Most games brag about "50 weapons", or "5 distinct races", or "choose from 36 different fighters" on the backs of their boxes. The reason they do that is because that's one way to highlight for prospective players that in this game, there are enough options so that you will be able to play creatively and so that it could have long-lasting replay value. Well, that's the idea, but it only ends up being the case if the game is balanced. If just one of those 50 weapons is significantly overpowered, then the total amount of guns in the game effectively shrinks to one. I feel that people are pretty in touch with that concept, but I think they may be less in touch with this concept with the need for balance in game difficulty.
Let's start with a game like Kirby Superstar for SNES (also recently re-released on DS as Kirby SuperStar Ultra). As far as platformers go, this one is highly complex. Kirby is a bit like Bo Jackson, in that he knows baseball AND football (except metaphorically speaking (for Kirby)).Y ou can jump AND you can fly, right out of the spawn gates. Kirby's main power is the vaccuum ability, where he can suck up enemies and either spit them out, or swallow them and get their power. Even if he fails to suck anything up with the vacuum move, he can spit the air back out as a weapon. There are somewhere between 10-20 of the acquireable monster powers, and each of them yields several moves. Oh and also, he's got a slide kick move. Also, he's got a health bar. So, if I saw this listed on the back of a box, my first reaction would be "Wow! You can do all that? Awesome!". But there's a problem - how the hell do you design a world that's a match for this unstoppable killing machine? HAL certainly doesn't have the answer. Kirby should be hated as a character for the same reasons Superman is - a world with an invincible protagonist is really, really boring. So yes, you have all these brilliantly animated, colorful, fun abilities, but guess what? You never have to use any of them. The game is dead easy - here, I'll write the pseudocode to beat any kirby level:
- Hold RIGHT on D-Pad
- If Kirby starts to fall, tap UP & RIGHT a couple times. Repeat until kirby is on solid ground.
- If an opponent is within vacuum range, push B. Then push B again to expel the enemy.
That's it! In fact, the only time I ever get hurt in a Kirby game is when I'm frivilously using the complexities to do unnecessary silly combos and just generally act like a jackass. Why am I doing that? Because I'm bored to tears playing this game! Why am I bored, even though there's all this complexity? Because there isn't *really* complexity, as the above pseudocode shows - only the framework for possible complexity. Now onto an example where there actually *is* complexity, and therefore, room for creative play.
In Temple of Elemental Evil, the amount of special actions you can take in combat are staggering. You can try for a trip attack. You can "cast defensively". You can sprint (downside, you have to run a straight line). You can take a defensive pose vs. a specific attack type. You can start a grapple with an opponent. And that's just in-combat actions - the amount of character tweaking possible is beyond anything in 90% of RPGs. The list of variables goes on and on and on. Here's the kicker, though - you actually have to use most of this stuff to get by in the game - meaning, you cannot just cruise through, using one or two techniques ad nauseam. The game is hard, quite hard, but redoing combat and trying a different strategy feels fun, because it is truly the exercise of creativity when your ideas are put to the test. This game was one of the first strategy games in a long time that makes me stop and really think about my moves. It's that feeling in Chess, when you're holding onto the piece in its newly moved position, and making one last semi panicked sweep of the board for any figurative body-orifices your army may have just exposed to enemy pike-thrusts.
So, in conclusion, both Temple of Elemental Evil and Kirby SuperStar seem, on paper, to have complexities, but only ToEE really does, because of the lack of challenge in Kirby. This is however not to say at all "the harder the better". Certainly, a game can be too hard, and that can be just as devestating for a game, even if it did everything else right. But I didn't mention that for two reasons. Firstly, the focus of this article has been highlighting specifically the fact that complexity requires challenge. And lastly, when was the last time a game came out that was too hard? Could it be... 1994's Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager?
- Thanks to Anonymous for the Dark Sun tip