We all play games for different reasons. For some it’s an escape, for many it’s a way to unwind after a long day, and for even more it’s how they socialise and spend time with friends. However, I think that for everyone there’s one key element: a challenge. Games don’t need to be competitive or even have a win condition, but they do need to present you with some level of challenge.
Even thatgamecompany’s Flower, quite possibly the most relaxing game in the world, features a level of challenge, as does Journey. They’re hardly punishing but they do have collectibles that force you off the beaten track, encouraging you to explore the world a little more deeply and presenting you with that all important challenge.
For me I noticed the challenges from the first day, when I first played my favourite game. If you’re a regular reader you know I’m talking about the Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog, a game that was one of the keystones of my childhood. It pushed me from the very first time I picked up the controller, and continues to do so when I go back to it now. No matter how many times I play it the gauntlet that the level design throws down is still there, the challenge just as fresh.
Even twenty years on Sonic's Jungle Zone is one of the most challenging experiences I've ever faced in gaming.
This was the problem with Blue Toad Murder Files, the game’s puzzles didn’t hold up when you came back to it.
The game was certainly enjoyable the first time I sat down with it, the puzzles were entertaining initially and the characters were fun. However, the game was entirely focused on those puzzles and they were set in stone, repeating every time you played it.
It meant that the challenge evaporated after one play, essentially destroying the game’s replayability.
Without the challenge the gameplay evaporates and all you’re left with is an interactive world without any real purpose driving it. Sure there might still be a great story there but without that gameplay challenge, that force pulling you forwards, then it’s more of a film than a game.
Even games that seem open with no purpose have those challenges, or in many cases allow you to set your own. If you’ve played Grand Theft Auto then you’ve almost certainly seen how long you can evade the police or how many helicopters you can manage to take down. Somehow it’s more satisfying when you’re setting your own challenges and targets, although the depth of the goals in games like Burnout Paradise do a pretty good job of emulating what you might set for yourself, tasking you to find out how many barrel rolls you can do or how far you can jump.
This need to be challenged quite obviously extends to multiplayer gaming as well. We want to face off against someone who’s around our own skill level rather than an opponent who’s vastly better or worse than we are. Smashing someone in a complete mismatch isn’t that much fun, and neither is being smashed by a superior opponent. No, it’s when you go up against someone of a similar skill level that you’ve got the crucial element of challenge in the mix, and it’s then that you’re likely to have the most satisfying matchup.
As long as games continue to challenge us then there’ll always be something for us to appreciate and enjoy. All we can hope is that the type of challenge will continue to expand and evolve, presenting us with tougher bridges to cross and higher mountains to climb.