A few people have written on the 'softer, kinder' ethic found in games these days — more and more games seem to be offering less challenging/frustrating mechanics so that players can actually complete them. I think a lot of this discussion does centre around different play styles — after a long day of banging my head against the walls of the Ivory Tower, I don't want to come home to bang my head against the gaming wall — so I always read these essays with a critical eye. But regardless of what I (or anyone) personally like to play, it does seem like the era of extraordinarily frustrating games has passed, at least for AAA titles:
Awhile back at GDC I attended a panel that discussed taking frustration away from the player. Microsoft evidently has all sorts of metrics that show that players who are able to finish a game are more likely to purchase a sequel or order DLC, so it makes sense to take away the frustration that prohibits a player from finishing the title. These things range from automatically adjusting difficulty, creating more checkpoints, allowing saves anywhere (vs. gating at savepoints), but most importantly, not punishing death. Braid, for instance, is a perfect example of how not to punish death: You simply don’t die. You just rewind to a point previous to dying, and fix your error. There’s no need for multiple lives or continues or checkpoints. You just rewind.
Now, before I continue, I don’t think Braid is what’s wrong with gaming. In many ways, it’s what’s right. But the biggest problem with taking away “Learn by Death” is that in many ways, we’ve removed the challenge. There is little to no tension in GTA IV, because I know that if I get into trouble, I just need to die. Cops chasing you? Don’t get arrested; they’ll take away your guns. Just fight them, die, and wind up at the hospital with all of your guns still on your person. The only penalty is that you might have to replay the mission you were on, and you probably lost the stolen car you were driving at the time. Sure, there are hard parts in GTA IV.
But in the ten hours I played GTA IV I didn’t once have a nail-biter moment (at least I don’t recall many).
I think Braid can be just as punishing as any game that forces you to 'learn by death' — I find few things are worse than figuring out how to solve a puzzle, then be unable to execute it; endless rewinds aren't that far off from dying — but has the challenge really been removed from games at large? Or is it only a particular type of challenge for particular types of players? I log plenty of hours playing games I enjoy (well over the 10 hours the author spent on GTAIV and Halo 3), but I won't put in those kinds of hours if I'm playing games that challenge their players in certain kinds of ways. I hit my frustration threshold and I'm done — usually for a few weeks or a few months, if not forever. I like challenges within reason, and seek out games that hit that sweet spot between 'too much' and 'not enough.' But that sweet spot is never going to be one size fits all.