Difficulty In Gaming And The Joy Of Difficult Games
It seems like difficult games are seeing a welcome resurgence. It almost seemed to me like difficult games were just a relic from an era gone by. Doesn’t it fascinate you that there are many hundreds of people in our community who haven’t had the experience of SNES era difficulty? We have had a period of ‘easy years’ in gaming where developers attempted to appeal to a wider audience. This, of course, requires making games more accessible. Part of me was frightened that difficult games might die off entirely outside of the FPS genre or indie scene. But I’m glad to be wrong on that front as games like Cuphead gain their fame an infamy.
It seems like many gamers on the casual side of things aren’t used to the change. This becomes apparent when every mildly difficult game gains the label Souls-like as in, akin to Dark Souls. That series is well-known for its difficulty and managed to receive a lot of positive attention so it isn’t surprising comparisons are being drawn.
Why Difficult Games Are Important
I often praise games with a narrative focus and even a few ‘walking simulators’. Yet, one of the most fundamental types of games that deserves praise is the skill-based games. These difficult games are the ones that make you throw-the-controller mad. Why are they important? Well, because they teach their players a very important life lesson and skill. In order to succeed one must struggle and persevere. At their core, difficult games are about self-improvement and a willingness to be subjected to frustration. These are vital tools that everyone needs to have in the modern age especially in a business environment.
Beyond that, difficulty drives players together out of necessity. This often creates the most tight-knit communities out there. The dedication required to become good at these games is a burden best shared. Think about it, some games don’t just require hours of practice but also research into the best combinations of moves that produce the best DPS. Something that is especially true in online gaming where real people are relying on you. It’s a pretty unique experience for most people under 21 to be so needed by strangers. I believe it to be quite the esteem boost and something special that these games offer their audience.
This is another thing difficult games offer. Pride in being able to achieve success. This isn’t just a participation award, this is something players have to struggle very hard to achieve. Not only that but it is naturally exclusive, not everyone is going to be able to achieve the skill level you have. In my opinion, skill-based games often highlight the very best of the community and the worst.
Difficulty and Elitism
It’s a miserable thing to admit, but not everyone can handle success gracefully. Often, difficult games generate the type of environment that attract bullies. Sure they have the skills that give them the pride they deserve. Yet, they use it as a tool to attack lesser skilled players rather than helping the community. I would be a fool to deny they exist. In fact, my personal pet peeve is asking a question about something to do with gameplay and getting some slob respond with ‘get gud’. Oh I’m sorry, did you think I was here asking questions about the best way to do something to improve my ass scratching ability?
Elitism in gaming can be a little exaggerated though. It’s important to realize that just because someone is a hardcore gamer does not make them an elitist. Some people are just genuinely passionate about doing the very best they can. I would also argue that a certain amount of elitism in this context is fine. Gaming is not some sort of caste-class system. In order to progress to elite levels, one must simply hone their skills.
The reason this has become such a contention point is that the ‘easy years’ have bred a new kind of gamer. Gaming, in general, has evolved far beyond pure mechanical fun to incorporate amazing stories. It’s only natural that the medium now caters to a much broader audience whose interests can run counter with one another. The important thing is to ensure that these groups don’t go to war and destroy each other. What we have right now with this diverse selection of games is damn good. We don’t want all games to be narrative driven or purely mechanical. The vast choice is part of what makes this medium so fantastic.
An Unexpected Bias Against Difficult Games
It’s important to mention the reaction from the video games media. It seems many at more prominent sites such as Kotaku and Polygon have had a kneejerk reaction against difficult games. I guess, it shouldn’t be as unexpected as it feels, but I thought I offer up an explanation.
Video game journalism is an incredibly competitive career. There is essentially no employment security. When it comes to reviewing games you often only have maybe two or three days at best to review the product. Even if the developers send it to you months in advance editors will often enforce a time limit anyway. This simply does not allow the average video game journalist to hone their skills at a game. Which is a real problem for difficult games because a large portion of the fun comes exactly from doing that. With that in mind, is it really that surprising that mainstream video game journalists are being salty over difficult games? Not that it makes it any better, it is just one of the many systematic flaws with Video Game journalism.
What does this mean? Well, it is entirely possible that difficult games shouldn’t be reviewed by the mainstream media. Their deadlines are simply too tight to provide journalist the required time to review them correctly and a bad review is worse than no review at all. Really, it falls on the shoulders of smaller websites to pick up this slack and do the job properly. This is a chance for those communities to shine!
I recently read a piece from Kotaku called ‘It Might Be Time To Rethink Difficulty Menus’. The author complained bitterly that the extra easy mode in Wolfenstein 2 teased the player by comparing them to a baby. I know this may be considered going after low hanging fruit, but what a silly thing to get upset about. It made me realize that there is another thing that difficult games teach us in excruciating detail; You are not good at everything. It’s a fact of life, the first time you pick up a pencil you won’t be able to draw The Praying Hands. Reading the piece infuriated me a little because the complaint essentially was a matter of ego.
“…the menu’s telling you only babies play the game on easy. It’s funny on the surface, but also an insidious kind of peer pressure. Don’t listen to it.”
You know how in practically every kung-fu movie ever there’s this moment where the master and the student sit together drinking tea? The student is there chatting about how much they know about fighting while the master starts filling up the students already full cup much to their alarm. Then when asked about this behaviour they relay the iconic expression “Empty your cup”. That’s what springs to my mind. We have been taught to grind and improve our skills despite all odds. We know that victory is not guaranteed with the purchase of the game.
Modes of Difficulty in Gaming
Despite my complaint about that article, there is a small part I agree with. The idea that menus need not only be divided into easy, normal and hard. Honestly, I quite like games with modes made for people who are purely in the game for the story and modes purely for combat. I think it is a good way to find a happy compromise between casual and hardcore gamers.
There are also games with adaptive difficulty. The slight trouble with this is it very hard to gauge your performance since the game is always sliding up and down the difficulty scale. In some circumstances, I think this system is good. It works well in a narrative-driven scenario where you don’t want frustration to detract from your story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work for skill-based games due to the fact that it deprives you of a challenge by becoming easier as you fail.
I do firmly believe that the current popular system of difficulty menus or new game+ options are great. They aren’t something that should disappear because they offer replayability and help keep a game accessible to multiple types of gamer. The real problem is the perspective people have of these modes. There is no shame in playing a game in easy mode. One can see that while simultaneously being able to recognise the pride of beating a game on its most challenging difficulty surely.