Challenge in Video Games – and Stories

I have been working on deciding what to do for my research project for a course entitled “Language and Learning in the Digital Age”.  Those of you interested in language, literacy and education might note that this has the same title as this book by Dr. James Paul Gee and Dr. Elisabeth Hayes.  If you did realize that, then it might interest you to know that Dr. Hayes is the instructor of the course.  In this course I have to do a project that falls within the scope of the course (which leaves a lot of wiggle room, when you think about it).  The “traditional” research project is a research paper.  This is unsurprising, as it is an English course about literacy research, and I am in the quintessential research program: rhetoric and composition.  However if anyone knows anything about me, it is that I don’t always do things the “traditional” way (for example, just tonight I asked why no one tries to make new methodologies, rather than use established ones).  So instead of the traditional research paper, I am making a game.

In 2008, for a class entitled “Technologies of Writing” I wrote a game exploring about a third of what I grokked from First Person. Much of it was narrative based (my original research question was the flawed “Can games be a literary thing?”).  The game I produced was called Neighbors (available here).  Neighbors and my idea for this course are connected by one thread – stories.  But before I get into what I plan to do, let me explain how I got there.

Two weeks ago, I started playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR).  I already knew this was going to happen, having seen my roommate choose his initial difficulty level, but still when I saw the difficulty choices available to me a small twitch arose in my hackles.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Difficulty Settings

Regard the image to the right.  This is the screen where you choose the difficulty for the game you are about to start in DX:HR.  Note the options:

  1. Tell Me a Story
  2. Give Me a Challenge
  3. Give Me Deus Ex

These options are, essentially, a recoding of the standard “Easy”, “Normal”, and “Hard”.  Completely disregarding the third option, I say look at options one and two.  The first says “Tell Me a Story”, while the second says “Give Me a Challenge”.  This suggests that a “story” is not a “challenge” and that the first level of difficulty is so easy that it is like reading a book or watching a movie, while the second is actually like actively playing the game.  The description of the first option even states:

“You play games for their story and experience, not for their challenge or competitiveness.  Enjoy the Deus Ex experience!”

This further suggests that it is a passive experience.  The last sentence sounds like something one would hear when they are about to watch a movie or ride a roller coaster.  Compare to the second option’s description:

“You enjoy a good story and a good challenge. This is how the game is meant to be played!”

This time it suggests that the game will finally have a challenge, apart from the story.  Basically option one says “we took out all the challenge so you can watch a movie” and the second says, “we put all the challenge back in so you can play a real game”.

Last week, I also started playing Catherine.  Catherine has the same idea in place when selecting it’s difficulty.  Catherine still uses the labels of “Easy”, “Normal”, and “Hard”, but its descriptions suggest something else:

Difficulty Descriptions for Catherine

1. “If you’re a player who’s only interested in Catherine for the story, this is for you. This mode is balanced for beginning players.”

2. “Attack challenging puzzles and experience the thrilling action you can only find in Catherine! Balanced for average gamers.”

3. “Are you a total masochist? The puzzles in this mode are hellishly difficult, and balanced for the best of the best.”

(NB: There is actually a Very Easy mode, but I don’t think it has a description.)

I note that although the facial expressions of the character go from stern to complacent as the difficulty goes up, this is largely unintentional (the facial expressions seem random and not based on the highlighted difficulty setting).

What I would point out is that the game pits these difficulty levels as “experience a story”, “experience action”, and “play a difficult puzzle game”.  This is the same kind of progression that DX:HR had for it’s difficulty settings.

So what am I getting at?  Challenge in both games are pitted as being different from story.  And I find this to be wanting.

It is no secret that I love stories, and particularly, I love games with a great story.  But these two games got me thinking.  Who is to say that a story itself couldn’t be challenging?  I know some people will be yelling at me for comparing games to literature, but bear with me here.  In literature, we can describe a book or a story as challenging.  This is used more in context with young adults and the acquisition of literacy, but I dare you to say that James Joyce’s Ulysses or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury are not challenging.  Or Jorge Luis Borges’s “Library of Babel”.  These are all challenging stories.

The narrative of Catherine is challenging.  It is about marriage.  It is about responsibility.  It is about guilt.  It may not be hard to actually read, but it can be hard to experience.

The narrative in DX:HR is challenging.  It is about corporations and body modification and what it means to be human. DX:HR has a narrative for humanities classes to discuss and ponder.

If these two games can be difficult in terms of play, and can both have challenging stories, why can’t the difficulty setting affect both play and story?

I realize that some people would find this very statement blasphemous.  A story that differs in difficulty based on how difficult a game a player wants to play?  I know it seems wrong, but I say it can be done.  I mean, look at Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings”.  Atwood presents a reader with a series of endings to the basic premise of “John and Mary meet.”  Each of the endings is progressively more complicated and difficult, but they all end in the same way: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

As a writer, “Happy Endings” has always spoken to me.  But it does pose a problem as much as it provides an example.  After all, the advice that Atwood is trying to give to writers is “choose the best ending for the story” and “tell only the story you want to tell”.  The ending doesn’t matter, because the ending is always the same, it’s more interesting how you get there.  So how do you do that with a story that varies by a difficulty setting.

Fortunately, games are not stories.  Games have both play and a narrative.  Part of the narrative (and sometimes most of it) is the narrative of play, the story of the player playing the game.  This makes games co-creative, co-authored.  Simplistically, the designer builds a game and the player decides how much of the game the player will play in the way that the designer intended for him or her to do so.  The player creates part of the experience by electing to play a game in a particular way.

A story-narrative in a game can exploit this.  A story can offer difficulty and the player can ignore it.  The story can tempt a player with more difficult play to enjoy a richer narrative, or play can tempt a player to enter into a more challenging game by boasting a harder narrative.

And so, that is the kind of game I intend to create for my class.  Something that shows how it could be done.  Something that could fail miserably.  It’s an experiment.

I leave it at this for now:  I’m embarking on doing something with a game and a story that I don’t think has been attempted ever before.  Please wish me luck.  Feel free to try and tear down my illusions.


3 thoughts on “Challenge in Video Games – and Stories

  1. This reminds me of a New York Times article a while back about AP English classes, where the students were watching movies instead of reading the books, to get the “story” without too much “challenge.”

    There are other examples with literature, aside from Cliffs Notes, which is a specialist case: “Readers Digest Condensed Books,” YA versions, and suchlike.

    I suspect there are versions of, say, Star Wars: A New Hope, from books designed to be chewed on to first readers to YA to the novelization to the movie, all pitched at various levels of difficulty.

    Dunno if anyone’s ever released a range of versions *simultaneously.* That’s an interesting project….

  2. […] Challenge in Video Games – and Stories « Set in Cobalt In 2008, for a class entitled “Technologies of Writing” I wrote a game exploring about a third of what I grokked from First Person. Much of it was narrative based (my original research question was the flawed “Can games be a … Source: […]

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