On the one hand, you don’t want a game to be cruel to the player. If a game is too opaque or too difficult, it’s usually no fun to interact with it. Most games are playtested hundreds of times to avoid these issues, smoothing out the points where players get stuck and adding subtle hints to guide them towards victory. The level of difficulty is just right, all the time.
On the other hand, if a game tries too hard to cater to the player, it can feel patronizing. Once you get enough subtle hints, it starts to feel like the game is just feeding you the answers. Immersion starts to break down. When you notice that every hallway is blocked except for the one that leads to your objective, or that all the bad guys seem to find better equipment at the exact same rate that you do, or that every invincible-looking boss has a special weakness (carefully designed to allow you to discover it), you start to realize subconsciously that the game world only exists to shuttle you through it at an enjoyable speed. The game wants you to feel like you’re special, but you know that you’re not. You’re just going through the motions.
As players become more savvy, that patronizing design starts to become a problem, and the recent success of roguelikes and ultra-difficult “masocore” games may be a reaction against it. Spelunky, for instance, features a challenge that’s so difficult it was thought to be impossible (until it was completed on a live stream in front of thousands of fans). Corrypt is a good example from the puzzle genre; after establishing some simple, well-worn puzzle mechanics, it gives the player the ability to completely warp (and potentially break) the game world, allowing the player to get stuck or make mistakes that most puzzle games would never allow. Another example comes from my favorite game, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind; if you wandered into the wrong part of the map, it often meant certain death, because that’s just how the world is. (Morrowind’s sequel Oblivion, in contrast, was noted for how obviously its world scaled to match the power of the player, and how this robbed the player of an honest sense of accomplishment.)
When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously answered “Because it’s there”. Game designers could learn from that. FTL doesn’t give a shit if you think its “normal” mode is impossible, or if it occasionally kicks you when you’re down. It doesn’t try to guide the player towards a pleasant victory. It just sits there, a mountain in the distance, waiting to be conquered. And because it’s so difficult, because you really aren’t sure if you’re capable of beating it, winning becomes a genuine, real-world accomplishment rather than just another hollow gaming “achievement”.
With all that said, I think it’s a mistake to actually stop caring about the player’s experience. These great games are designed to be difficult enough to provide honest, genuine challenge, and an aesthetic of indifference toward the player is one way that they telegraph that intention, but they were ultimately built with great care, and their designers wanted players to have a positive experience. When a game starts to feel truly overwhelming or directionless, most players will just drop out.
Again, it’s a tricky balance.
I’m sure there are lots of possible ways to handle this issue, but I’m particularly inspired by the game flOw. It’s based on the psychological theory of flow, which (criminally oversimplified) advocates pushing players to the limits of their ability, but not beyond. Thus, flOw was originally built as an experiment in Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (DDA). Most games pursue DDA directly, by scaling the strength of enemies and the like, but flOw implemented DDA by simply allowing the player to move freely between the easier and harder parts of the game. That is, just by allowing the player a free choice of difficulty, the game found a sweet spot between unfairness and patronizing design.
That’s the strategy I plan to employ in designing Darknet. I can generate a wide selection of levels over a wide range of difficulty, with appropriate rewards at every level, and allow the player to choose among them freely. I’ll also try to track the player’s skill based on their victories and defeats so far, to give players a sense of where they stand. The game world doesn’t try to push the player towards victory, but the player never has to feel overwhelmed.
This solution is so simple that I feel like it must be wrong, like I must be missing something. But Darknet’s design is all about finding the simplest workable solutions, and so far, I think that this structure can strike that tricky balance that the game needs. The game’s world doesn’t twist itself to fit the player’s skill level, nor does it feel unfair or unclear. Instead, Darknet is indifferent. It just exists, a mountain in the distance, waiting to be conquered.