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Dead Ends and the Perception of Difficulty

DeadEnd: Cerebral Vortex is a brilliant example of current trends in stupid game titles. We have "Dead" and "End" mushed together into some unlikely abomination, while "Vortex" is there to sound cool without having anything to do with the game. "Cerebral", well, that's because it's an indie game delving into a shattered subconscious. It's so symbolic and deep, you know?

Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of DeadEnd: Cerebral Vortex. It's just a first-person maze game using grid-based click-to-move. As in, you have to constantly inch yourself along clicking square-by-square and see how long it takes for your patience to run out.

I actually find click-to-move charming when I load up an old adventure game like Myst. I'm less charitable when I find it in a game released in 2012. It's a bizarre design decision in a maze where my aim is always to get somewhere. The grid feels especially clunky as soon as you hit a curved corridor. In a game about feeling lost having full 360 degree movement would be more disorientating. Of course, proper movement might also make the game go faster and it's already very short.

The gimmick here is the maze is full of illusions, so some paths and barriers are only revealed when you move up next to them. This makes DeadEnd primarily a game about bumping into walls. Still, I have an odd amount of affection for this game even though it doesn't deserve it.

Dead End Cerebral Vortex

The game title and logo on top of greenish clouds fading to a stark grey landscape below: an unrealistic landmass formed from floating stone pillars supporting alien tree-like objects.

Weird landscapes are the obvious initial draw-card here, although only one of the four chapters is quite this alien. The rest take something more obviously familiar, like an office or hospital room, and twist it. The way parts of the landscape appear and disappear as you move through the illusions has something going for it. Someone should steal the concept and do something cool with it, if such a thing doesn't already exist.

DeadEnd has chapter-based difficulty curves instead of continuing to get harder throughout the game. Everything is kept at a small and manageable level. No new mechanics are introduced, so the differences between chapters are only cosmetic (and conceptual, I suppose). And yet, I find the appearance of the levels does interact with difficulty in somewhat interesting ways.

The hardest chapter is the first one, a.k.a. "Consciousness", because it's dim with low ceilings and features hospital beds. It's oppressive, and so harder to move around in. At least, it seems harder, even though it isn't really. Under an open sky the maze seems clearer.

This sort of thing happens all the time but it can take something very limited like DeadEnd to make the perspective shifts really obvious. See also why I think Demon's souls is primarily about emotional rather than mechanical difficulty.

I'm going a bit out there now, because it's that sort of day. Consider that perception is something we have control over. How much control varies between people, but it's a skill that can be developed. If challenge is part perception the player has some control over a game's difficulty even without developing additional technical skill or altering game settings. For example, you can re-examine a challenge that feels unfair and frame it in another way, or you can choose to be more patient. I like to think about game difficulty in terms of perception because it's more practical to focus on things I can immediately control and it beats throwing controllers at walls.

This isn't to say that it's unreasonable to criticise difficulty or other elements of game design based on wherever you are coming from. But maybe the boundaries a player has within the designed system aren't as restrictive as they seem. Every experience is filtered through our own history and perceptions, and I think those personal filters are worth experimenting with occasionally.