What? Oh, I guess you people expected a longer answer. In that case, I’m happy to comply: Is challenge based gameplay limiting us? Yes, yes it is. Ooooookay then… why? Well, that is definitely complicated to answer. Let’s see…
In challenge based gameplay, the story that the designer is trying to tell collides full on with the story the player is telling. There’s an inherent conflict here: The designer’s batman is an unstoppable force of justice that will always triumph at the end, but on the other hand, the player’s batman is some doofus who dies over and over again at the same jumping puzzle.
Remotely competent characters have a major conflict with challenge based mechanics. I haven’t seen it yet, but the reverse could be true as well: A doofus by design that does every task perfectly due to the player being really experienced with the game. Nevertheless, this case doesn’t carry much weight does it? Unless some NPC starts a long tirade about how useless you are, it wouldn’t be such an issue as the former.
So, making some generalizations that I’m not quite sure about yet, we could say that the only “stories” that truly connect what the player is telling with what the designer was trying to tell are the ones that have characters with unpredictable behaviour. This could mean goofy characters as well as empty shells/ciphers.
That sounds like something relevant, so here, let’s rephrase it:
Challenge based gameplay is pushing us in the direction of the silent protagonist.
Interesting. We could be less broad with that claim though and just say that the main protagonist has to be unpredictable for the player’s and designer’s story to live in harmony. Because the moment the designer takes the control away from the player is the moment that the game ceases to be a game, it becomes a movie or a book (at least for a short period of time). You can try to railroad the player as much as you like, but most of your audience will be disconnected from your protagonist the moment you do something they wouldn’t.
But… what can we do? Does removing the challenge based gameplay really help in this matter? Well, yes and no. The thing is, if you have a heftily developed character with layers upon layers of psychological complexity, that is to say: predictable to some extent, then yes, the player might not connect to the protagonist because he just doesn’t want to be that kind of guy/gal. But the thing is: the players that will want to be like batman will be able to play as batman and not some doofus that dies repeatedly in the same spot.
Have you ever connected to a character in a movie? How about a book? A play? If we remove challenge from a game, then we can attempt at something as engrossing as that, or even higher: you are no longer witnessing what said character does, you ARE said character.
If that isn’t food for thought, then I don’t know what is.