So I thought about it for a bit and decided to visualize my complaint with Cold Fear in the form of the all-powerful line graph. I have two graphs to show, one tracking the difficulty of several games over time and the other showing the relative frustration I felt with those same games over the same amount of time. The levels here are completely subjective: I don’t expect other people to have felt exactly the same way as I did about these games, so before you get bent out of shape about how Siren is totally easy or Halo is amazingly hard and frustrating, realize that these are my impressions alone. Chill, ok?
You are probably like, “wait, did he say Halo?” Yeah, it seems a little out of place in this graph, I have to admit. But I am including it here for a good reason: it’s an extremely popular, extremely highly-rated game (also I just finished it the other day, so it’s fresh in my mind). If you get 97% on Metacritic.com and sell over 6 million copies, you have to be doing something very, very right. So I’m using Halo as a baseline in this graph to show how other games relate in terms of difficulty progression and frustration over time.
This first graph shows the level of difficulty I perceived for several games. You can see that Cold Fear started out fairly easy but then spiked really high early on. It was during this spike that I vented my frustration about the game on this blog. After that, the difficulty drops off very quickly and stays pretty shallow after that point (note that I’m not quite done with the game). Siren also started easy and then spiked dramatically. When this happened I ranted about it here. Unlike Cold Fear, Siren doesn’t get a whole lot easier over the course of the game–it stays pretty damn difficult until the very end. Silent Hill 4, on the other hand, was a walk in the park for the first half of the game and then suddenly became quite difficult in the second half. Finally, you can see that Halo’s difficulty curve is pretty uniform: it gets harder at a predictable rate but never spikes. It also never becomes super-difficult; even at its hardest, it is easier than Siren and Silent Hill 4. Halo has a very well-defined difficulty curve, while these other examples are less regular.
The second graph shows how frustrated I was by these games at different points in my play-through. You can see that Cold Fear got super frustrating at the same point that it was super difficult, prompting my rant. Siren was also super frustrating when the difficulty spiked, which is probably why I ranted about it as well. Silent Hill 4 was not very frustrating early on, but after a while the game became difficult and frustrating and stayed that way through the end. Halo has no spikes, and though the frustration level does rise with its difficulty, it manages to stay pretty frustration-free throughout the entire experience. It seems clear that spikes in difficulty are sources of frustration for me, but what I think is interesting about this graph is what happens to Siren after the spike: even though the game remained difficult, I was less frustrated by it the more I played it.
So what’s going on here? Cold Fear gets super hard and super frustrating and then becomes super easy and less frustrating. Siren gets super hard and super frustrating but then becomes more fun without losing any of its difficulty. If my theory is that hard games are frustrating, or even that dramatic spikes in difficulty are cause for frustration, it should follow that Siren would remain frustratingthroughout its duration.
Here is my theory: frustration isn’t as much a function of difficulty as it is a function of communication with the player. In fact, unplanned spikes in difficulty are probably caused by poor player communication, which is also the source for frustration; the first graph is not the cause of the second, they are both side-effects of the same problem. As Halo demonstrates, when difficulty increases gradually, the player himself improves and no frustration is evident. Most designers probably intend for their games to become incrementally harder over time, so spikes in difficulty and frustration represent unplanned-for failures to communicate the rules of the game.
Let me elaborate by looking at why Cold Fear suddenly became so hard and frustrating for me:
- I didn’t know where to go next, and there is no map to aid me.
- While searching the ship for the next story event, I kept running into monsters that respawned, causing me to run out of health and ammo.
- It wasn’t clear that the ship’s sick bay only had a limited number of health packs. Until the second-to-last pack is used, it appears that the supply is infinite. This mistake led me to be less frugal about health pack use than is required.
- Many doors are difficult to see because they blend in with the background colors.
- When I finally found the next story point and saved, I was in too weak a condition to actually address the challenge immediately following the save. Thus I was required to complete that challenge with minimal life and ammo, which was significantly harder than would have otherwise been the case.
- Normal challenge elements (such as the rocking of the boat) were amplified by the lack of regular resources caused by the problems above.
Almost all of these problems are communication issues: the game didn’t tell me where to go, didn’t tell me when an auto-save was coming up (or how prepared for a fight I should be after the save), didn’t tell me that I was quickly using up resources on the ship, and didn’t make it easy to find my way around. None of them have much to do with the normal moment-to-moment game play; they are “meta design” problems. Also, I think that these problems occurred early in the game because it takes players a while to get a hang of all the rules. As game play progresses and the player gets the hang of the rule set, these sorts of communication errors are probably less frequent.
The problems plaguing Siren were similar. As I posted about later in my Siren experience (and expanded upon in my eventual review of the game), the spike in difficulty and frustration in Siren is caused by insufficient communication with the player about the mechanics of the game. The central mechanic, sneaking, isn’t even clear until the player gets to the point where they cannot progress without sneaking extremely carefully. What happened to me in Siren is that I didn’t understand how to play and got frustrated with it, but my frustration level dropped through the floor and I started having fun again when I eventually figured out how the developers wanted me to play. The game was still damn difficult, but once I understood the rules the difficulty seemed legitimate rather than arbitrary.
In fact, when I think about it, Silent Hill 4 is a similar story. The difficulty level spiked half way through the game because I didn’t understand how to take care of the apartment. In the first half of the game the apartment is a source of infinite health (you can return there to heal at any time), but if you fail to light candles this benefit is lost in the second half of the game. I missed the connection between the candles and the quality of the room, which meant I suddenly lost a way to regain health and the game’s previously trivial game play suddenly became extremely difficult (this mistake also meant I wasn’t able to get the best ending–damn it).
So my conclusion is that games that suddenly become frustratingly difficult are probably failing to teach the player what is expected of them and how the game is to be played. If this happens early enough in the game we can just call it a “steep learning curve” (it’s obvious within the first hour of Resident Evil that you must aggressively conserve ammo), but if it happens after the player has made significant progress, it makes the game feel like it is punishing the player arbitrarily–it’s suddenly a matter of luck rather than one of skill. Games like Halo are probably successful on such a huge scale because they teach the player the rules early on and then gradually increase the level of challenge without ever changing the rule set.