Pacifist runs, "Nuzlocke" attempts of Pokémon, heck, even the venerable speedrun are just a few ways that players have derived new challenges from games outside your usual difficulty slider. Some developers have even responded by building such challenges into their games: the Thief series used to instant-fail you if you killed anyone on the hardest difficulty, while "hardcore" modes in games like Diablo 4 or The Witcher 2 introduce mechanically-enforced permadeath.
I've been thinking about this sort of thing as I replay Deus Ex for the umpteenth time, quicksaving before and after practically every stealth takedown. Similarly, my early game pacifism always gets replaced with a late-game eagerness to slice up MJ-12 commandos with the Dragon's Tooth Sword. I lack the self-discipline for anything else.
Do you ever set self-imposed challenges when playing videogames? Here are our answers, as well as some from our forum.
Christopher Livingston, Features Producer: Heck yeah! I played Fallout 4 non-lethally with a knockout mod and another time without ever leaving Sanctuary. I played Skyrim while trying to only do things an NPC would do, and tried to build an entire working city in Cities: Skylines that fit within a highway offramp. Making up your own rules or giving yourself personal challenges isn't just a fun way to play games, it's the best way to play games. I guarantee the quest you come up with will be better than any official quest the game gives you.
And honestly, you can learn a lot about how a game works by making your own rules (or breaking the existing rules). In medieval city builder Patron I decided I wanted to fill an entire trade ship with cherry-flavored cookies and to do so I really had to dig in deep, closely watching the production lines, monitoring the resources chains, and figuring out how to stop my citizens from eating those delicious cookies themselves. I learned way more about how the game worked than I would have if I hadn't come up with my silly cookie challenge.
Robin Valentine, Senior Editor: I think every games journalist is obligated to do a full stealth pacifist run of an immersive sim at least once in their career. I did them in both Deus Ex Human Revolution and Dishonored, and though it can't be very engaging and interesting treating games like that as a kind of perfectionist's puzzle, the thing I ran into in both was that people who get spotted and stab people sometimes get a lot more fun toys to play with and an overall enriched and more varied experience.
Stealth is more fun when you live with your mistakes sometimes, and though narratively the ideal of taking the moral high ground of never spilling blood is appealing, in practice heaping up sleeping guards in vents is arduous and absurd.
These days when I set myself special conditions, I do it in small ways. One I come back to often is forbidding myself from using fast travel. It doesn't work for all games, but in really dense and rich open worlds, forcing yourself to actually navigate the space and have a kind of natural structure to your adventures can totally change your perspective on the game.
Dragon's Dogma is the perfect example for this, with its lengthy but superbly satisfying journeys, or Shadow of Mordor, where every jog across Mordor is a chance for more orc drama to erupt. I loved doing it in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, too, which has enough sidequests and events that you can really get that feeling of setting off on an adventure like a hero out of Greek myth, sailing around distant islands and having all sorts of wild encounters before, weary and forever changed, journeying back to your home town.
It really makes you realise how abstract digital spaces become when you can just freely teleport around them—once you stop, you actually start to get the lay of the land, and appreciate the work the developer put in all the more. Ah, there's that mountain with the funny crooked point on it—not far to go now!
Sean Martin, Guides Writer: I have a tendency of doing weird Total War campaigns where I set myself very specific goals and end up getting completely carried away. One of my favourites was when I decided to get Durthu the Sword of Khaine in Mortal Empires and use him as a one treeman army, so beelined over to Ulthuan, nicked the sword, and had Durthu lumbering around by himself destroying entire armies. Total War: Warhammer is really well set up for those fun roleplaying campaigns, especially with all the character backstory.
Three Kingdoms is another where I started imposing weird restrictions on myself, like fighting entire battles using only heroes. There was also that time I almost managed a pacifist run, but faltered at the final faction due to an overly stubborn Kingdom of Yan who just wouldn't play ball.
Mollie Taylor, Features Producer: I feel like I'm playing games all wrong because I never do this! I'm not sure why, honestly. I even play a butt ton of The Sims 4 and never do this, and that game is all about making up your own challenges and rules! I'm too busy meticulously decorating houses and apartments to ever reach the gameplay part.
