Is ‘Splosion Man Challenging or Punishing?

First off, a quick review is in order. ‘Splosion Man is simply amazing. It’s the best single player platform game I’ve ever played, and it’s the best multi-player co-operative platform game I’ve ever played (not that there is much competition there!) at least for 2 players. To me, this is about as good as a non-competitive ‘gated’ game can get. You want some reasons why?

o) Incredibly inventive level designs that build from the simple moveset to set the player up with opportunities to perform amazing feats.

o) Responsive controls that feel ‘right’ although do take a bit of initial adjustment that “SPLODE” isn’t quite a jump button, even though it often acts as such. The game in particular demands you get the direction of your splodes correct a lot of the time, notably often requiring hitting straight left or right, rather than up/left or up/right. Yet it still plays well on the 360 analogue stick – thank goodness, since the d-pad is useless – because the game rarely demands a precisely timed diagonal plus button input which I find hard to hit accurately on analogue. (Try it on Bionic Commando Rearmed to see what I mean here).

o) Brilliant style throughout – I’d describe it as Portal mixed with Space Channel 5 mixed with The Maw.

o) Hilarious quirky humour. If the ending of the game doesn’t turn you into an actual ROFLcopter, then I feel sorry for you.

o) Stunning soundtrack.

o) The great level design not only challenges the player with new things constantly, but also allows the player at times to ‘show-off’ the skills they’ve learnt and “feel skilled” rather than constantly ramping up difficulty.

o) Like all good multiplayer modes, it encourages you to get good at it by playing the single player too. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts here. You simply MUST play this game with at least one other person to see why it’s so good.

o) One of the most teamwork based games ever. You have to co-operate down to perfect jointly-timed jumps to make any progress at all, there’s no other option.

o) Great netcode. I played the multiplayer co-op mode from within the UK with Navan who’s in Greece – and whilst we definitely had significant latency and noticed a lot of rollback at times, the game was still always playable (and completable) due the way it handles latency like GGPO with no controller lag introduced to the individual players. If this game had input-lag inducing netcode (like most games’ poor netcode), it would have been unplayable under these conditions.

o) The CAKE! Not only is it amusing, defiantly not a lie, and most delicious, it’s an fantastic piece of game design too – because it’s really a secret built in additional difficulty level for those that want to do it. It also encourages exploration and thinking about the level as opposed to the ‘taking shortcuts’ & rushing through – which in many platform games is the best method to progress, but I don’t enjoy it so much. Here the in-game goals (rather than ones I invent for myself) and my taste in fun align perfectly. Time trials and Hardcore mode are also there for others that enjoy other kinds of challenge. Plus the game will make you want to eat MEAT and CAKE.

o) The mixture of puzzle & platform elements is spot on. I enjoy the mixture of skill-based challenge with puzzles too over the more ‘pure’ find-a-solution puzzler. It works far better than Portal’s action-orientated puzzles for the reason that a 2D perspective simply works for platform based puzzles, unlike an irritating FPS view. I also find it more enjoyable than than Braid, a lot of which is due to the aforementioned co-op mode – a puzzle tackled by two is an enjoyment doubled – and also thanks to the lack of obfuscation. What I mean by this is that you know exactly what’s available to you in ‘Splosion Man, yet the triple splode, switches and wall bounces give a lot of leeway to “maybe, just maybe, I CAN make that jump” or “what if I stand here and you do this…?”.

If you want more reviewing, the best review I’ve found for ‘Splosion Man, is, naturally, not at any mainstream “review” site, but here at a personal blog.

