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In Defense of Difficult Levels



blog-0754190001377033959.png(This blog post is the second in a three-part series. For the first part, click here.)


Several years ago, I came across another tile-based puzzle game online that was similar in appearance to Chip’s Challenge. It was called Escape. The objective, quite simply, was to escape out the exit door while navigating any obstacles in one’s way. Sound simple? The game was devilishly difficult. Thousands of levels created by scores of designers have been uploaded online from within the game. What ultimately set it apart from Chip’s Challenge was that it was turn-based, and as such, it was much easier to implement an undo feature. For instance, monsters would move only when you did. A level’s entire map could also be viewed all at once. One of the game’s most prolific designers was someone many of you may recognize: Joshua Bone. That’s right - the creator of Spiral, Mud and Water, Thieves and Teleports, and other simple CCLP3 levels crafted some of the most diabolical (no pun intended!) and well-designed Escape levels in the game’s level bank. I can’t help but think that at least one reason for this - besides the differing game elements - is the game’s undo feature and ability to view the entire map at once. CC has no such mechanics.


So how do we provide a challenge to players when a level has to be completed in one sitting? And how do we do so in CCLP1?


By now, many of you reading who are veteran players have no doubt played or at least skimmed through CCLP3, which was filled with many long, difficult levels. Since its release, many casual players - even veteran casual players - have voiced their concerns about its difficulty. But just why was it frustrating to so many, at least when compared to the original game’s final tier of levels? Here’s at least a few of the most mentioned reasons:


- Convoluted puzzles. This doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Puzzles are a core element of CC and work well in manageable doses. Puzzles that involve multiple inevitable failures, vast leaps in logic, and copious amounts of spatial reasoning and attention to detail are much less fun.


- Needless red herrings. Whether it’s the surprise victory lap in Grand Prix or the unnecessary key in Floating Plaza (yes, I’m going to burn my own levels here...many of them are old shames for me now), using deception, particularly late in a lengthy level where falling for the trap necessitates a restart after several minutes of gameplay, is very, very frustrating.


- Excessive length. Long levels aren’t inherently bad, but a general rule of thumb is that if the level feels like work, the greater the possibility that players will become exhausted and lose interest. This principle is applicable regardless of difficulty (On the Rocks comes to mind as an easier example), but when extreme difficulty is applied, the frustration gets compounded.


- Unforgiving linearity. Linearity, again, is just another method used to structure a level’s challenges and can be used to make great levels. Linearity used in conjunction with frustrating design elements combined with opportunity after opportunity for failure can lead to relentlessly difficult levels that are no fun to play again after cooking the level late into an attempt. Not only must the player journey through everything leading up to the cook all over again, but he or she must also guard against making other mistakes along the way - and then anticipate even more trickery beyond the cook. The process just snowballs when more cooks occur. Linearly designed levels are especially frustrating when a level presents at once multiple options to the player that offer several different ways to go, but only one “order of operations” is correct.


This may not be an exhaustive list, but it’s a list of qualities that have been mentioned the most. There are a couple of reasons why I wanted to put all of these elements in a list that can be viewed at once - other than the fact that no such list has been written out yet. First, studying these elements to see how CCLP3 used them can be quite helpful. A level that utilizes one of them has the potential to be tough and frustrating, although not necessarily so. A tiny level with a red herring, for instance, isn’t going to make CC players ragequit and hang up their hats. However, a level that uses two or more of them can be relentlessly difficult. Note that the first two items on the list are concerned with gameplay, while the latter two are concerned with design. (All of them can be tied into Designer Disconnect, but that’s another topic for another time.) Convoluted puzzles combined with excessive length or needless red herrings combined with unforgiving linearity are almost certainly going to be trouble for a general audience. In many cases, CCLP3’s final tier of levels exhibited all four of these qualities! And if you were to look at the set as a whole, you’ll notice that there were strings of these levels with two or more of these qualities placed consecutively, especially toward the end.


(Side note: Please don’t get me wrong. I do think there’s a place for some of these kinds of levels, but I don’t believe that CCLPs are the context, as they are meant for more general audiences - even the non-CCLP1 packs that are geared toward veterans. Veterans can include casual players who don’t wish to use maps. For this reason, I think we’re really going to have to work hard to adjust our difficulty expectations for CCLP1 and dial down the toughness two notches - one below CCLP3, which would be where a non-CCLP1 pack would ideally be, and another so that CCLP1 is properly introductory and features a gentle difficulty curve.)


Second, studying these elements can be quite helpful when we contrast how CCLP3 was difficult with where CC1 ventured with respect to difficulty, which should be an important part of informing how we vote during CCLP1’s voting process. It’s so easy to vote based on how a level makes us feel or how it appears upon first glance, but unless we cast aside our veteran biases and use a rubric of objective standards, we can’t honestly say that we’re rallying behind the most appropriate and deserving CCLP1 levels. (More on how a rubric can be constructed from the most agreeable CC1 levels and what qualities they exhibited is to come in Part 3 of this series.)


I bring this up because “This level is CCLP3-ish” is a comment I’ve heard directed at quite a few deserving CCLP1 candidates that are admittedly difficult but barely even exhibited the four above qualities. It seems like much of the time, such comments are often born out of frustration, especially if a player just happens to miss something random or is just having a bad day while playing. When the trouble has nothing to do with poor level design, can we honestly say that it’s entirely appropriate to vote down levels like these if they excel with respect to other qualities that provide a quality experience for first-time players - just because we died a few times?


I’m going to go into further detail about the universal qualities that made CC1’s most well-received levels of all gameplay types and difficulties fun in the third and final entry in this series, but for now, I urge you to consider what characterized CC1’s most accessible difficult levels before pronouncing a CCLP1 candidate “CCLP3-ish.” Note how CC1’s difficult levels typically exhibit one quality that defines why they’re difficult but dial down the other qualities that could theoretically make the level needlessly hard if they were dialed Up to Eleven. If a level is long and contains a linear (but not unforgivingly linear!) structure (Mixed Nuts), then the challenges are usually accessible, self-contained, and allow for some room for error. If a level contains a very, very challenging puzzle that requires significant brainpower (Totally Unfair), then the level typically goes no further and refrains from adding additional types of puzzles into the mix. If a level has the potential to involve skill and speed (Underground), then it’s usually open, non-linear, and short.


Chip’s Challenge is an inherently complex game. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how complex it is when we design levels. But when we play complex levels, the ones that are built with the intention of bringing order to that complexity are the ones that usually have the potential to be the most well-received.


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