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The Cloven Designer

This article tackles game difficulty and derives a definition of “easiest level” in games from drama theory.

Altug Isigan

July 26, 2009

13 Min Read

[This article has been previously published at Sande Chen's Game Design Aspect of the Month.]

In this article I approach game difficulty from a game writer’s perspective and eventually propose a definition for “easiest level” in games which is derived from drama theory. I discuss the issue particularily around Italo Calvino’s novel The Cloven Viscount, which is a masterful piece of literature about the virtues of evil (and the many evils of virtue). I believe that Calvino’s book does not only tell us something about the relation between human nature and difficulty in games, but also about an essential quality of the successful game designer: her ability to treat the players good or evil without annoying them.

Too bad to be evil...

Before we get into Calvino’s Cloven Viscount, let us first consider a quote of Alfred Hitchcock in which he states what he believes to be determining the quality of a  narrative. In an interview he says: “The more successful [the design of] the villain, the more successful the story”. (Chion; 1987: 165)Many writers consider this statement as golden advise. At the core of the idea lies the principle of ‘maintaining the appeal of the bad guy’. Interestingly enough, applying this principle will result in a boost to the credibility of the good guy.  The villains in a script need as much of the writer’s care and attention as the protagonists. Villains should have their own unique and sophisticated ways, and they should be as skillful and intelligent as the protagonists. Even if we (as readers or players) are not in support of the villains ways of conduct, we should still understand their motivations and reasons. Their evil should be grounded in something that makes sense to us, and should not feel  like they were deliberately installed as trouble-making mechanisms. Villains that lack the good reasons for what they do,  will look flat. Don’t forget: even the devil has his reasons. Bad designed evil has a devastating impact on the respect we feel towards the story as a whole.  Such evil leaves nothing that would make us feel special about being involved in the conflict. On the other hand, villains whom we respect for whom they are,  make us feel that the conflict we try to solve is a true challenge: something that helps us grow, even if we run the risk to be defeated eventually.

...too virtuous to be good

We need to add that a purely virtuous character feels as fake as a purely evil character. In his novel The Cloven Viscount, Italo Calvino illustrates in a wonderful way the problem of characters that are pure evil or purely virtuous: The story revolves around a viscount who during war is being split into two halves by a cannonball. The viscount survives the incident and returns home as a “half person”. We soon find out that what had survived the incident was his evil half. As we read on, this purely evil half (which carries out its evil like if it were a task, and for no apparent reasons) gradually turns into a parody of evil, because it becomes evil that borders at the ridiculous.Things get worse when after a while the other half, which was thought to be dead, arrives in town. We are not surprised when this half turns out to be completely good. Soon the two halves start to compete against each other. However, the good half, which exercises its virtues because it sees it as an obligation to be good and helpful, invents for itself one welfare campaign after another, and by doing so, becomes so annoying and burdensome for those who are subject to this goodness that the people in town realize that “the good half is worse than the bad half” (Calvino; 2000: 88). The narrator of the story summarizes the arising situation perfectly: “Our emotions got stripped of all their colors and depth, because we felt completely lost between evil and virtue. Both pure evil and pure virtue were against human nature.” (p.89)

Which half of you designed the game?

What about game designers? Can they make us feel lost between good and evil through their design decisions? Unfortunately, we have to answer this question with a ‘yes’. Acting against human nature can be observed in many  game designers design philosophies and in the player treatment that results from these philosophies.For example there is this type of designer that always wants to challenge the player to the ultimate point (based on the argument  that games should be designed for the “true gamer”). But often the desire to push the limits of the player, crosses an invisible border in which the player’s encounter with the game’s mechanics and system does not feel like a challenge anymore, but turns into a frustrating experience governed by some arbitrary decisions of the designer. The players will find it difficult to understand why the game is so much hostile towards them, and why it continues to be hostile even when the hostility no longer seems to serve a purpose. We could say that in such a design it is the evil half of the ‘cloven designer’ which is at work. The good half of the cloven designer on the other hand, will be so good and helpful that the players will not be allowed to experience and learn something by and for themselves. The designer will always and insistently help, even when it is no longer needed (or worse, when it was not even asked for);  this designer will come with universal solutions that recognize only one idealized form of a “user”, and will fail to notice individual differences and the importance of context. The game will become unbearable because of its overwhelming and unstoppable help system. As an old proverb says: The road to hell is paved with stones of good intention.

The Art of Being Good and Evil

How to be good to your players without annoying them? It seems like the rules of exposure in writing apply in game design too:


    • Provide help or information in the moments the players would die for every bit of info.

    • Make it easy for them to access the info when they want to find it. But never put it into their way if they don’t want to see it or if they want to figure it out all by themselves.

