either).

    That was pretty memorable, and all final challenges in games are supposed to inherently elicit emotion (aren’t they?) so I would say it has its place.

  2. Well, finding evidence to support your side presents an obstacle Chmielarz doesn’t have: there is no pure challenge. You can have a beautiful landscape to wander without challenge or original gameplay, but you can’t have challenge with absolutely zero… non-gamey stuff (yes that’s the scientific term). There’s always a story or images or sound, however abstract they might be.

    And if finding pure gameplay in a game is impossible, so is finding pure gameplay that moves you. However emotional a challenging moment in a game can be, there’ll always be non-gamey stuff to point out and say “that’s actually why I’m sobbing right now.”

    I am very prone to cheat or choose easy modes because I’m interested in simply discovering content and don’t want to struggle to get it (sometimes), so I understand how someone can say games should be easier if they want to touch more and more people. But they actually are getting easier for a while now, and maybe that’s the reason.

    On the other hand, there are games about challenge that would become completely dull if the challenge were taken away from them. The Give Up, Robot series, maybe, to name one I really loved.

  3. The view from the top of a hill is given meaning by the walk taken to get up there. If you could instantly travel there with no effort required, it would still be pretty but it wouldn’t feel as worthwhile. Was thinking about this at notgamesfest in Köln – Richard’s game Kairo gets it right, the puzzles imbue the sights with meaning; several of the other games didn’t, they just felt like slideshows of someone else’s holiday photos.

    Plus gameplay generates fantastic moments. My favourites are the roguelike moments of being almost dead but figuring out a clever way to use what resources you have to pull through.

  4. What about FTL and XCOM? I hear a lot of emotionally charged stories from these games related entirely to gameplay/challenge.

    (By the way, love your work HM. Thanks for giving me something interesting to read each week :D)

  5. Gah. I’m finding this whole thing almost beneath comment, but since it’s here on “The Dance” I guess I feel like weighing in to say… that it seems beneath comment. I think the guy just got stuck on an idea that sounded cool “gameplay is irrelevant” and rushed forward to write the article without really thinking too hard about whether his argument made any sense.

    The argument seems to be “I can think of a few occasions during games that I people find very memorable but that didn’t involve the ‘regular’ gameplay of the larger game… (huge unreasonable leap)… therefore gameplay is irrelevant to memorable experiences.” Oh, and the assertion that people can’t pay attention to emotional content and challenge content at the same time.

    It’s not a strong argument and shouldn’t really be taken seriously.

    The nugget of truth in the whole thing is that there are those moments of “gameplay silence” that can be very powerful in games. I like those a lot too, and find them very meaningful. Although, as Michael said, the walk up the hill and all that.

    There, that’s how much I’m “not commenting”.

  6. I have a lot of admiration for Adrian Chmielarz. His team at People Can Fly really turned me on to what was happening development-wise in Eastern Europe with Painkiller – a fun game made brilliant by its final level; and Bulletstorm deserved a lot more than it got in terms of sales and praise.

    While I’m not 100% sure I’m with him on this thesis, I approve of the idea that there are disparate views on how to make great games. Certainly many out there would argue that gameplay is the only thing that matters; this alternative seems valid and worth exploring, at least. I must agree with Pippin above when he argues that people can surely appreciate emotional content and gamplay (or, rather, challenge content) at the same time.

    However, one trick with that is games are often repetitive. Challenge content by nature sometimes requires that you try several times before you get it right, and having to repeat something can dilute its emotional impact. In the end I think it’s a matter of finding a balance, and using all the tools at your disposal in the right place and at the right time.

  7. I think the guy just got stuck on an idea that sounded cool “gameplay is irrelevant” and rushed forward to write the article without really thinking too hard about whether his argument made any sense.

    Your assumption is wrong. I do wish I was a pioneer here. But I am not. Many smarter people before my have talked about the subject in one way or another. Hence the birth of entities like notgames.org or games like Flower or Dear Esther.

    I also recommend reading anything Thomas Grip (of Frictional Games – they’ve made Amnesia) writes or watching any of his GDC presentations. Example post: http://frictionalgames.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-self-presence-and-storytelling.html, but this speech in particular should be eye-opening: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1014889/Evoking-Emotions-and-Achieving-Success

    Oh, and the assertion that people can’t pay attention to emotional content and challenge content at the same time.

    This “assertion” is supported by the most powerful ally I have: science. It will be the subject of one of my posts in the near future.

    Meanwhile, here’s the postmortem, where I also present “anti-hypothesis” points of view: http://www.theastronauts.com/2012/11/killing-the-gameplay-postmortem/

  8. I played Don’t Look Back last night. That’s a game that definitely relies on challenge to impart its meaning.

    I’m not actually convinced that this has anything to do with games, or we’re just talking about human psychology in a narrowly defined range. Of course people put more value in things they create. Of course people like to struggle to create things. The ultimate proof of that is civilization.

