[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time, he references Metal Gear Solid 4 to discover how difficulty changes can warp gameplay]

When we think about choice in video games, we tend to think in terms of narrative choice. Discussions surrounding the subject often revolve around the impact (or lack thereof) that the player has on the game world. This isn’t surprising; choices with an emotional component have a tendency to provoke strong reactions and when the subject is brought up they’re typically the first things we think of.

Most of the choices in video games, however, aren’t narrative at all. They are moment to moment choices, when players decide to block instead of dodge, jump far instead of short, or turn left instead of right. There’s not a lot of intellectual debate to be had in discussing whether you should jump across a bottomless pit or into it, but the real meat of a video game lies in these choices.

Now, once players figure out that the key is to jump over the bottomless pit, that obstacle loses a lot of its appeal as an interesting challenge. So rather than ask the player to discover a previously defined solution (such as in Space Station Pheta), games are more frequently asking players to construct their own solution from a variety of possibilities (Bioshock). From a narrative perspective there certainly isn’t much difference between flying over a pit or building a bridge over it, but having these different options allows players to exercise different skills and ways of thinking.

With this approach to design comes the challenge of balancing these options against each other. When games provide some choices that aren’t as effective as others, they discourage players from being creative. Worse, if there’s an option so much more rewarding than the others there may be no point in doing anything else. Sometimes the wrong choice leads to a fate far worse than defeat: boredom.

Liquid Easy

Metal Gear Solid 4 is an interesting game in this respect because its gameplay changes wildly depending on the game’s difficulty. Increasing the difficulty causes enemies to become more perceptive, resilient, and deadly, and most of MGS4’s gameplay involves using a variety of weapons and gadgets to avoid them. There’s quite a bit of depth here for clever players to exploit, but the difficulty setting doesn’t always make this challenge lesser or greater: sometimes it removes it altogether.

Once the game’s difficulty is set low enough, a combination of high player health and hilariously inaccurate enemies make the game’s stealth aspect seem ridiculous and unnecessary. There’s little point in avoiding enemies that can’t do anything to you. And when players learn they have more to lose standing and fighting than running to the next part of the level, the game becomes less of a tactical espionage action game and more of a headless chicken simulator.

Lower settings of difficulty don’t just make the game easier. They allow for a completely different playstyle that is as effective as it is boring. When the enemies are incompetent and weak enough, the easiest way to deal with them is to run past them until you trigger a loading screen and cause them to forget about you. There may be an incredible array of gadgets to use, but under these circumstances the best solution is to drop them and run.

Choosing the Impossible

Ironically, this is a form of emergent gameplay, albeit one that encourages players to be less creative and think less critically about their surroundings. You can skip a large portion of the game doing this and since even stray bullets can be recovered from fairly easily, it’s high reward with little risk. At this point players are barely even interacting with the game. And if it isn’t intended for players to be skipping most of the game, it might be argued that they shouldn’t be able to.

Of course, at high difficulties and under certain conditions, they can’t. As difficulty increases, combat becomes so lethal that even running from a pack of soldiers is suicide. Instead, the player has to be very clever with the tools at their disposal in order to advance.

While higher difficulties are commonly associated with more frustration, in this case they enable the sorts of challenges that engage the player even more. At a certain threshold, when it becomes more efficient to avoid or confront enemies than run past them, the player is finally engaged with the challenge the game is designed to pose. But unless a player chooses this path of difficulty, they might as well not be playing the game (at least, not the same game).

metalgearsolid1230678949359%20copy.pngDon’t Blame the Victim

It’s impossible to blame players for running since they’re only doing what the game is asking of them: finding the easiest and most efficient solution to the challenge being posed. It’s what all games ask, really, although in games with player defined goals it’s the player both asking the questions and finding the answers.

One of the biggest challenges of game design is that if you give players the opportunity to do something they despise in order to get what they want, they will almost always do it. World of Warcraft’s design team, for example, is constantly faced with the challenge of forcing their players to have fun by ensuring that the best way of doing something is the most enjoyable.

So when players run by oblivious soldiers in Metal Gear Solid 4, it isn’t because they like it. They do it because the game all but asks them to. When one choice overwhelms all others in effectiveness, it’s no longer a choice, just like it makes no sense to jump into a bottomless pit rather than over it. Sure, a player can play on a more difficult setting to get a more full experience, but is it really okay to even give players the option of not being engaged?

Is a Gamer Not Entitled to the Sweat of His Brow?

Of course, this all provokes the question of why players would skip over all this content. Often, it’s because they just want to finish it, or especially in the case of Metal Gear Solid, see the narrative unfold. All kinds of gamers are interested in Metal Gear Solid’s story, and not all are necessarily highly accomplished at the game itself. Without the option of easier difficulties, a lot of fans are left out.

Perhaps this is a question of fairness. Is it fair to deny people the opportunity to experience the story if they aren’t good at the game? It’s a hard question to answer. If someone buys the game just for the story, it’s difficult to argue that they shouldn’t be able to see it.

But there’s no reason that the experience of the game has to be sacrificed for accessibility. Difficulty should exist as a way of crafting the experience to fit the player, not to shortcut the entire experience of the game for tangentially related rewards. A game should be an experience in and of itself.

DVDs don’t force you to jump through hoops to keep watching them, but on the other hand, jumping through hoops is sort of the point of playing a game in the first place. Designers cannot ignore this behavior. Filmmakers have it easy; short of looking away and covering their ears, viewers can’t help but see what’s on the screen. But a videogame can be a deep experience and players will still ignore it if there’s a flaw in design that lets them. The key, of course, is to not let them.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and obscure videogame related t-shirts, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]