Friday, May 24, 2024

Do I Not Like This?

I spend quite a lot of time here banging on about how I mostly look for relaxation from my games. I often say I don't want much in the way of challenge. I try to avoid content that could realistically be called "difficult". If I have to do it so I can get to other content beyond the difficulty gate then I will but I'll do it grudgingly and with bad grace.

One thing I've never been known to do willingly and without complaint is to retry the same fight again and again in the hope of learning the mechanics. Perfecting my technique and making incremental progress until eventually I win. Unfortunately, since around the middle of the twenty-aughts, that kind of content gating has been a constant in MMOPRG design so, much though I might dislike it, I've had to do more of it than any rational, reasonable person would consider sane.

It's very odd, then, that over the past two weeks I've spent something close to fifteen or twenty hours repeating the exact same set-piece battle with every sign of enjoyment. I haven't counted my attempts but I've made at least one try most days for about a fortnight. Some days I've tried twice. I think day I tried three times.

Each fight lasted at least half an hour. One particularly gruesome farrago dragged on for more than ninety minutes. Most times I restarted again from the exact point where I began, without making any changes to my team or my build. Occasionally, I made major revisions to talents or gear. 

Sometimes thing went better. Sometimes they went worse. If I was lucky, I learned something. Mostly I didn't.

I did some googling, looking for advice or suggestions. No-one seemed to be having the same problems as me. No-one really seemed to be having any problems at all. The main suggestions were to do pretty much what I'd done the very first time I tried the fight. I'd thought it seemed like the obvious way to handle it and it seemed I was right.

The gist of the scenario is this: 

  • There's a bridge. 
  • At one end is your team.
  • At the other end is a gate with a lever.
  • Between your team and the lever are more than a dozen enemies.
  • If you don't close the gate by pulling the lever, after a few rounds more enemies begin to come onto the bridge.
  • The additional enemy forces arrive, two at a time, every two or three turns.
  • They never stop coming so long as the gate remains open.

I mean, it's not hard to figure out, is it? Get the bloody gate shut ASAP. The plan is simple enough. it's the execution that's the problem.

That's how I spent most of my game time these last couple of weeks. Trying to cross that bridge and close that gate. 

At first I couldn't even get to the damn lever without everyone dying. After a while I could get someone there but they'd die before they could pull it. If I managed to get the gate shut it was never before I already had more enemies on the bridge than I could handle. 

Concentrating on getting one person all the way across the bridge with enough health left to pull the lever frequently left most of the rest of the team dead or close to it. Trying to get several people across so as to have redundancy on the pull attempt went even worse. 

After too many failed runs using the obvious tactic I flipped the plan and tried moving forward as a team, clearing the bridge of enemies as we went. That didn't work either.

Although I always felt my errors were the main reason I was failing, a part of the problem was out of my control. Combat in the game involves a significant amount of dice-rolling so luck is always a factor. It also employs a system of Critical Hits and Failures, meaning a particularly bad roll can be catastrophic.

There were things I could do to mitigate some of the impact of a bad set of rolls. There are talents that prevent crits, for a start, and others that negate specific types of damage. All the usual push and pull of RPGs down the years. 

But the thing about random factors is they're random. It's all very well giving one character immunity from critical hits but who's to say they'll be the one to get the bad roll? And you can't make everyone crit-proof. Or fire-proof. Or poison-proof... 

Then there are the really super-annoying design decisions you would never have made in a million years. For example, if you have a Thief, who can go into stealth so no-one can see him, why would you have him come out of stealth automatically, just to take advantage of an Attack of Opportunity? Wouldn't you code it so he stays in stealth unless he's either spotted or chooses to attack?

That one dumb mechanic screwed me over on several runs to the point that I had to stop using the Thief as my sneaker altogether. I had the Elf do it instead. She was lighter on her toes, anyway. 

I also had the Barbarian do his flying leap to get past people. I even had the Ogre throw the Dwarf halfway across the bridge. It's a party trick they do. None of it really worked.

But I kept trying. I didn't even get mad when I failed, again and again. Ok, I didn't get mad much

Mostly what I got was interested. It didn't feel so much like I was being forced to repeat the same annoying, over-tuned fight again and again. It felt more like I was putting together a puzzle. Maybe if I put this piece here... or move that one there...

It probably goes without saying at this point that the game I was playing was not an MMORPG. Fights of this kind in MMORPGs are rarely - if ever - fun. Also, most MMORPGs I've played haven't been turn-based, although of course there are a few.