Maybe I should live a little, break the rules, be a bad boy. I feel like it can give you a whole new appreciation for games and their little quirks, and can breathe new life into things you love. I'll give it a go at some point... probably.
Fraser Brown, Online Editor: Life is already one long exhausting challenge and I'm just here to have fun. That said, I've done your typical stealthy pacifist runs in games like Dishonored, but they are never as good as when you just let rip with wild powers and murderous intent.
It's not really a challenge, more just evidence that I'm a sicko, but I do like to imprison people in glass cells in The Sims, complete with chairs outside so people can watch the show. I've killed off whole neighbourhoods this way. I'm really nice in real life, trust me.
I guess my decision to ignore stats and only care about fashion in Cyberpunk 2077 was kinda a self-imposed challenge. Thankfully, however, that's no longer necessary now that you can create purely cosmetic outfits that hide the hideous togs you've selected for their big numbers.
Rich Stanton, Senior Editor: I've done Soul Level 1 runs in various of the Souls games, but particularly Dark Souls which I adored. At a certain point I'd played through the game so many times that it just seemed fun to set myself a challenge that would've seemed impossible when I was first entranced by this forbidding and brutal world.
Ornstein and Smough had once wiped the Anor Londo walls with me but on my twentieth runthrough had lost the fear factor and, having done everything there was to do in the game already, I couldn't care less about dying. The only downside of the run was using the club as a weapon (because of stats there's a very limited selection of weapons) but even then I eventually came to love that critting enemies just resulted in a giant baseball swing to their gut. Friendship ended with miracles, because Pyromancy is my best friend now.
And... well, I did have a bit of a purpose. I did the Four Kings on my SL1 run first to awaken Kaathe and, eventually, acquire the red eye orb. This meant that, before completing my runthrough by beating down Gwyn with a club, I could go back to the Undead Burg or the sewers beneath and invade low level players as a naked fire-spewing maniac (with a club). I would like to apologise to my victims for such acts, but you all died real good.
Jody Macgregor, Weekend/AU Editor: I played The Temple of Elemental Evil with a party of half-orcs who all had single-digit Intelligence scores. That game's got even better low-IQ dialogue than Fallout 2, and though technically you can experience it by just having one dope in your party to do all the talking, I thought it would be funnier to have a whole squad of thickos. Wizardry was not their forte.
Before that I was into making Skyrim a survival game with mods like Frostfall, and set myself the challenge of crossing the whole map on foot without fast travel. I made it harder by forgetting you can cure disease at temples and doing half the trip with Rockjoint, but it made me realize how different the regions of Skyrim really are.
When you teleport from place to place you don't get to see the snowline as you leave the frozen shore of the Sea of Ghosts while making for the foggy swamps of Hjaalmarch. What really makes Skyrim's map special is that, unlike most of the open world games that followed it, it doesn't fill up with repeatable activities. The only things that get added to it are actual places, towns and standing stones and giant camps, so it never becomes a checklist of things to do. It feels more like an actual map.
From our forum
Frag Maniac: If it's a game I really like, I usually play it to death and often set challenges like no upgrades and sometimes no HUD on hardest mode. I particularly like games that think outside the box and use more than just higher HP for enemies and more damage dealt to players on the hardest mode, like more enemies or enemies that are smarter and faster. I've also played some race games on hardest mode with a head start for the AI.
I usually make video walkthroughs of such challenges [Check out Frag Maniac's YouTube channel].
I'm currently playing Far Cry 6 on Guerilla with all HUD elements off. I'm not doing a video walkthrough of it though, as it would be far too many lengthy videos for my slow 5Mb upload speed. It's been going pretty well, but I had difficulty on the mission where you fly a plane over Castillo's tobacco fields and drop napalm bombs on them with a contraption Philly made with a baseball pitching machine you stole for him.
