I talk about the aesthetics of play a lot these days. Today, I’m going to be using them as a lens with which to analyze two indie games, those being One Finger Death Punch and Jydge. Jydge is a twin stick shooter in which you are a jydge, an android law enforcement officer empowered to sentence criminals to death on the spot in a dystopian megacity where the letter U is apparently prohibited. One Finger Death Punch is a game in which you click the left mouse button to attack to your left and the right mouse button to attack to your right, and is one of those minimalist games with surprising amounts of depth.
Both of these games rely heavily on challenge to get their engagement out of the player. Jydge has reasonably strong art direction and a good soundtrack, but you aren’t gonna buy this game just to look at it. One Finger Death Punch harkens back to the early 2000s browser game aesthetic by having multi-colored stick figures exclusively, so they’re definitely not trading on sense pleasure. There are occasional moments in that game when enemies are coming at you so fast that you can string together combos so quickly in a way that just feels good, but half of that is the challenge-derived satisfaction of getting through a storm of baddies unscathed in the first place. Both games are basically devoid of any kind of expression, discovery, or fellowship, their narrative is either very light (for Jydge) or also completely absent (for Death Punch), they’re pretty light on fantasy, and to the extent that they have abnegation, it’s only in that abnegation can set in when the challenge fails to ramp up fast enough and things begin to get grindy.
Which brings me to my point: Both of these games sell themselves on challenge first and foremost, but One Finger Death Punch isn’t very challenging. Certainly the game can get tricky on Grandmaster difficulty, and maybe I would’ve found Master difficulty challenging if I’d been able to start there, or skip there after warming up on just a few levels of Student. You can’t, though. In order to reach a new difficulty level, you must complete the previous difficulty level all the way to the end. By the time I reached Master I was familiar enough with the game that the increased speed was no problem. It wasn’t until Grandmaster that I started regularly running a real risk of actually losing a stage, although I expect a lot of the Master levels could’ve given me that feeling had I reached them without first having honed my skills on tons and tons of Student levels which veeeery slowly raised the default speed.
Death Punch does have a mechanic whereby speed increases automatically with every victory and decreases when defeated, but all this means is that I played Student difficulty almost exclusively at 140%+ speed, and when I lost a level I wasn’t able to try again at that speed. When I replayed the level, it had become significantly easier, and I was able to beat it in one attempt easily. So even though One Finger Death Punch has a mechanic to raise the speed to match player skill, it sabotages that mechanic by giving the player almost no control over it. If I want to play Student at about 140% speed constantly, I can’t. When defeated, I’m knocked back down something like 20% (you lose a lot of speed when defeated at far over the default 100%) and must play several easy levels to build it back up. Remember that One Finger Death Punch is a game that is about nothing else but challenge! There’s no story to see or game world to explore which overly difficult gameplay might lock me out of. The gameplay is the experience, and after going to the trouble to program in variable difficulty in two different ways, the game prevents the player from actually setting the difficulty to the level they want.
Jydge isn’t quite the total antithesis of this, but it’s definitely an example of doing things much better. Jydge has eighteen levels, each with four levels of difficulty, and each of those with one main objective and two side objectives. The side objectives can usually be completed without completing the main objective, although certain objectives like “don’t be seen” or “take no damage” require you to complete the main objective by their nature. Still, the idea is at the very least that you’ll usually equip one set of weapons and gear to complete one side objective, then another set to complete the other (on low difficulty and early levels, you can often complete all three objectives in one run with whatever gear is available, but that’s just because the objectives are all pretty easy). The lowest difficulty is so easy that anyone reasonably familiar with video games can beat not only every main objective, but probably every side objective. The highest difficulty is extremely difficult, especially for some of the side objectives like making sure there’s no property damage – whether it’s from your weapons or your opponents’. I’m a completionist for many games, and have taken that mindset to both of these two, but I have been forced to concede that about a third of the objectives on the highest difficulty just aren’t within my ability to achieve.
This broad spectrum of difficulty unlocks as you play through the original levels. New levels are unlocked by completing a certain total number of objectives across all difficulty levels, so players are encouraged both to try out new playstyles to get the low-hanging fruit on lower difficulties and pick only the higher difficulty objectives that suit the playstyle they prefer. It’s not quite “all difficulties are unlocked from the word go, play as easy or as hard as you like,” which seems like the obvious ideal to me, but it’s pretty close, since the objective requirements for unlocking new levels are low enough that you don’t have to spend much time in higher difficulties if you don’t want to, but the higher difficulties are still there, and as soon as you unlock them they’re available on every level you’ve reached so far. It also helps that the challenge ramps up fast enough that I hit the point where I felt like I was being forced to learn and adapt as a player much more often than in One Finger Death Punch, and again – that’s pretty much all there is to these games. Other forms of engagement exist, but not here.
Things like this are why understanding the aesthetics of play can be helpful to designing a game. If you’re going to make your game all about challenge, you should probably make sure that it’s actually challenging, and not just occasionally or towards the very end like in One Finger Death Punch, but very frequently and starting from early in the game, like in Jydge.