Of course Agoners is not about reviews, but about a critique of games and their environments and systems, so, rather than simply gushing, I’m going to look at the bigger picture here. (Although if you really want to know how I currently rate various games, feel free to have a read over at my raptr page 😉 )

So what’s wrong with it?

o) Some minor niggles with the camera. The angle sweeps it does in the single player mode are fun (in a vertigo sense) and dramatic and usually add to the game even if they can be slightly disorienting, but the problem arises when sometimes it zooms out a touch to far for you to see exactly what’s going on – even on a large HD TV. However this is very minor as it’s only really a problem in one or two places in the whole game in single player, and the same for two player multiplayer as long as you are playing cooperatively (which as noted above, you’ll have to be anyway). It might become a bigger problem in three or four player multiplayer, but I’ve not been able to play enough of that to tell.

o) Whilst it was pitched at an absolutely perfect difficulty setting for me – always tricky but always attainable to put me into a great state of flow – it’s simply too hard for many people to enjoy. How do I know this? Because I’ve watched other people try to play it, and also tackled and finished Hardcore mode myself, and despite how much fun I had in the challenge in doing it (cos, well, I’m still an Agoner at heart), I definitely feel it’s actually a worse game in Hardcore mode. By playing it, I can see how frustrated with the difficulty other people might feel playing the Normal game by seeing how I felt on Hardcore. What’s even more of a shame is that to enjoy the multiplayer game both of you need to get equally good (and patient with each other) at the game to progress. There’s no way to “lend a helping hand” in co-op; it really just makes the game harder for both of you.

So the question is what makes is it too hard? Here’s a quote from a friend of mine that tried to play it, DeeGruenEnzige:

“I do potentially really like ‘Splosion Man… but my beef with it is that the levels are too long for how challenging they are. I think there should be either more save points or shorter levels. I don’t mind trying over and over until we get it right but having to do it all over again because you’ve failed the next bit is a bit much. It spoils the fun.”

Ok, required reading time before I continue: “Test Skills, Not Patience: Challenge, Punishment, and Learning” over at Pixel Poppers. I’m going to be sticking with Doctor Professor’s definitions of challenge, punishment and difficulty for the rest of this article.

The comments section there is just as important as the article. The key point raised is by commenter “Steven A” where he disagrees and says that Challenge and Punishment are fundamentally linked. Doc Prof responded:

“Reducing punishment scope changes goals, not challenge. Suppose a level in a sidescroller has a sequence of three bottomless pits, and falling into any of them will send the player back to the beginning of the level. The player thusly (sic)  has the goal “Jump across pit A, then pit B, then pit C.” Give the player rewind powers, and now they will have three goals: “Jump across pit A,” “Jump across pit B,” and “Jump across pit C.” Each jump, however, is discrete and requires just as much skill either way. “

But what if the nature of the game is to use succession challenges to become challenging – but at the same time, therefore, it also becomes punishing. The example given by Steven A is Super Mario Bros, however ‘Splosion Man is also a perfect example. It has a lot of these “jump pit A, pit B, pit C” types of challenges. The thing is, that any single jump in the game (bar a few that require perfect splode timing and angle) is generally quite easy. But making ten jumps in a row until you get to the next checkpoint is where it requires far more skill – and becomes more challenging – and at the same time, inevitably more punishing, because if you fail you have to restart the whole sequence again. Doc Prof’s own definition of challenge actually includes “strictly-timed series of jumps” – and you can’t have a series without also implying some level of punishment too. So whilst in some ways they can be separated, I agree with everything Steven A has to say on those comments, that you cannot remove or reduce punishment without also changing the nature of challenges. No more series-based challenges for one thing.

But a lot of the challenge in ‘Splosion Man (and many platform games) are exactly these series of challenges, or challenges of succession. So it would be very hard to keep the challenge without also keeping the punishment. If you added an infinite ‘rewind’ ability to ‘Splosion Man, it would become trivially easy except for the odd true puzzle section – suddenly it would become a pure (and very easy) puzzle game – and to many people like myself, it would make a very poor game. This is exactly the same problem when you add unlimited save-anywhere points to a game – and why I found games such as Half Life so dull – if you remove all punishment, you also, at times, remove all challenge as well. The argument that says “well, don’t save then” or “don’t use rewind then” is covered in that article with regards to HL, but this argument is more deeply flawed than that, because anyone can potentially change any game’s rules to make it more fun for them – but they are no longer playing the same game! What a game doesn’t allow you to do is as important as what it does – it’s the very essence of a game – the rules you play by. If I write some new house rules to Monopoly to make it a strategic masterpiece of a game, well that’s great, but I’m no longer playing Monopoly. An important aside to note here is that this disparity of viewpoints is because many people play (& review) videogames as toys, rather than games.

