Kenneth on Games: Difficulty in “Getting Over It”

People say that Getting Over It is just a cruel game, and a lot of its difficulty comes from how there are no checkpoints and you are always able to lose all of your progress. But that isn’t entirely true. The mountain is built with “soft checkpoints” where it may not be any easier to keep going forward, but at least it is much harder to go backwards. These soft checkpoints are juxtaposed against difficulty spikes which may not necessarily be the most difficult parts of the game, but they make it very easy to go backwards. These two axes of difficulty intersect to stabilize the player’s experience despite a complete absence of character progression.

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Kenneth on Games: Level Patterns in “Dark Souls 3”

Levels in Dark Souls 3 seem to have a pattern where they establish a specific direction as a dead end, but then force the player through that direction at specific moments. This creates the sense that dead ends can be overcome through player skill. In the Cemetery of Ash, this direction is right, and the player’s experience with going right represents a miniature journey through the Soulsian emotional arc.

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Kenneth on Games: Team UI in “Fire Emblem Heroes”

Mobile apps always need to worry about UI, but in a game like Fire Emblem Heroes, the UI also needs to synergize with the game design. This can create constraints on both sides, but it can also result in intuitive solutions. Although UI design is a completely different field from game design, the affordances from each can support the other.

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Kenneth on Games: Valence in “Divinity: Original Sin 2”

Although Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a revival of classic RPGs, it still adds a modern spin to the objective-challenge-reward loop. Instead of quests that say “kill five orcs then call me in the morning,” DOS2 takes a more generalized approach which pushes players forward without dangling carrots in front of them. The game balances the player’s valence from moment to moment so that anything bad is soon followed by something good, and the player implicitly picks up on this rhythm as they keep moving forward.

WARNING: Spoilers up to act 2.

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Kenneth on Games: Toxicity in “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds”

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is well known for having a toxic community, but the specific nature of its toxicity shows a different direction than what we would see in most other online games. These players have found new and inventive ways to express their negative behavior rather than falling back to the more traditional forms of toxicity. I see PUBG as a strong example that toxicity is learned and not innate, and that toxicity is a result of game design.

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Kenneth on Games: Anthem in “Azure Striker Gunvolt”

Many games will use a narrative event to break pre-establishing rules in order to accentuate the moment. However, the way in which this is done can dramatically affect the relationship between the player holding the controller and the character going through the narrative event. This is particularly noticeable in RPG boss fights when the protagonist is so determined to win that they become invincible through sheer determination, which ruins the player’s sense of urgency. Azure Striker Gunvolt circumvents this problem by giving the player a generous super-mode called Anthem, but also presenting new challenges which specifically target the nature of Anthem’s abilities.

WARNING: Major spoilers for Azure Striker Gunvolt and Undertale, and a scattering of other games.

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Kenneth on Games: Lost and Abandoned in “War of the Chosen”

The War of the Chosen expansion for XCOM 2 introduces three factions that hate each other, and it’s up to the player to unite them to defeat the aliens. This social tension is represented in gameplay through the “Lost and Abandoned” mission, which introduces the player not only to the factions themselves, but also to the new threats that make the factions necessary. Although the factions are strong, they also have weaknesses, and the player learns firsthand why they need to work together.

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Kenneth on Games: Temporal Morality in “Dishonored 2”

In many ways, Dishonored 2’s narrative setup is exactly the same way it was in the original Dishonored. There are only so many ways that someone can be dishonored. But after the titular inciting incident, the two games diverge in how they handle temporal morality: the way that characters (including the player) develop their sense of morals as the game progresses. The first Dishonored focuses on moving forwards into the future, whereas Dishonored 2 focuses on unraveling events that happened in the past. These two directions cause their stories to be different in subtle but important ways.

WARNING: Massive spoilers for both Dishonored 2 and Dishonored.

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Kenneth on Games: Difficulty in “Dead Cells”

The nature of procedural level generation makes it hard for designers to implement a smooth difficulty curve. Instead, each level is treated as a static plateau of difficulty, with large jumps from level to level. With old-fashioned hand-placed levels, designers can create scenarios that have a much smoother flow of difficulty, even within the same level. But Dead Cells manages to get the best of both worlds: randomly generated levels with self-contained difficulty curves.

WARNING: Spoilers for late-game enemy types.

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Kenneth on Games: Rakan and Xayah in “League of Legends”

Rakan and Xayah have brought a new level of synergy to the League: their abilities explicitly reference each other by name for an additional effect. This has never happened to the same degree, and it raises a lot of questions about balance. But before those, we have to address some definitions: what exactly is synergy? How can we categorize it? What makes Rakan/Xayah’s synergy different from any other pair, and how can this distinction help us understand League’s design?

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