  9. Hi Adrian – great that you’re here in the comments!

    I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the notgames movement personally, though I love that it exists. But pointing to them as a justification seems off to me – I don’t think those people are claiming they’ve cornered the market on emotion in games, are they? Just that they have a particular approach?

    I’ll look into Thomas Grip – thanks for the pointers, I’d not heard of him.

    As to your powerful ally, Science, well we’ll have to look forward to the blog post I suppose, but I have what I think is a healthy skepticism of anyone claiming the science is going to back them up quite so fundamentally on what is (for now, until Science solves everything under the sun) an aesthetic issue.

    As mwm points out, the quickest way through all this is to look at counter examples, of which there are many. I don’t think anyone would dispute the powerful experiences in your examples (riding into Blackwater in RDR is actually one of my top game moments), but I wonder if you’ve searched hard enough for powerful moments that come *with* gameplay?

    Off the top of my head: the experience I have when “dancing” with my skateboard in Skate 3 is powerfully emotional and is intimately connected to the game’s challenges and mechanics; the sense of hope and bravery I feel thanks to the combination of music and daring movement in VVVVVV is also emotional for me; and the sensation of losing a game of football in Madden (or Tecmo for that matter) is, again, utterly connected to the mechanics of the game, and is also highly emotionally charged.

    Generally speaking, I think a good baseline to operate from is that if you find yourself making a sweeping statement like “drop gameplay to enhance emotion” the chances are very high that your idea and argument are flawed.

  10. At the risk of looking like a groupthinker/hipster, I have to agree with mister Barr. But my base reasoning is much simpler. So simple in fact, that it doesn’t even take a real syllable: eh.

    I tend to be of the opinion that few things are ever entirely off-limits. Nothing is ever impossible, not to me. Take, for instance, the argument I had with large portions of Arcadian Rhythms a few weeks ago, in which I argued that slavery/imperialism/despotic monarchy can be beneficial.

    It feels like we’re arguing two different approaches, but arguing them as truths. Maslow/Crawford would be ashamed.

    Oh, and, Joel? I found your charitable contribution to Arrapha. Thought that was cool.

  11. but I wonder if you’ve searched hard enough for powerful moments that come *with* gameplay?

    That’s the reason why in the latest blog post I have quoted so many people who do not agree with my hypothesis. Powerful emotions can indeed be achieved through gameplay, even in single player games. But it seems like there are two common elements there:

    a) the gameplay is very focused
    b) the player has achieved the mastery of controls

    That is why people keep bringing up Shadow of the Colossus or Dark Souls or sports games.

    But before I turn it into another blog post ;) – allow to take a step back for a moment.

    It’s not like I had a thesis and then wrote an article.

    On the contrary.

    I have searched for “most memorable moments in games” without having an answer handy. It’s only after I read a few long threads on various forums when it hit me that NO ONE has mentioned ANYTHING related to the core gameplay loop. Sometimes there was gameplay, but it was always connected to unique events like boss fights.

    I offered one answer. I’m sure there’s more. Let’s keep digging.

  12. Oh, I’m allowed to talk super-awesome moments that come from core gameplay rather than challenge? Heck, I can think of dozens of those(I call them Battlefield Moments, named for a games-series who’s large maps, regular death, vehicles, and squad combat regularly spawn memorable scenes). Though, I’m not sure if the multi-person component breaks your law or helps it. Does playing with people count as gameplay, or a narrative enhancement?

  13. As stated a few times already, we’re talking single player here. That’s why, for example, I never talk about Journey – even though people always bring it up as an example of well done “challenge-less” game. Its power comes from the interaction with another human being.

  14. How about the Game of Life? I can’t say I was really involved in it though, just entertained.

    Well, and I suppose there’s Proteus, though I’ve never played that.

    Maybe the sense of fear and panic that one is given when isolated and vulnerable in a shooter? The feeling that you are being hunted/watched while hiking, say, a wheat field. Though, this is a flimsy example, since I can think of no situations where this isn’t inserted by the developer or if you ‘feel’ as if your opponents are, well, opponents rather than simple machines.

    It’s here that I admit I’m not the best suited for a lead role in this conversation. I’ll step down, and allow the more thoughtful, more PhD enabled individuals take reign.

  15. Nice to see this discussion moving along. I feel like the argument has kind of reduced in scope a lot at this point. We (and the blog post) opened with this idea that you should “kill gameplay” to get emotions into games, but I feel we’re now perhaps at the far more reasonable point of acknowledging that there are many (many!) great and powerful moments in games that don’t take place during gameplay sequences.

    I’m more than happy with that as an observation – I think that that *is* an important thing for everyone to consider (and I certainly get the impression that developers are very familiar with the concept already).