As discussed by Steven A in the comments of the article noted above, I also believe good challenges of succession are the ones where the challenge level stays fairly constant & consequently the punishment seems fair relative to the challenge. However this doesn’t necessarily mean a temporal equation (see the commentary on Megaman 9 later as to why). The analogy of the basketball free throw is perfect to examine this. If the challenge of succession is to:

1. Walk the length of the court without falling over (time consuming but trivially easy challenge)

2. Make a basket (quite a hard challenge)

Then that’s a bad challenge of succession, because although the challenge level is overall slightly greater, it’s mostly just increased punishment. A player will naturally question the need to do the first part every time. It’s exactly why Soren Johnson gets to the heart of this on his game design journal when he describes:

“If a player needs to repeat a lengthy but easy section (or, more shamefully, a non-skippable cut-scene) before getting to the difficult bit, the game is punishing the player instead of challenging him”.

But compare the difference to a good challenge of succession:

1-10. “Make 10 baskets in a row” (all equally challenging)

The game =does= warn you exactly what you're in for

You can examine this difference in videogames by playing  ‘Splosion Man on Normal mode and Hardcore mode. In Hardcore mode the game is exactly the same game, testing exactly the same skills in exactly the same levels, the only differences are that all enemies kill you in a single hit (instead of only terrain killing you in a single hit on Normal), and there are no checkpoints at all, so every time you die you have to restart the whole level (and there’s no level skip available).

Now since you can only unlock this once you’ve completed it on Normal, and so assuming you didn’t ever use the level-skip option (I didn’t), you could argue that this is the exact same challenge level again, only this time, more punishing.

It turns out, it is a lot more punishing, but it also actually also becomes more challenging too. You don’t now have to get skilled enough at performing a jump until you can do it once, twice or three times in a row perfectly, now you have to make perhaps 50 perfect jumps in a row. To be able to do this you will probably now start to need to memorize a level layout rather than just reacting to what you see, and there’s obviously a lot more memory required to know the whole level than just checkpoint to checkpoint. You have to get so skilled that “you can’t get it wrong” not just skilled enough to “get it right once”. This is what makes Splosion Man “too hard” – both too challenging AND too punishing – for many people that even on Normal level, is that to progress you have to make those 10 baskets in a row, not just two or three.

However I would still say Hardcore mode is a “worse” game overall than Normal mode. The reason for this is that the levels are clearly designed with the checkpoints in mind, and so removing them actually does introduce a lot of those nasty “bad” challenges of succession for me. At my skill level (and I’d posit, the skill level of anyone nuts enough to even try the Hardcore mode) there would be lengthy relatively easy challenges (even a couple of unskippable cutscenes, albeit short ones). These additional punishments made some levels very frustrating and definitely tested my patience at times rather than my skills, and I did not always enjoy the additional punishment. *

Now remember those Cakes I praised earlier – they actually end up being a much better way to increase the challenge level without increasing the punishment very much. So I do agree with the Pixel Poppers article here, that there are generally ways to increase challenge without necessarily increasing punishment, but as is demonstrated clearly by playing with these two different options in ‘Splosion Man – this does change the inherent nature of the challenge too.

Easiness is not always easy

One question I thought of whilst playing ‘Splosion Man is how would I redesign it to make it more accessible to a player who is less interested in the type of challenge it offers, and how would you reduce punishment without also reducing the challenge? Unfortunately the only way ‘Splosion Man offers this is a level-skipping option, which isn’t a very satisfactory solution for anyone, and I wished the designers had come up with something better.

One way would be to redesign the levels themselves for different difficulty settings, ie: as DeeGruenEinzige asked in the quote above – add more checkpoints. In fact the multiplayer co-op levels have actually been designed differently depending on the amount of players playing, so there’s already a precedent for it within the game. Another option would be to change the abilities available to the character – for example giving ‘Splosion Man four splodes instead of three, essentially redesigns a lot of the levels for the player, by making a lot of the distance-jump type challenges a lot easier, however it doesn’t really remove the punishment, it just makes it less likely to happen.

