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The truth about challenge in games

(This is an archived old post from the previous version of the page.)

Blasphemer! If I can’t die in a game, there’s no point to gaming! If I cannot fail in a game, all we’re left with are interactive movies!

Gamers love challenge.


But let’s be honest here for a second.

How many times have you not finished a game you truly loved, because it was just too damn hard?

That’s it. I genuinely like you, and I gave it my best, but I cannot do it. My skills are inadequate. I give up. You win.

…said no one, ever.

Now, I know someone will surely bring up Demon’s Souls at this point. But if the above is an exaggeration, I think we can still agree that such a defeat is rare, right? You don’t finish most games because they bore you, not because they’re too hard. And even when you lower the difficulty level in a game, it’s not because you know you cannot do it. You know you can; the effort is just not worth the extra hours.

But gamers keep demanding challenge. Oh, the emails I’ve got after the blog post where I talked about removing challenge from a certain kind of games… I’ve seen things from the darkest corners of the Internet, and I still blushed.

Gamers demand challenge. They love the sweat of victory, the sound of the giant boss falling down and the crowd going wild when they score a goal.

Overcoming weakness is breathtaking. We are the steel forged in the fires of hell.

Except it’s all fake, and we love challenge for a different reason we think we do.

Demon's Souls

But first: what’s the difference between game challenge and a real challenge?

When you challenge yourself to climb a mountain, the mountain does not give a rat’s ass about you.

When you challenge yourself to finish a game, the game does everything it can to help you.

Bloodthirsty mercenaries trying to kill you?


A devious puzzle blocks the way to the treasure?


Jumped into the abyss?


And it’s not about the fact that games need to be different from the real life to compensate for the difference in the stimulation of our senses. It’s about games doing all they can to make sure you reach the end.

A Winner is You

Games not only offer regenerating health, in-game hints, savegames, respawning potions, sidekicks that lead the way, progress bars, goal reminders, objective pointers, artificial ammo clips, fast travel option, damage that doesn’t affect anything but your health bar, grenade indicators, and sniper rifles with bullets faster than light, unaffected by the wind.

Lately, they also offer adaptable AI that stops shooting at you if you’re too stressed, psychovisual tricks to guide you through a level, and pre-order bonuses that give you weapons more powerful than anything else in the game.

Here’s the thing. All of these things are lovely (well, maybe except for this pre-order thing). It’s all good stuff, more or less. But it’s how the game helps you – desperately – to make it through.

The mountain would never do any of these things. It would not get lower just so it’s a bit easier to get to the top. It would not stop the rain, or turn the night into day. It will not grow magic mushrooms to ease your pain.

It’s just there.



One giant lithoid “fuck you”.

But not games. Easy mode, hard mode, it doesn’t matter. Games are there for you.

Because here’s the twist: it’s not the challenge, but it’s the lack of it that is the reason why people love video games.

We fail at most real life challenges. Lose weight. Be rich before we’re thirty. Read all the books we bought. Always be kind. Get a fantastic job. Find more time for the family.

Any of these sounds familiar?

Games give us the illusion that we are in control, and anything is possible. No matter what’s the challenge, we will always win in the end.

You don’t care that a team of two hundred people worked hard to make sure you get the final prize. The victory feels yours, and yours only.

Challenge in video games. It’s the comfort food.

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