    • If the players do not ask by themselves for what you want them to take but you believe that you must give it to them in exactly that sequence of the game, then use the element of surprise when you attempt to pass the info/help over to them. This is a good way to make the players forgive you that you provided help/info despite them not having asked for it.

    • Another good solution would be to present help/info during a dramatically tense moment, in which the players are so much occupied with solving a problem or observing the situation that they do not even realize that they receive help or info.

    • Prepare your players for game major events early on. But of course do it very subtle and don’t spoil your surprises.

Subtlety rules!On the flipside, how can you provide some quality evil that helps maintain respect to the game? Like in many of the arts and entertainment branches, variety and surprise are helpful in making the “dumbest” level a still challenging experience. Three methods will be mentioned here (although you might claim that there are more):

  • Scripted events or embedded cinematics with the purpose to build respect towards the game’s challenge: Many games have done it successfully and that is why it’s difficult to detect. Just seconds before the players enter their first encounter with the enemy, they see the enemies display their skills on a NPC-victim in a very stunning pre-scripted sequence or embedded cinematic. Witnessing this scene will give the players  the creeps and increase their respect to the challenge ahead. They will enter the encounter with a feel of high tension. However, this method has to be applied carefully, because if the real encounter does not feel as challenging as the cinematic suggested, then the trick will be exposed and the players will feel like the game tried to cheat on them. What more can a game do to lose its players respect?

  • Constructing a hierarchy of intelligent agents and confronting the players with enemies of varying intelligence levels simultaneously: A hierarchy of intelligent agents can be observed in many games. These present to us a mix of enemies that vary in smartness and skills. While some are quite dumb and transparent in their behavioral patterns (but have other things that we fear, like pace, accuracy or high fire rates), other enemies  compensate for their comrades’ dumbness with their smart and less transparent behavioral patterns. This is a way to tell the player through variety that the challenge is multi-facetted and by no means an easy one. The variety in intelligent agents, combined with good enemy placement, will be a strong tool to create a good challenge in even the easiest level of a game.

  • Utilizing a palette of individually dumb mechanics which, when combined, make up a system with intelligent and challenging behavior: Combining various dumb mechanics as to form an intelligent system is a very interesting way to pose a challenge onto the player and it will have a very surprising effect when it’s done well. Once the players realize that the individual mechanics are easy to handle but that as a system they make up more than the sum of pieces, they will say to themselves that it isn’t as simple as it looks (which is just another way to express that they see a  challenge in it). It was Will Wright who gave this beautiful example somewhere: a single ant is quite dumb and poses no threat, but a colony of ants can be very difficult to defeat, because when they combine their forces, the system that arises can behave as intelligently as a dog.

Common Pitfall: The Easy = Dumb Approach

Some  game designers describe the easiest level of their game as the level in which the enemies will behave plain dumb. But good game designers would see no reason in having a dumb level in their games. To the opposite, they’d be aware that such a level would lack depth and meaningful challenge. To come back to Hitchcock’s quote: Such a level would be the equivalent of a villain that hasn’t been given enough depth by the writer. Hence, the credibility of the game as a whole would suffer from such a design philosophy.Using dumb enemies to create an easy difficulty level is a bad design solution because:

·         It doesn’t pose a challenge onto the players and feels to them like you’re wasting their times: While playing through this “user-friendly” level, players will be expecting their skills to be checked. If you delay the confrontation with the challenge too much, you risk the players  walking away.  

·         What was designed to lower the entry barrier could turn into an eclipse of fun and cost you potential players: While the game tries to make the beginning comfortable for them, the players might not anticipate the cool things that are ahead. From their first impressions in the “user-friendly” level, they would decide that the game is boring and walk away before they come to the challenging and really fun parts of the game. 

·         Dumb enemies lower the quality of the conflict that is being experienced and make us think there is nothing essential to the game that would deserve our respect: We feel that there is nothing to achieve, or, that the achievement that we have been given as our target is not worth the effort. If it’s not worth the effort, why wasting time on it? No matter how much you are concerned about keeping low entry barriers for your game, a game’s easiest level should from the very first moment pose a somewhat serious challenge on the player and maintain the feeling that meaningful achievements  lie ahead. Therefore, I define easiest level as that version of a game that can be mastered easiest, without causing a loss in respect to the game’s challenge.


The lesson to be learned is quite clear: Don’t be too good to your players as to deprive them of some good ‘n tasty evil. On the flipside, don’t be as bad as to throw them into a sea of goodwill and leave them defenseless against it. Pure user-friendliness and pure give ‘em hell philosophies in game design are against play’s nature. Pull your halves together. Let players enjoy being players.

Altug Isigan 


Calvino I. (2000). İkiye Bölünen Vikont [The Cloven Viscount]. Can: İstanbul.

Chion M. (1987). Bir Senaryo Yazmak [Writing a Film Script]. AFA: Istanbul. 

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