Finally another option would be the one mentioned in Soren Johnson’s article that Prince of Persia: Sand of Time uses – allowing the player to have a finite number of rewinds. Whilst this doesn’t totally remove the possibility of punishment – when you die and run out of rewinds – but it also doesn’t irrevocably change the challenge either in the way that adding infinite rewinds does.

Final thought on toys and games, challenge and punishment

A part of the Soren Johnson article linked above I thought was especially revealing was this:

“Such a forgiving system is not for every game. Bioshock used a similar mechanic by respawning dead players for free in Vita-Chambers placed throughout the game. Furthermore, enemies health rates were not reset on a player respawn, which meant that the player could chip away at any enemy with any weapon, including the wrench, if she was willing to die and be reborn enough times. This feature felt like an exploit to enough players that Irrational eventually patched in an option to disable Vita-Chambers.

However, the problem may have been with the expectations of Bioshock’s intended audience instead of any fundamental flaw with the respawn mechanic. Lego Star Wars uses an identical mechanic, which is perfect for the target audience of a dad and a son playing together in a forgiving environment. For Bioshock, core gamers expected the game to force them to use advanced strategies to progress instead of an easy out.”

Again this shows just how much challenge and punishment are linked in many traditional videogames. I also believe that the difference between the two examples is that the Bioshock “core gamers” wanted a game, whereas Lego Star Wars was aiming at being a toy more than an actual game. I’m starting to think that challenge and in particular punishment is intrinsically linked to games, and the removal of them is what starts to turn games into playareas, toys, or perhaps movies.

* Except that actually, sometimes I did enjoy the punishment. The fiero payoff at the end is simply worth it for me, and the cost in time and patience can actually make the payoffs even higher. Here’s a great article about someone experiencing this with another, even harder “old school design” game – MegaMan 9.

Proof if proof be need be! I AM HARDCORE! 😀

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Comments
4 Responses to “Is ‘Splosion Man Challenging or Punishing?”
  1. Remy,

    What a great article you’ve written here!

    I read it weeks ago, but I didn’t respond right away because I wanted to write something that would do it justice. You raise some very excellent, very important points that absolutely deserve further discussion.

    Unfortunately, I’m a lot busier than I used to be. 🙂 So I haven’t gotten around to fully elucidating my thoughts yet. But I figured I should at least drop you a comment and let you know how much I enjoyed this, and how glad I am to have helped inspire it.

  2. Remy77077 says:

    Thank you very much Doctor Professor 🙂 I’m very grateful to know you found this interesting & have dropped by to read it (although I still think it needs an editor’s touch to improve my writing!) – and I know exactly what you are experiencing with regards to being busy! I constantly have far more I want to write about (& read) than I have time to do so, but at least it’s a better state of affairs than boredom. 😉

    Really looking forward to your follow up, and everything else on Pixel Poppers, which I find is a consistently interesting read, and I really appreciate your work there. Cheers!

  3. Just put Splosion man on my ever-growing “to play” list.

    No experience (obviously) with that game, but I can understand the point you’re making. My personal worst (to date) are a couple of very long platforming sections in both Uncharted games. One in the second game (if memory serves me right) requires close to thirty jumps without a checkpoint. Which are even more difficult with the game’s contextual jumping system–normally a plus, but horribly innacurate at other times.

  4. Remy77077 says:

    Here’s another interesting related take on difficulty in games: http://www.learntocounter.com/on-difficulty/
    The writer dislikes modern ‘hard’ games for their “gratuitous checkpoint use, exceptionally short levels, and infinite lives”.
    Notably ‘Splosion Man on hardcore mode does still have infinite lives, but it has no checkpoints and some really quite long levels, so it’s perhaps closer to the “1 credit” difficulty of older arcade games than the modern hard games mentioned here. But I don’t think it quite gets that far in terms of the succession and memorisation challenges of some much older games.

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