With no HUD markers onscreen it was really hard to tell exactly where to drop them, causing me to make several passes and the plane got shot down. Worse yet, because I had to replenish my ammo at a workbench, when I got back to finish up the first set of tobacco fields, the game reset my progress to where ALL of them needed to be burned again.
So it was back to a workbench to equip my Supremos with as many incendiary throwables as I could, That along with a couple of Resolver shotguns with incendiary shells allowed me to finish the burning of the fields part. Taking out Jose's chopper was even harder though, as I had not unlocked any RPG type weapons yet, or the Resolver weapon that fires explosive devices long range.
Instead I used the Resolver weapon that fires an EMP pulse long range, a Resolver shotgun with rotating magazine, and a Resolver sniper rifle with blast rounds. It still took a long time and I died twice. The Resolver EMP rifle is pretty much useless on that chopper.
Brian Boru: Usually. In shooters I avoid the biggest weapons, as they don't suit my preferred non-melee playstyle. Also minimal use of explosives like grenades, mines etc.
In strategy games like Civ, sometimes I'll refuse to initiate any tech trades or diplomatic overtures. Other times it'll be to wipe out other civs on my continent.
Essentially when playing games, I write my own story or narrative, so it depends what self goals or challenges support the story I want to write at the time.
McStabStab: There was no "100% everything" achievement for Mad Max, but I wanted to 100% everything anyway. My goal was to do it without fast travel. Mission accomplished:
Pifanjr: Does not playing as a stealth archer in Skyrim count?
I've tried a nuzlocke run, but I quit after losing my starter. I realized it would take more grinding than I was willing to put up with to get through the game.
For most games however I get bored of the gameplay long before I can come up with my own challenges.
Colif: I set a rule for my characters in Torchlight 2. If they die at all on way to 100, the build is wrong and I start again. Last time I played I got one to 100 without dying which was an achievement as she used cannons and one of them is more dangerous to my health than enemies as it does 8 damage to me per second. I would show a screenshot of it but TL2 doesn't seem to like the clipping tool in win 11. Use it and screen just drops to desktop
mainer: The first game I thought of when I read your post was Deus Ex. Like yourself, I've played it countless times over the years, and always go with a stealth-type character, thinking that this time I'll be able to complete a true pacifist playthrough. It never happens, because at some point my self-discipline fails as well, and that's when I first get access to the sniper rifle. The lure of sneaking and lining up that perfect head shot is just too strong, it's just too much fun to pick off unsuspecting enemies from a distance.
Almost every single player game that I've played, I have certain goals that I set for myself, even though they make no difference in the outcome of the game or in what Steam achievements that I receive. Such as romancing Jaheira in Baldur's Gate 2. That's a game-long internal quest that's accomplished through dialogue (and there's a lot of dialogue). One wrong dialogue choice at any point will result in failure, and it's definitely a challenge, as she's quite opinionated.
Another big challenge that I set for myself is getting all the collectibles in a game, and I'm thinking mainly of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games from Bethesda. Some are known collectibles, like the Bobble Heads in the Fallout games. Others I create in my head. Like collecting all the Gnomes in Fallout 3, one each of the Nuka Colas in Fallout 4, and my big one, collecting one copy of each book in Skyrim; then displaying them, in alphabetical order on bookshelves in my home. It does require a few mods for the shelves & organization, but it's a challenge that I've set for myself for every playthrough of Skyrim, but have yet to achieve.
Johnway: Not so much these days. But when i was young I certainly did. I would replay the same games and to spice things up I usually added challenges, namely don't lose a life, beat game without powerups, play all levels that sort of thing. Nothing too fancy. Then again, when I was young beating games without the cheats on was a challenge so...
Sarafan: I sometimes self-impose some challenges, but these are usually restricted to very old games. For example, Eye of the Beholder from 1990 has a feature which allows you to manually set all attributes to the maximum value during character creation. I imposed a restriction that I can increase only two or three attributes to max to make the game a little more challenging.
I also restricted myself during playthrough of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection games. I decided not to use saves like in the original version of this series, unless I have to stop playing for some reason. In newer games I rarely impose any artificial restrictions.