Level design: Difficulty in the solving vs difficulty in the execution

DISCLAIMER: I probably have no idea about this. I am just expressing some things I have seen in the games I refer to. Feel free to critique (please, do so, I am here to learn), but keep in mind that I am only learning. In addition, I must add that I will only be focusing in the mechanics of the games used as examples, completely setting aside whatever story, soundtrack, graphics or any other thing.

That said, let’s jump into the topic. This update comes packed with my insights on videogame design. Throughou the entire post I will be explaining the title, and providing examples of games to illustrate my point.

What does the title mean?

Well… Braid, Super Meat Boy and Thomas Was Alone are all 2D platformers, and the objective in all of them is the same: To get to a certain point (be it puzzle pieces in Braid, keys, bandanges and Bandage Girl in Super Meat Boy, or portals in Thomas). That would be the “puzzle” to solve. In order to reach that goal, you must execute a series of movements (no shooting, etc. Just movements). And still, these three are very different games.

I believe that one of the main differences that separate the mechanics of these three games is the perspective under which the challenges are built. Let’s take a closer look at each of them:

Thomas Was Alone: Thinking as the key

In Thomas Was Alone, the whole aim of the game (at least in the first 4 worlds) is to drive all the characters (thay are all rectangles of different shapes) to their corresponding portals. Each character, however, has it’s own unique abilities (Laura is elastic, Chris is…well, regular), and the player has to use them in a certain manner in order to reach the goal. The most time spent playing, however, is not used actually fighting through difficulties in order to overcome an obstacle and reach the portals. It is spent figuring out the solution to the level, the way to combine the characters’ abilities and carry them through the level.

Thomas and his portal

Thomas and his portal

Claire is the only one who can swim

That is what I called “Difficulty in the solving”. The main difficulty (if there is any), is on finding the solution to the puzzle, not on executing the commands needed to beat the level.

Case Studies:

FFX - Shiva Temple

Final Fantasy X (the puzzle parts), rely on “Difficulty in the solving”

Some parts of the Pokemon games present interensting riddles

Some parts of the Pokemon games present interensting riddles

Super Meat Boy: Die. a lot.

Super Meat Boy, on the contrary, has a totally different approach when it comes to level design. It is very easy to know how to gbeat the level, but really, really hard to do it. Period. When I play Super Meat Boy, I die 10-20 times per level on average (if not more), even though I realize exactly what jumps I have to do in the first 2-5 attempts. The reason for that is that the levels are designed to be small, provide simple objectives, but make them really, really hard to achieve. There are not many mechanics: The player can jump and have some control over the jump-arch. There is terrain that kills SMB (enemies, saws, lasers, needles…), and terrain that doesn’t (anything else). If SMB falls of the screen, he dies. If SMB dies, the level restarts. That is it, SuperMeat Boy’s mechanics in a nutshell. With these few mechanics, the designers have managed to create a deep and challenging game (more on that here).

Super Meat Boy is tough as nails

Super Meat Boy is tough as nails

This game relies not on “Difficulty in the solving” (since the solution to the level is usually obvoius), but “Difficulty in the execution”, making it really hard to get to Bandage Girl.

Case Studies (always on a lesser degree):

Mega Man had also very few mechanics, but had some more strateg to it.

Mega Man had also very few mechanics, but had some more strategy to it.

Super Mario Bros. had also a big "execution difficulty" element to it

Super Mario Bros. had also a big “execution difficulty” element to it

Braid: The hybrid

Braid is a… hard to describe game. Besides being a gorgeous game, it presents difficulty on both sides. One of the mechanics that make up the puzzles of Braid is that, evey time the player jumps on top of “goomba”, the main character munces a little higher. Around this mechanic (and, of course, the time manipulation) builds the structure of the first levels of Braid.

The aim of the gameplay (apart from the story) is to aquire certain puzzle pieces. In order to reach each piece, the player must solve a puzzle.

There are puzzles where all you need to do is figure out a way to gat a “goomba” to the piece’s position, so the player can jump over it and bounce to reach the piece. These are based around “Difficulty in the solving”, since it doesn’t take much ability to execute the actions necessary to reach the piece.


Just place a “goomba” on the right place…

There are other puzzles however, that will entangle the player for a good 5 minutes after this has figured out the solution, due to the hability level required. These are more in the “Difficulty in the execution” field (though thay do take some thinking to solve):

I should have jumped into the “goomba”

Case Studies:

The Legend Of Zelda - A Link to the Past has some dungeons that require both ability and wits to pass through.

The Legend Of Zelda – A Link to the Past has some dungeons that require both ability and wits to pass through.

I hope this insight has proven useful to some, or amusing to others. Please leve your comments or any opinion about this examples or this perspecive. Any feedback will be highly appreciated.

Stay tuned,


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