So now we come down to it. I put up with a lot of pretty terrible stuff (and even more mindlessly mediocre stuff) in games, so what is it that finally breaks me? Almost always, it’s a specific difficulty hump, or at least something that I choose to perceive as a difficulty hump, and then use as an excuse to put the game behind me.
Grand Theft Auto 4 is a pretty straight-forward case. I was finding I was failing more and more often in missions, and redoing failed missions is so stiflingly time-consuming. Then I hit upon a mission late in the game that I failed three or four times, and so I sent the game back to my rental service. Actually, this happened twice. The first time was with a mission that started with an awkward chase through side-streets and back-alleys of the Alderney area and then transitioned into a combat sequence in a house where the camera had problems. I got fed up with it just after failing the chase segment a couple times. But, since I hadn’t reached the museum mission, which seemed to be the keystone tying together the stories in the downloadable add-ons, I figured I should give it another go. It only took me a couple of tries, despite having been away from the game and its idiosyncratic control scheme for months. This lends credence to my theory that it’s not necessarily a truly severe difficulty spike that makes me quit, but in fact, that an incidence of me failing a couple of times in close succession, which (assuming that I’m playing the sort of game where I fail sometimes) is bound to happen randomly from time to time, and that I use this event as an excuse to quit a game that is otherwise failing to engage me.
The second time I quite GTA 4 it was the same sort of thing. This time, the mission involved a long drive with a scripted conversation, followed by a sniping segment, followed by some sort of timed hybrid shoot-out/fleeing the scene sequence. Unlike the first time, I feel like this was much more genuinely a difficult sequence, one where the finicky controls couldn’t keep up with the needs of the action, and where it took a couple of run-throughs to even understand what the game was asking of me. An all-around frustrating situation, but one I would probably have persevered through if the rest of the game had held more appeal.
Wolfenstein is another case where it seems like the lack of enjoyment and engagement gradually wore me down, and so the actually specific incident that caused me to seems almost besides the point. Regardless, here’s how it happened: I was making my way through the “open world” that the game presents between levels when I got attacked by one of the teleporting(?) wizard enemies who summon an apparently unlimited number of melee enemies. I got stuck on an awkward bit of geometry, swarmed by the creatures, and was particularly frustrated by the hitch in switching to and from iron-sights aiming that I mentioned in Part 2. After I respawned from this encounter, I did keep playing, and successfully ran my way into the next level, which took place in a poorly lit sewer area. The very first encounter of this level was another charging, melee creature, coming around a blind corner, only this one was also quite the bullet sponge. I died, and put the controller down, and never came back.
So, again, this isn’t a true difficulty spike. The first frustrating encounter wasn’t at all integral to the core of the game, and I would have had little trouble with the second encounter if I had replayed the level. It’s just that these encounters, which occurred to me successively by pure luck, encapsulated the problems I was having with the game as a whole, and sent me over the edge into quitting. It was a combination of this short-term frustration, and that, from what the game had shown me thus far, I had no expectation of things getting any better, that ultimately did it.
The Last Remnant is an unusual case. Despite the bitching I did in Part 2 of this series about the gameplay, I was actually pretty hooked by it at the start, and would have seen it through to the end except for one thing: The Fallen. The Fallen is a boss you have to defeat for a side-quest. This quest disappears if you progress past roughly the two-thirds point of the main storyline. Beating the game but skipping the quest results in missing out on the true form of the final boss, the proper ending for the game, and somewhere in the neighbourhood of 500 achievement points. Going on in the game without beating The Fallen was thus unappealing to me. But, as you may have expected, The Fallen is absurdly hard to defeat. He needs to be beaten in 10 rounds or less, so there’s a minimum rate of damage per round that needs to be attained, which means weapons need to upgraded, which means searching for hours for rare drops because of the game’s convoluted crafting system. He inflicts horrible status effects which need to be countered with specific high-level spells, which take even more hours to learn because of the leveling system. I had been developing my characters efficiently, I had done every single side-quest up to this point, and I had even sunk some time into getting crafting materials and I didn’t even come close to beating. At a rough estimate, I was looking at 10 hours of skill-grinding, and another 10 of materials grinding to get up to where I needed to be to beat him. That just wasn’t going to happen. Even I place some marginal amount of value on my leisure time.
I suppose this illustrates the larger point of how the internet can be a hindrance. If I hadn’t looked up information on the game, I wouldn’t have even known about the quest to begin with, and I wouldn’t have gotten so hung up and beating it. Of course, without the internet I wouldn’t have understood the game’s counterintuitive systems, and so probably would have hit a difficulty hump far earlier.
There’s a commonality I want to emphasize in all three cases here. It’s not merely that bad story and gameplay are un-fun in themselves, it’s that they undermine my expectations about my enjoyment of future portions of the game. Once I tune out from the story you’re telling me, I no longer have the narrative to look forward to – there’s virtually no way to get me back on board. Disappointing, boring, or repetitious gameplay early on in a game is a strong indicator that there won’t be anything better later on. What this means is that when a game fails me in these ways, I have a very low expected utility from playing the rest of the game. A difficulty spike of the sort I’ve talked about imposes a cost on me in time and learning to overcome it. If a game has driven my expected utility low enough, it can take even a fairly tiny, incidental bump in difficulty to make me put down the controller. This seems to be what happened with Wolfenstein. In GTA 4, I could at least somewhat follow the threads of the story, and there was the expectation of at least some modicum of open-world spontaneity in the gameplay, and so it required a more severe spike in difficulty to set me off. Even The Last Remnant can be fit into this paradigm. In spite of (or, perversely, perhaps because of) the game’s ridiculous systems, I was fairly engrossed in it. How much less I would have put up with is hard to say, but the absurdly high spike I’ve described above was more than enough to put me off. I guess one lesson in this would, assuming you want me to finish your game, if that if your game is dull, at least make it easy. Or, conversely, if you make your game interesting, I will put up with more roughness and speed-bumps in order to see it through. This is pretty obvious, but I think the conclusion to take away, when you extrapolate the point out to the gaming population as a whole, who have a variety of preferences and skill levels, is that, unless your game is absolutely amazing, you should err pretty far on the side of making your game easy rather than hard, and you should take care to iron out the largest bumps on its difficulty curve. And if your game has selectable difficulty levels, default to an easier one, and let them be changed on the fly with minimal punishment to the player.