    As an alternative explanation of your experience of not finding people mentioning gameplay-related emotional moments, I might suggest that a bit part of the emotional weight of the “gameplay silent” stuff is that it’s highlighted and noticeable specifically in contrast to the gameplay sequences? Thus people may indeed find those moments more specifically memorable through a contrast effect and thus report them more often. I don’t think that necessarily means as much about the emotional content, more a trick of cognition perhaps.

    Anyway, I think we’ve reached a better place now, in terms of what’s being claimed and advocated.

  16. As if by magic, mwm, two PhDs appear in the comments!

    I think my take now is SLIGHTLY VAGUE FOCUS + CONTENTIOUS HEADLINE = TEH INSANE

    As Pippin as noted, the perceived breadth of the original article has given way to something which is more narrower in scope. Someone responded to Adrian on Twitter (Nels Anderson?) that the emotional rollercoaster of Dark Souls is all about its challenge to which Adrian responded: but can it make you cry? This is a kind of goalpost adjustment answer, where you realise we’re all arguing about different problems. We need to be specific about type of emotions/scenarios we are talking about.

    What is a significant emotion? How strong does it need to be? Should we be focusing on emotions that games usually find difficult to reach?

    I think we can’t ignore that emotional rush of almost failing but pulling through, but if I was Adrian I might argue that this isn’t enough if this is the *only* emotion challenge provides, a monochromatic emotional palette. But Michael’s “walk up the hill” is precisely the nuance I think was glossed over.

    @David: I was trying to attack the idea that challenge was superfluous to some of the great game moments of our time. Not that challenge alone created great moments; I think there’s no disputing we can get caught up in the moment when hanging on 1 HP left like @BeamSplashX mentions and Matthew relates on FTL and X-COM. But I’m almost certain removing challenge from, say, Cart Life, obliterates its meaning and guts the emotional response to it. Again this is a he-felt she-felt discussion, so I don’t think we’re going to find any sort of proof. I was promoting the idea that challenge was a background ingredient in our response to certain moments. If you dislike challenge, that might just imply you don’t get the full impact of those challenge-infused moments as much as others. They still exist, but they aren’t for you.

    @Matthew: Honestly, it’s always great to hear that people enjoy reading. Thanks very much for stopping by every week!

    @mwm: We’ll have to see if Arrapha makes it out, as the funding didn’t quite make target! And Proteus is something that supports Adrian’s suggestion, a game that has no challenge and is all about wandering around and taking in nature.

    @adrian: I think Pippin’s games are actually interesting examples for the purposes of this discussion because they appropriate challenge in subversive ways, often to provoke a laugh… but sometimes other emotions.

  17. My example of challenge being critical to a memorable moment (in the game-y bits of a game) was having to defeat an armed, aggresssive AI car in stylish Car-Wars-’em-up Interstate 76 with only my rear machine gun working.

    Not being familiar with the controls I didn’t know the button to reverse the view, so on the fly I had to think up some kind of tactic that would let me defeat this unseen enemy. Luckily I did*, and emerged triumphant.

    That was exactly the sort of thing I love in games – not the triumph, the thinking-on-your-feet.
    You just don’t get that without the challenge.

    Jim Rossignol acknowledged this the other day on RPS in ‘Games are best when things go wrong’
    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/10/23/games-are-best-when-things-go-wrong/

    *Wait until I know he’s roughly behind me, then weave back and forth spraying so many bullets that some were bound to hit.

  18. One thought here: If you’re asking people about specific memorable moments in games, scripted moments are likely to come up more often as they’ve been set up so that all players (or all players taking a certain path through the game) will encounter them. Gameplay/challenge related memorable moments tend to represent a more chaotic system and will be more individual – I could play Interstate 76 through several times without experiencing the moment CdrJameson remembered. Emergent experiences aren’t quite the same as challenge, but they’re more likely to happen in a chaotic system.

  19. Is gameplay the same as challenge? Proteus might be zero challenge, but it’s certainly not zero gameplay. You even get a literal walk up a hill. David Kanaga explicitly talks about interaction and gameplay as being like dancing, and for the same purpose. I don’t dance for the challenge, I dance because it feels good. And that’s different from watching a music video.

  20. George’s “gameplay versus challenge” is so very important. It’s totally true that “walking” is a form of gameplay, to which extent the “riding into Mexico” moment in RDR or the “driving around “New York”” in GTAIV are both instances of memorable gameplay. Importantly, it’s not like the developers themselves aren’t thinking of these elements of their games as central parts of the gameplay.

    As for game movement = dance, it’s one of my favourite ways to think about (some) games, I think it goes a long way and is a great metaphor/analogy for communicating some of the beauty of game movement.

    So hey, even if the original post this was all based on was a bit flawed, it’s led to some great commentary here, I think.


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