The Insurmountable Challenge

Words: 2045 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

I would like to use this space to vent.

I’ve been playing a lot of Binding of Isaac lately. Binding of Isaac is a bullet-hell roguelike where you explore the twisted mind of a young boy named Isaac. The game is quite tough, and features a lot of different items (many of which are unlocked by playing) to offer a lot of variability across runs. I’ve mentioned playing it before, particularly in relation to how its top-down viewpoint helps the player to deal with an “information problem” when it comes to bullet hells. Normally I find it a fun game that provides a lot of replay value.

One thing I decided to make a mission of was 100%-ing the game. That was something I knew would take a long time because the involves the following:

1) Earning 12 “completion marks” on a character. Each completion mark represents defeating a particular boss in the game. Sometimes multiple bosses can be defeated in a single run, so it’s not like you have to beat the game 12 times with that character.

2) Earning those 12 marks on Hard Mode. You don’t have to play Hard and Normal separately.

3) Earning each of those 12 marks across 34 separate characters. I did say it would take a lot of time.

Now in the abstract, that’s a lot of playing. And I’m fine with that. Call it “getting your money’s worth.” There’s also going to be a lot of dying and retrying along the way. And that’s fine too. Because the nature of roguelikes is that to some extent you have to anticipate dying.

Okay, so why am I frustrated?

There are two particular characters in the game: The Lost and Tainted Lost (I say there are 34 characters, but really there are 17 characters, and then each character has a “Tainted” version that has its own unique – and tougher – mechanics).

Why do these particular characters frustrate me?

The basis of these characters is that they’re supposed to be the toughest to play as. The Lost as a character has no health. You can’t increase your health or refill health or anything like that. Instead, you only get a special shield that replenishes each room. So at most you can make one mistake in a given room before dying.

Tainted Lost is the more difficult version of Lost. What I just described is pretty difficult, so how do you make it even harder? Well you take away that shield. Instead, Tainted Lost begins with an item that can be used once to prove that same shield. Once you’re hit, the shield is gone. You could find that same item again later in the run, but if you don’t, well…you get one mistake. Hope you don’t get hit.

Last summer I spent about a week working on the marks for The Lost. It was frustrating.

This past week I worked on the marks for Tainted Lost. It was torture.

So I want to use this as an opportunity to investigate “challenges” within games and the concept of fairness. I’ve talked about difficulty within games before, but I wanted to revisit it because I think this is an excellent example of when a game goes “too far.”

“Can” “Will” “Must” “Should”

Hopefully what I’ve described sounds like it’s something you wouldn’t want to do. Because it’s definitely something no player should do, nor should they want to do.

But why did I do it?

I am – sort of – a completionist gamer. I often like to get everything in a game, including the achievements provided by a developer. I don’t do this all the time. Usually I have to enjoy the game on some base level first, and even then I’ve become less and less “completionisty” over time.

Binding of Isaac gave me the itch, though.

Whatever anyone’s particular reason for trying to do everything in a game is, that explanation is ultimately irrelevant. We should not care. We can explore completionism as a tendency more generally and the problems that come with it, but in particular cases we must simply take it for granted among some players.

I bring this up, though, because completionism – whether voluntary or involuntary – is going to act as essentially a compulsion. That goal becomes something that the player must complete. The obvious response would be “but you don’t have to complete everything in the game.” But this response fundamentally misunderstands the psychology of completionism. Even in a voluntary sense, to set a goal for oneself and work to complete it can be an exercise in self-discipline. To give up on the goal is to fail yourself.

So yeah…the completionist kindof does have to do everything. It doesn’t mean that everyone else should do everything. It doesn’t mean that those who complete everything in the game are better people. It doesn’t mean that either the completionist or the non-completionist are enjoying the game the “right” or “wrong” way.

I bring this up because I think the initial question and response are pretty standard ways of thinking about challenges in video games. Because the base for how we think about games is through fun: the purpose of a game is to have fun, and if you’re not having fun, then you shouldn’t play. While I agree with this claim to an extent, I think there are caveats that need to be added on. As an example, I’ve talked about the use of “bad games” as a way of building critical muscles – sometimes there is value beyond fun for playing a game.

Fairness and Challenge

So to revisit the thesis of an earlier essay on difficulty: a challenge is only good if it’s fair, and feels fair.

The obvious question becomes: what is fairness?

