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The threat of failure in games is a foundation that’s existed as long as the industry itself. Ever since the days of Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and more, the idea that you can ‘lose’ at a title is something that we’ve come to expect. But while this mechanic was originally conceived as a means to conclude sessions and ultimately encourage expenditure in arcades, the infamous ‘Game Over’ screen still exists in various guises in gaming today. The question is: isn’t it about time that we moved away from this archaic idea?

God of War: Ascension recently caused a stir behind-the-scenes due to its incredibly challenging Trial of Archimedes difficulty spike. The chapter – which sees you fight three waves of ruthless foes without checkpoints and very few health drops – took some writers up to five hours to complete. We were slightly luckier, enduring just two hours of curse-laden gameplay before we finally succeeded in the never-ending battle against Gorgons, harpies, and centaurs.

The game’s director, Todd Papy, has since confirmed on Twitter that the challenge will be softened in an upcoming patch. It’s unclear how the developer intends to lessen the difficulty, but additional health drops or checkpoints are all viable solutions. Alternatively, the studio could fundamentally adapt the design of the chapter, changing enemy placements or reducing the number of foes to make things more manageable.

However, much like the company’s decision to alter a controversial Trophy name in the game, the confirmation of the change has divided fans. Despite the difficulty, some purists are disappointed that the team is backing away from its original vision. Still, a quick Twitter search evidences just how tough the chapter is: “I’ve played through all of the God of War games,” wrote one fan. “And the Trial of Archimedes is hands down the most challenging moment I’ve played.” Adam Sessler even made a video on the topic.

But the discussion surrounding the punishing but perfectly beatable section raises an interesting question about gaming itself: should we even be dying anymore? Complaints like the ones surrounding the Trial of Archimedes were almost expected in previous generations, but the difficulty of games seems to have decreased in recent years. Focus testing – something that God of War developer Sony Santa Monica ironically pioneered – has ensured that most titles are perfectly balanced to be beaten these days. But with that in mind, is failure little more than a manifestation of bad design?

To some, the process of learning a game’s systems and how to master them is part of the appeal of interactive entertainment. Titles such as Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls have proven that there’s a market for extremely challenging experiences that demand skill, practice, and – to a degree – hard work to conquer. The reason for the success of those games is the payoff; the process may be maddening, but actually beating a seemingly impossible boss is a euphoric moment.

But it feels backwards that you should have to spend several hours of your leisure time building up the muscle memory to conquer a small section of a title’s campaign. Banging your head against the wall for hours on end seems less like entertainment and more like work, which is perhaps why cinematic experiences have started to thrive. Titles such as Uncharted, for example, are at their absolute worst when you’re staring at a ‘Game Over’ screen – and some reviews for the franchise’s most recent entry evidenced as much.

So, for many of us, are experiences like Heavy Rain the way forward? One of the selling points of Quantic Dream’s innovative but flawed PlayStation 3 epic was its ability to adapt the story should one of its main characters die. If you fall, the narrative and its outcome merely change to reflect this. There are no ‘Game Over’ screens or checkpoints in the traditional sense, just the promise of a different story for everyone that plays.

The format not only makes the game incredibly accessible, but also extremely tense. The threat of failure isn’t particularly prominent throughout the course of the campaign, but when it comes, you know that you only have one chance to get things right otherwise your mistakes could have serious repercussions on the rest of the cast and the storyline. For some, that’s more compelling than repeatedly replaying a challenging section in order to attain the payoff at the end.

But, as with most things, it all depends on context. The majority of games rely on the threat of failure in order to add any sort of challenge to their gameplay. But is it really an effective mechanic if it’s something that designers are actively attempting to ensure that we avoid? The aforementioned Trial of Archimedes may be an extreme example, but if many of us are reluctant to deal with the challenge and the developer itself is willing to adapt its original vision to serve that, then what is the purpose of death in the games at all? And where does it leave those players eager for a challenge and a workout of their skills?

At the end of the day, failure is a concept that’s so fundamentally ingrained into the industry as we know it that we can’t imagine that it will be going away anytime soon. But with development budgets rising, the importance of appealing to all types of players is becoming an increasingly difficult prospect for developers. We just hope that the industry settles upon the right balance.


Do you feel that developers need to explore new ways of adding fail states to their games? Do you enjoy the process of learning to master a title, or do you prefer to be taken on a rollercoaster ride? Let us know in the comments section and poll below.

Do you enjoy the challenge of difficult games? (31 votes)

Yes, I love honing my skills like a ninja

29%

It depends if the challenge is fair

61%

I deal with it for the Trophies

3%

No, I want to feel empowered at all times

6%

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