The game in question was one I've mentioned before: The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk. I'm only playing it because it came free with Amazon Prime Gaming. There is absolutely no chance I'd have paid money for it.

And it's not even that great an example of its kind. I'd say it's pretty good but it sure as heck isn't Baldur's Gate or even Divinity: Original Sin. It doesn't have that much of a plot and the dialog is cheesy. The whole game doesn't amount to a lot more than a string of set-piece fights strung together with a bunch of lame jokes. 

What all this tells me is that I'm not very good at knowing what I like. Although, I already knew that. I didn't need to have it pointed out to me. Again.

I have a tendency to believe I actually like things when in fact they're just things I think I ought to like. Conversely, I imagine I don't like things when all the evidence suggests I do. It doesn't happen all the time - just often enough that it catches me out, once in a while.

I think it might happen more with games than anything else, too. I expect it's because I know less about games than most other things I like. Or don't like. Whichever.

Now that I've noticed, I'm hoping maybe this time I'll learn something from the experience. That's why I've written it down. In the hope that might make it stick.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and find out what comes after the bridge. I think I've earned it.


  1. Sometimes a puzzle just gets under your skin and you can't shake it. I get where you're coming from, because that's the sort of thing that drives me batty too. Unlike MMOs, however, most of my frustration with these sort of problems revolves around single player games, such as Baldur's Gate 3. There was a fight early on in that game that drove me bananas, and I quickly realized that if I didn't take a step back and do something else for a week or so (it ended up being 2 weeks) I was likely to get so frustrated I would swear the game off.

    (Hey, I try not to throw things in anger.)

    But removing myself from the emotion of the moment helped me to think more clearly and devise a solution that worked.

    1. One of the things I like about point&click adventures is the way the puzzles stick in my mind so I can keep working on them while I do other things. Back in the 90s, when I used to walk to work every day, I often spent most of the forty-five minutes going over possible solutions. I even used to think about the more knotty ones while I was working.

      I used to do that about EverQuest when I was first playing it, too. Just getting from one part of Norrath to another was a puzzle in itself. I probably need more of that in my gaming today.

  2. I used to have a very high pain threshold in games when I was younger. I would beat my head on something for hours or days until I got past it. I also got absurdly good at a few games I really liked (as in, there is absolutely no sane reason to put in the time it takes to be that good at anything so completely inconsequential).

    However, that has gotten less true the older I get. Just recently, I came very close to rage quitting a MMO after getting my ass handed to me in a boss fight three times in a row. It seemed like an absurd difficulty spike that came out of nowhere. It wasn't even close, I was just getting completely melted, and in the same part of the fight.

    However, it turned out I was supposed to be cowering behind fallen pillar I hadn't noticed the first three tries. If you just hide behind it, your NPC companions can handle the fight whether you help or not. Not exactly great mechanics, but certainly not hard.

    I'm honestly not sure whether that's how the designers intend for the fight to play out, or whether it's a completely busted fight that the designers haven't need to fix because there is a way to cheese it.

    In any case, circling back around to the topic at hand, I would have beat my head on that fight at least ten times before I even thought of giving up when I was younger. I have a lot less patience for difficulty spikes these days, and I think it's largely because I have so little spare time. For me games are now a way to unwind, first and foremost. If I get stuck on a difficulty spike, that may be the only hour I get to myself in a day essentially wasted (or so it feels to me).

    1. Your comment touches on so many design issues, particularly with boss fights. I frequently find it hard to tell if I dislike them because I'm bad at them or because the fights themselves are bad. When I was playing GW2, there was a period of several years when boss fights in the storyline got progressively longer and more annoying and it was widely thought that the main reason for it was that the designers were trying to pad out the content by making the fights take much longer than they used to. It was frustrating and led to many complaints.

      Of course, even then, plenty of players said it was fine, they were having no problems, people just needed to learn to play. That's the problem with real-time combat in an online, multiplayer game. One size has to fit all. Or it used to be like that. not so much any more, thankfully, as the news about Story Mode Raiding in WoW confirms.

      Puzzles in games where you can stop the action and think about it, though, I find completely different. They seem far more friendly and encouraging. it's not a question of bashing your head against them until either you or the puzzle falls over. It's more cerebral and since I enjoy thinking, I don't generally have too much of an issue with things that encourage thought. Plus there's nearly always a solution posted online somewhere if you get completely stuck!

    2. Were you doing SWTOR's Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter one on veteran mode by chance, Yeebo? Your description sounds kind of like it!


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