Tough But Fair
Cuphead, the long-awaited action game inspired by classic animation of the early 20th Century, finally arrived last Friday, and our own Sam Barsanti dropped by to give a review this week. Sam applauded the game for its visuals and playability but wasn’t completely sold on its level of difficulty, which is pretty damn high. Down in the comments, though, Duwease stepped up to discuss a few different flavors of video game struggle and why Cuphead’s is especially tolerable:
Much hay is made about this game’s difficulty, but after playing it, I think there are some incredibly important subtleties to the game’s design that only make it seem difficult.
Difficulty, to me, is some aspect of the game that causes frustration. Overcoming the frustration produces joy, so with a proper balance, you end up challenging the player just enough to get the most joy out of victory. While the game features many, many player deaths, and busy, chaotic looking screens, it actually works hard to reduce frustration. In this way, it’s a lot less like old-school games and more like Super Meat Boy. Boss battles typically cap out at around 90-120 seconds for a successful run, and restart on death in just a second or two, so there’s no sense of replaying long, bland parts or waiting impatiently that typically breeds frustration. And the battles themselves are not the twitch-fest “get lucky” sort of battles they look like. They’re strategic. There’s almost always a simple, safe strategy once you’ve figured out the ideal loadout and are familiar with the attacks. I replayed a good chunk of the game to show it off to my son last night, and I blew through each battle in one or two tries, netting B+’s or A’s. Due to these modern design tweaks I find the game compulsively playable in a ”just one more try” kind of way. Instead of feeling like a setback, each death feels like I snatched a little more knowledge and am one step closer to mastery.
Elsewhere, Exy pointed us to a pretty awesome video of what the game looks like running on as close to an era-appropriate television as you can get. It must have been a nightmare to get this running properly, but damn if it doesn’t look awesome:
This week also brought the first installment of my multi-part Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War review, as I covered the game’s opening hours, which serve as a very long and mostly mind-numbing tutorial. This is a deeply complex game, so it’s something of a necessary evil, but one has to imagine there’s a more engaging method to get this tutorial stuff out of the way. In the comments, Shinigami Apple Merchant kicked off a discussion about the difficult act of finding the right balance between gentle introductions and overbearing teaching methods:
Shame to hear the good ole AAA bumper lanes/safety net interactive tutorials are firmly in place and keep one from letting loose from the offset on the gold material of this sequel. It’s like going to Disney World and being stuck in a museum tour wandering around all these breathtaking rides but never being allowed to actually go on one. But I suppose that’s the nature of the beast in the modern gaming world.
And /comfort, devs. It’s so hard to find that perfect balance in execution. Can’t inundate the player with tutorials or else they’ll complain about the ever present and immersion breaking pop-up text and “I need to go HERE” voice-overs. But providing a link to a well written game manual PDF and calling it a day isn’t a valid option anymore either. I guess the perfect middle ground is in how the user interface is incorporated and presented. If you have a fluid and cohesive foundation for your control scheme and mechanics, every mini-tutorial you add on to that is a simple two second, natural extension. Conversely, if your mechanics are inherently cumbersome and convoluted, you’ll annoy players with the pop-up text AND they won’t even integrate what’s being taught into their head lexicon.
Wolfman Jew pointed to one of this year’s most acclaimed games as a great example of a tutorial done right:
Zelda: Breath of the Wild was very good with that. The mechanics are mostly intuitive, as are the controls. For instance, you’ve got one button that always functions as an “aerial” move, whether jumping in the air, on a cliff, or just pulling out your parachute. The only particularly cumbersome technique is shield surfing, and that’s pretty situational. While you do have a forced tutorial with small mini-dungeons for your powers, there’s a ton of room for experimentation and self-direction in it. And dying; you can die a lot in the intro. It helps that the game is, while challenging, not particularly punishing thanks to a liberal auto-save, so dying feels more like a natural part of the playing process. Plus, the relative “universality” of the systems and mechanics allows you to experiment without feeling like you’re going to break the game or immersion.
Elsewhere, Drinking With Skeletons wondered if Shadow’s bloody, grim-dark edge was ever a good fit for Lord Of The Rings:
This sounds intriguing, but it’s still a shame that it’s attached to the Lord Of The Rings franchise, which really just doesn’t accommodate so much of the narrative trappings. I can’t help but think that everything would fundamentally work better had they used a Warhammer license instead.
And Cnightwing noted an unfortunate rift between the game and its inspiration:
It is a bit of a shame, given that Tolkien’s works are much more low key. Yes, the stakes are extremely serious, but the heroes are not particularly overpowered (Gandalf excepted), and their character development is on a personal rather than your standard RPG numerical level. Yes, they gain magic items, but those are almost always plot devices.Would the game have been made without the licence? Probably not, unfortunately. Otherwise with a well crafted new IP and the nemesis system, you could have a proper rival for something like Assassin’s Creed.
One More Thing
This Sunday is October 8, which means it’s once again time for the Gameological community’s Mario Kart 8 On The 8th event! Wolfman Jew has taken over hosting duties for the month, and has made a post with all the pertinent details for anyone who wants to get in on the festivities:
That’ll do it for this week, Gameologinauts! As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all again next week!