Fairness depends a fair amount of the individual game, but a useful rule of thumb is to ask “what tools does the game give the player for overcoming a challenge?” These tools include things like the basic controls, the offensive and defensive options given, equipment, and even things like how danger is telegraphed to the player.

One aspect of fairness, though, is the way in which mistakes are built into the systems.

Think of any challenging game. Mistakes are usually assumed, and so most of these games build around those mistakes by doing one of two things. One is to provide the player with a buffer – a decent amount of health or some form of healing. Such is the solution of Dark Souls and similar games. Alternatively, you could demand perfect play, but make the sections short – a mistake sets you back, but only about 10-20 seconds, rather than minutes or even an hour. Such is the solution of a game like Celeste.

Roguelikes generally tend towards the former solution, and accentuate it by rewarding longer and better play. The further you progress in a run, the stronger your build will likely get, which means you’ll be better able to deal with the tougher challenges that are coming. Even when you make mistakes, those mistakes are fixable.

This all doesn’t mean that there’s no challenge whatsoever. Nor does it mean victory is guaranteed each run. But at the very least you don’t need to play perfectly, and the game does not expect perfect play. It expects good play, or maybe even just decent play.

I use this example of the Tainted Lost to help put this principle into clearer light. Tainted Lost basically demands perfect play. You literally get one mistake, and in a game where fast runs still anticipate taking nearly 30 minutes, one mistake is a lot to ask of players.

Now there are ways to get around this problem. There are certain items you could collect to offset this challenge and make it more manageable. Items that make you invincible for a bit, or items to regain that one-hit shield, and so on. But Binding of Isaac is a roguelike, and the root of the roguelike is that items are random. So there’s never a guarantee of getting the items you would need for this strategy. I cannot count the number of runs that failed because I never found the exact right combo of items. I might get a good offensive build, but never find items to shield me. I might find the shields, but wind up dealing too little damage to make the build viable.

And so the problem is that these two characters are essentially ruled by the randomness. Whether you win is not really going to be determined by getting the right items. And in a game with so many items, that could mean losing a lot of runs until you get the right combo.

I don’t mean by all this that it is literally impossible to win without a perfect batch of items. I would be willing to believe that there are supremely expert players who can beat the various bosses without needing a single item.

But such perfect play should not be the standard we hold players to.

So what do I think should be done?

I think such challenges existing in the abstract are fine.  But they should be left to the design of the players, not the developers.

To provide a different example, let me go back to Dark Souls. One prevalent challenge is the Soul Level 1 run. You play through the game without ever gaining a level. I’ve done those runs in the three Dark Souls games. I could talk about that experience for a good long time.

But the value of that experience is that it was something I did on my own. The game never encouraged it. The developers didn’t put an achievement in saying “hey, great job beating the game…now beat it again without any upgrades!” It was a challenge created entirely by the community, and each player can decide whether they care enough to do it or not.

I think in Binding of Isaac, it would be awesome for a mod to exist that included characters like The Lost. If players wanted that extra challenge, they could do it. And for those players who wanted to do everything, they weren’t being held to a ludicrous standard.

I think the way to think about challenges from a developmental standpoint is what you as designer expect players to accomplish. Not necessarily what they will, but what you want them to do. When you include a challenge within the game, you are saying you want players to get through it, and expect them to do so.

And that is the problem I have with these two characters (and occasionally other challenges in other games…but we’re focused on this particular example for right now). It feels like these characters are included just to try and push the challenge of the game to its absolute limits. Not because the game is fun at those limits, but because that’s the logical extension of making the game harder.

Concluding Thoughts

I am writing this essay the night before it is posted. I managed to complete the marks for Tainted lost about 6 hours ago.

And every feeling out of completing this particular challenge is frustration and the relief that it’s done. No joy. No satisfaction. It’s not a good challenge. I am glad that I never have to touch these characters again.

Crafting a good challenge is tough. I think there’s a lot of value in experimenting with things and pushing boundaries. But if there’s a narrow lesson to be learned, it’s that demanding near-perfect play is too much.

In saying all of these things, I don’t think it’s necessary that every challenge be built in such a way that literally every player can overcome it. I think it’s even going to be the case that some games are “too hard” for some players. That all winds up being okay, so long as the challenges within the game still wind up being constructed in a “fair” manner. If players struggle with things like hand-eye coordination, or puzzle solving, that’s all fine. It says nothing about those players as people or their worth or their status. But by that same token, not all challenges are fine and good simply because someone can complete them.

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