Sometimes, my response to this conflict is to doubt that challenge is necessary to game design, anyway. Penny Arcade's Gabe once said that as he's grown older, he's become less interested in beating games and more interested in seeing them, and I feel the same way. Though I'm pretty adept at jumping and shooting, I don't feel the urgent need to demonstrate my expertise in these areas outside of multiplayer games. In certain moods I'm tempted to make the same complaint about all games that I make about Rock Band 2: Why should I have to sweat in order to see all the content? I bought all that game from you, fair and square, and I shouldn't have to demonstrate my entitlement to it by pressing some buttons with proper timing.
But Blow makes a persuasive argument for the importance of challenge to game design. Challenge, he says, is a way for a game designer to invest the player's actions with significance. Punishing a player is a way of showing that their choices matter. It's failure that gives a player a unique feeling of agency and empowerment, because the possibility of death creates a context in which your conquest of the game's world is meaningful.
I think Blow is right. The problem isn't challenge itself. It's the nature of the punishment that matters, the way games compel you to repeat the same sections of the game over and over again. Repetition of this sort is worthwhile when it tests your abilities (I once wrote that death is the stick the designer beats you with in order to teach you the game's rules, and this seems right), but almost every game tests those abilities by forcing the player to rehearse an already-learned set of actions. This was why the AI Director in Left 4 Dead is so important: it frees the game from the shooting-gallery syndrome that plagues many shooters. Even when you are forced to repeat a scenario over again you can't fall back on memorizing previous run-troughs to get you through.
Merely executing a game plan you've already plotted out doesn't count as a good exercise of your faculties. It's coming up with a solution to a challenging problem that's enjoyable, which gives you an authentic sense of mastery. This is why Braid was rewarding despite its elimination of player death-- Braid challenges you to imagine the world in a particular way, rather than challenging you you memorize the width of a platform.
Tilting the challenge on the conception side of the conception/execution dichotomy also explains the core appeal of the Prince of Persia games. Sands of Time allowed you to erase your mistakes by rewinding time, and this freed you to relish the gracefulness of your movements, experiment with different solutions to the jump puzzles, and avoid the frustrations that come with the occasional execution misfire. The puzzle-like construction of the rooms transformed the gameplay into aesthetically elegant problem-solving, and the game succeeded in spinning a well-paced and clever narrative around this core experience.
They've followed this approach to its logical conclusion in the most recent Prince title by completely eliminating death. If you miss a jump or muss up a battle your partner Elrika saves you, every time. It is literally impossible to fail and get sent to a menu. This decision to eliminate frustrating repetition shows an attempt to shift the burden of challenge away from execution. As Tycho of Penny Arcade wrote today: “I think they wanted to make a lyrical, organic world that the character flowed through. They had an aesthetic goal, and the extent to which Prince of Persia succeeds as a game depends on how well they draw you into that.” This is exactly right. And it's not just the world that is lyrical: your movements themselves are effortless and elegant. Both the combat and the traversal have a careless fludity and unhurried tempo, which that fits with your character's casual approach to gallantry. The challenge comes from discovering a navigable path through the gorgeous environments, not from repetitive death.
This just all right with me. Almost every review of the new Prince game has complained about the difficulty, and this seems to be one of those cases where the game is guilty of nothing save violating the reviewer's expectations. As Mitch Krpata said today, the critic's job is to illuminate what the game is trying to achieve and how the game's various elements contribute to that goal. Prince of Persia isn't Ninja Gaiden, and this is OK, because it's not aiming for the same tension-filled experience. It's a game that wants to be lyrical. It wants to be an musical instrument rather than a crucible, and it succeeds in this goal.