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Broken Challenges

How to identify good and broken challenges in a video game. Video game challenges must follow certain rules, or they hurt the experience, and may even lead to the player finally walking away from the game.

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Fun challenges are crucial to any game, and a challenge cannot be fun if it is unfair. There is no worse feeling in games than when you feel that the game is cheating or being unfair. So, what makes fair challenges?

Challenges must be possible for everyone to solve. If the player is mentally and physically well, the challenge should be solvable. Many other rules can be derived from this one. Any challenge must be solvable at that point in the game. For example, a new player would not be able to beat the final level of Super Mario Bros before hundreds upon hundreds of painful tries, but the rest of the game prepares the player to be able to solve the challenges in the final level. Therefore, the challenge is fair.

Some games throw you into a challenge that is not possible to beat. You are supposed to lose to progress the story. This type of challenge is very questionable, as it leaves the player feeling some negative feelings. It also gives the player the desire to try again, which he does usually much later, rewarding the player even more. I’ll leave this for another article.

Challenges cannot require irrelevant information. For example, the guard to the castle will not let you pass until you tell him who won the ’04 world series. That is an unfair challenge, as a knowledge in sports trivia should not be required unless you are playing a trivia game. This violates a major rule – every challenge should be possible to solve by everyone. Since the answer, the Boston Red Sox, is not going to just pop into your head if you don’t know it already, the challenge is broken.

Challenges cannot be solved by luck easily. As a gamer, have you ever solved a challenge or completed a puzzle accidentally? You may laugh on the outside, but on the inside, you feel ripped off after missing out on the rewarding feeling. Oftentimes, upon accidentally solving a challenge, you may not even understand the solution. This means that the player misses out on information or skills that will become necessary later on, thus setting up broken puzzles down the road. If a player accidentally solves a challenge, the game should at least make the player realize why what he/she did worked.

Challenges must contribute to the learning curve of the game. All challenges in a game are part of the learning curve – therefore, they must play their part. Any challenge must either teach new skills to be required later, test previously learned skills in a new way (while sometimes teaching new skills using skills), or reinforce skills to build mastery or refresh player’s memory. A challenge that doesn’t do any of these should be tossed, as they add nothing to the game (in fact, they detract from the game). 

As an example for the previous rules, we are going to look at the game, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. We are especially going to look at the dungeons.

Each of the main levels in the game is known as a dungeon, a series of connected challenges in a certain area with a certain story/progression connecting it all. The standard format of a dungeon is as follows.

1. You use a new tool, a skill, to get into the level (like boots, which got you past the Gorons guarding the mines)
2. You use this skill to solve challenges which help you master the skill
3. You use this skill in addition to other skills you have learned, which may be tested in no ways due to the new setting
4. New challenges are continuously thrown at you, and you eventually reach the midboss, which tests your new skill more than any challenge before, usually leading to and preparing you for the boss fight
5. You are usually given a new skill, and are put in a room until you can solve the challenge to get out using this brand new skill, beginning to teach the skill (not explain, but teach)
6. You are given even more difficult challenges, which lead you to the level’s boss
7. The final boss tests your new skills in a more combat-oriented way – these final bosses are training you for the game’s final boss

You should see a very distinct format here. Each challenge trains you for the next challenge. A level’s challenges train you for future levels and the level boss, which you were trained for by the midboss. Each boss, each level, trains you for the final boss, the final level in the game. All of your skills are brutally tested in the final level.

The challenges a player faces in a game are very important. The learning they create is what makes games fun, and any challenge that does not fall into the learning curve hurts the experience. A challenge can break the learning curve by being impossible to solve, requiring learning the game did not teach/facilitate, allowing progression without learning what the challenge taught in order to prepare the player for future challenges, or going against the flow of the learning curve, the increase of difficulty that builds off of previous learning.

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