Where Difficulty is Meaningless

Storyteller's (current) last level.

This week I visited Cochabamba, Bolivia, to talk about independent game development. We spent several hours doing Q&A, that always invariably helps me clear my thoughts on many subjects. At some point, I got asked:

How do you ramp up difficulty in Storyteller?

Spending so much time under a rock making my game, the question took me by surprise because when I design Storyteller, there is no concept of difficulty in my head.

There are some games for which the word "difficulty" has a clear meaning, like a knob that can be turned up to force players to work more to make progress. In Tetris, increasing the speed at which pieces fall happens to produce that we have to train more to keep up. Spelunky demands an increasing amount of real time training as you get further, thus getting "more difficult" [1].

A key concept for this kind of games is repetition: performing accurate physical tasks like jumping+shooting+aiming+mid-air-movement requires repetition to train your motor skills. We could visualize this training as a curve that goes up where the game can set the minimum bar in a continuous fashion: enemies get faster, jumping needs to be more accurate, require efficient resource management, etc.

But what does "difficulty" mean for a game like Storyteller, that does not require any kind of motor prowess, there is no punishment for making mistakes and you have all the time in the world to make your next move? When we figure out a riddle, being faced again with a very similar riddle is boring: we are not learning anything new!

Storyteller is not a series of obstacles I devised to put players to the test until they "beat it" (horrible word, btw). That mindset is an inheritance from old days where arcades tried to make you lose your money. When a designer is antagonistic the game feels antagonistic and as a player I find it puerile and automatically assume it is not for me.

I want puzzle games to feel like a garden of interesting ideas with multiple paths that sometimes guide gently and sometimes lead me to wilderness that require effort and familiarity.

People smarter than me found out that each game defines a universe with its own rules that create a "meaning of existence". Each game states "Find the meaning of your life, on my terms". When we become competent at a game, many of the ideas and discoveries we made can't even be put into words: we just understand the ideas and perceive the beauty.

Storyteller allows the creation of a large amount of interesting stories, and challenges players to figure out how far they can be taken. The concept of "difficulty" is not part of this aesthetic, it has no place in this universe. Thus a "difficulty progression" make no sense. Each level is a new idea that stems from the mechanics, not a knob that I turned up [2]. Every time I try to decide which level come after which other level, or whether I need an intermediate level between other two, I ask myself:
  • Can I expect players to understand all the pieces necessary to make this puzzle interesting and not confusing?
  • Is this level making the game repeat itself or is it adding something new?
  • What would players be expecting here? Do I want to break that expectation?
  • or ultimately "does it feel right to play level B after level A?"

As a consequence, players might find a later level easier than previous ones, and sometimes they will get stuck and frustrated because a certain level is unusually tricky. I am fine with this. As a bonus, this policy also tells me when to stop making levels: when I am not adding new ideas to discover.

And to take this further, with the recent overhaul of the level selector I am opening levels in somewhat unorthodox way:

Instead of a general difficulty progression, there are several "pages"[3] that start with a short linear progression to make sure players understand a few key concepts and then sets them loose to pick whatever level they want. This blurs the notion of difficulty even further! The way I see progression in Storyteller is like a ring of understanding that gets larger as you play the game, allowing more and more freedom to discover how the game defines its meaning of life.

I suspect a vast amount of puzzle games out there are in the same situation, but were forcibly structured linearly by increasing difficulty, discouraging many players from finding its treasures.

[1] I am oversimplifying. Spelunky's difficulty progression way more interesting than a linear curve, but a proper analysis would need its own article.
[2] It can be argued that if you take the last level in the level selector, it is clearly *way* more difficult to solve than the first one, but the difficulty difference lies just on how used you are to see the world through the eyes of Storyteller.
[3] Each page explores a different "branch" of Storyteller's aesthetic.


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