The Suspense is Skilling Me: Punishment, Learning, and Tension

This is EXTRA CONTENT. Read the main article first.

So, this one has actually been a long time coming. After my 2009 post about challenge and punishment, Remy77077 wrote an article about how punishment increases challenge in ‘Splosion Man. I commented on that post that I wanted to respond but it’d be a while before I could do it justice. Turned out to be over eight years, but we’ve finally arrived!

The connection to tension is a relatively new addition to my conception, though, and comes after seeing how people have described the way failure states do or don’t add tension to various games. There’s a connected theme I expect to follow up on separately: intrinsic versus extrinsic tension. Some players find the possibility of game overs and such to pleasurably increase the tension of gameplay, while others (including me) find it disrupts immersion and therefore actually decreases tension. I definitely think there’s some things worth digging into there.

Relatedly, I initially linked the discussion of punishment being out of place in Ace Attorney to my video/essay on why it’s similarly out of place in The Legend of Kyrandia: The Hand of Fate, a point-and-click adventure game. But this felt a bit redundant and self-promotey, so I took it out. But check it out if you want some more commentary on a similar subject.

Another somewhat-meaty angle I left out is ways players can modulate tension on the challenge side rather than the punishment side. A classic example here would be deliberately over-leveling in an RPG so that later battles are easier, thereby reducing uncertainty. I do think this is an interesting topic (and I discussed it somewhat in my last post as a way for players to concentrate challenge into their favorite phase) but its relevance here is as a way players can basically choose their own challenge levels through an implicit difficulty selector. That’s enough of a tangent to what I wanted to focus on that I left it out.

A relevant link I didn’t end up finding a place for is Patrick Klepek’s Classic Games Would Be More Fun If They Copied Mega Man’s “Rewind” Feature - a short post applauding the free rewind feature found in the Mega Man Legacy Collection (and which is also in The Disney Afternoon Collection) as a way to patch around old bullshit punishment while keeping challenge levels high. I wanted to include this because there was actually some discussion in the comments of my old post as to whether this kind of addition was a good idea, and I was in favor of it. But my position is more nuanced now and I see how that would actually damage the experience for some players. I think that nuance is adequately explored in the article as-is and this link wouldn’t have added anything except to say “See? This guy agrees with my stance from several years ago that I don’t quite hold anymore!” So, I left it out.

Finally, my discussion of action games that use punishment to lump together different challenges originally focused on a different example: Metroid Fusion. But properly setting up this example took too long and felt like self-indulgently ranting about a game that had annoyed me personally, so I cut it out and just focused on Mega Man instead. Here’s the text I originally had for the Metroid Fusion example:

But the single worst example of this I ever experienced was in Metroid Fusion. (End-game structural spoilers follow, skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to see them.)

The end sequence of Metroid Fusion has a three-stage boss fight where each form of the boss requires different strategies. However, they occur one right after another and once you learn the forms you can get through them pretty quickly, so failing at a later form isn’t that much of a problem. If anything, it provides an opportunity to practice the early stages and reach the later stages with more health. The real problem is that you don’t get a save point after defeating the boss. Instead, you must travel to another part of the space station and find the final boss fight, which doesn’t even properly begin until after you sit through some scripted events. Even if you’re extremely efficient about getting from the first boss to the second, it’s still close to two minutes between battles. Losing on the true final boss means you have to do all three stages of the first boss again, plus the traversal to the final boss.

Every time you redo the multi-stage boss, skill level increases, uncertainty decreases, and tension decreases. Once you know how to get from there to the final boss, those minutes of traversal aren’t meaningful practice and have zero tension. The delay is disruptive to your ability to learn the final boss’s patterns, increasing the uncertainty of that challenge but also making the punishment particularly tedious and increasing the stakes in an uninteresting, Ace Attorney-style way. The result can be really unpleasant - personally, I gave up after several attempts, never actually beat Metroid Fusion despite reaching the final boss, and was sufficiently frustrated that I haven’t played a Metroid game since. And the final boss isn’t even hard! I’m confident that if there had been a save point immediately before the final boss, I would have beaten it without much trouble.


I think it was actually somewhat worse than I described it - as I recall, there was actually some traversal including combat against non-boss enemies to even get to the first part of that fight from the game’s final save point.

Anyway, that’s it for this blog post. Hope you enjoyed!