Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Why Easy Games Fail Yahtzee's Game Theory

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 17 Apr 2012 16:00
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Just about the only thing worth reiterating about Ninja Gay Den 3 is that the spectacle of a man in jim jams and a fucking crown hacking people's limbs off has somehow become boring and that a series once infamous for its meaty challenge has been reduced to a ten minute donkey ride.

But it raises the issue of challenge, and some people who were apparently off sick when everyone else in math class was learning about the concept of a "median" have accused me of hypocrisy for having the gall to slate a game for being too easy when I've slated games like Dark Souls for being too hard. Where does the buffer lie? What makes a game enjoyably challenging without being infuriatingly hard?

I think it's never a bad day to over-analyze shit so let's get started. Remember my threefold theory of game development discussed a while back in this column, in which I declared that every video game experience can be boiled down to three component elements, namely context, challenge and gratification? Some of my correspondents thought it needed work. Surely it can be boiled down even further, they said, because gratification is an unspoken element of the other two. And yes, strictly speaking, it is gratifying to kill the main baddie when we have enough context to know they deserve it, and there's plenty gratification in overcoming a difficult challenge.

But this is in the strictest definition of the term "gratification". Of course there's some kind of gratification in all the aspects of a video game, that's the whole point of any piece of entertainment. Fun. Context without fun is boredom. Challenge without fun is frustration. I've never been entirely happy with the word "gratification" for the third leg on my videogame milking stool because in truth it's a more complex concept than can be describe in one word. It's a visceral satisfaction that speaks directly to something beyond the higher brain, a flavor of fun that can exist outside context and challenge. I mean, if you picked up your friend's game of Dead Rising while he was in the bog, grabbed a rock drill and did that thing with it where you impale a lone zombie and use his rapidly dismembering corpse as a flail, then you don't have any context for what's going on and you're not being challenged, but it's still a lot more fun than listening to the straining gasps of your friend pooing upstairs.

But we're getting off-topic. Since Ninja Gaiden brought it up, let's concentrate on that most spikey and treacherous leg of the stool, Challenge. The interesting thing about the Challenge leg is that of all the three it's the one that requires the most input from the player to find gratifying. In context the finely-crafted story has to do the work and whatever-alternative-name-we-come-up-with-for-gratification still depends on the engineered interactions between things created by the developers, gratification in challenge comes entirely from satisfaction at one's ability to overcome whatever trials are put in your path.

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