It seems 2013 was the year that Matt Gardner (Senior Editor of Dealspwn and resident Slash lookalike) revealed his hatred for me, or perhaps more specifically his passion for seeing me suffer. Just a simple trawl back through the games he assigned me to review last year yield a collection of games that in the main were harder than your average. Couple it with the fact that 2013 was also the year I finally finished Dark Souls and a look back on the year makes me realise what a ruddy hard slog it was.
Not that I’m complaining of course – some of those games were bloody brilliant – but such exposure to challenging games made me take a big step back. Often in gaming we praise the difficult game, the one that is a challenge, to the point where difficulty has become almost synonymous with quality in a game. But in reality, is this really the case? Throughout 2013 ,the difficulty in the games I reviewed has been high, but the quality hasn't always been there. I've reviewed the very good - games like Spelunky - down to the really quite bad - step forward A-Men 2. So clearly this theory of 'difficult equals good' doesn't always ring true, in fact I believe now more than ever that this way of thinking is completely wrong.
To start with we have to look at why we like “difficult” games, and then dig deeper to see how this is being used in today’s games, for better or worse.
One school of thought is that our love of a difficult game stems from our early gaming days. A time when technical limitation rather than designer choice made mid games saves rare or even non-existent. Where a game had to be finished in one sitting, lives were limited, and a mistake was costly – no hiding behind a bin for three second for that bullet wound to the head to heal back in the 80s, no siree! And we loved those games, those early experiences, and for those of us old enough to remember them, nostalgia sometimes clouds our judgement for what we really want in a game. Everyone knows we love the good old days. Everyone knows older games were harder. Well therefore everyone likes hard games. Strike one for the prosecution.
However, the fact of the matter is, I don’t go back and play older games because they are harder and because every game I play nowadays is just too goddamn easy. I play older games because I want to be swept back to some of my fonder memories of gaming. When I was younger I had more imagination, it took less to surprise and excite me than it does today. So when I was playing those gems back in the days of the SNES and N64, or even the ZX Spectrum, I was really enjoying it. It was a good feeling, and me replaying those games is an attempt at rediscovering that joy, that wonder, that fun that I experienced all those years ago. I couldn’t care less whether I’m trying to beat Bowser on World 8-4 of Super Mario Bros with only one life remaining, or I’m trying to compose a competent rendition of the Simpson’s theme tune on Mario Paint, I was having a good time, and that’s what gaming is about. The difficulty of that time, that nostalgia is almost irrelevant.
Are We Keeping You Up?
The second pro-difficulty argument is that of maintaining interest in a game – the notion that without a challenge, a game becomes pointless. With limited or no chance of failure, gameplay can lead to apathy – the curse of all video games – which will quickly lead to disengagement of the player, and a prompt press of the Power Button. For me this black and white notion that games are either one side of this fence or the other ruins this argument. Yes games that lack any sort of challenge are not good games, but many, many excellent games fall into the middle ground of having a challenge but not being ridiculously difficult that they become inaccessible or too frustrating for people to appreciate. There are many games that have a challenge that are not difficult, that are adored by millions. Anything from Portal, to Call of Duty, all the way to Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds. All these games are challenging in different ways, and their legions of fans will testify to the fun that can be had on them (even if game critics don’t always agree).
Congratulations, You Win!
The final main argument for difficult games being good games is the sense of achievement that goes hand in hand from beating them. We all like a taste of victory, whether it is getting past a particularly tough boss or bagging a Platinum Trophy (or equivalent), and naturally difficult games give us that opportunity. I’m personally up for a challenge, I like overcoming a tough section in a game, it makes up for all the swearing and shouting my fiancée will have had to endure (Yes, Dark Souls I’m looking at you) beforehand. But it’s difficult to argue that this is solely what drives people to play games, people play for numerous other reasons, such as escapism, companionship, self-improvement, story progression etc.
Why Should We Care?
So three good arguments, but all flawed, purely because they take the difficulty in a game in isolation. Difficult games do have their plus points, but this simplistic approach to rationalising difficulty in games is part of the problem. It seems we’ve got to a place now where game developers are making games difficult on purpose thanks to this broad board-room assumption that all we want is hard games. In a seemingly rebellious stance against the hand-holding of the current gaming generation, developers are stepping forward to offer us tougher games to stand out from the crowd in an effort to tap into the plus points mentioned above.
This is all well and good if done properly. Dark Souls – the game I keep harping on about – is a perfect example of how to do a difficult game. Why? Because it has been designed from the ground up as such, rather than the difficulty being ramped up as an afterthought. From Software could have created a game with a less involved combat system, a simplified levelling system, poor level design, more on screen instructions, and then made the enemies nigh on indestructible and still had a very difficult game – but it would not have been the triumph it is. Games that I’ve had the pleasure of playing this year have taken various different stances on this subject. Spelunky, for example sits closer to the Dark Souls model, as careful planning, tactics and patience will win the day. Blood of the Werewolf on the other hand was a difficult game only part by design. It had devious levels to traverse, but some poor level design and indiscernible hit areas of certain obstacles made the game harder than it was designed to be – and made it frustrating for the player, and therefore cheapened the experience.
So, does difficulty make a game? No. Can difficult games still be good? Or course. But the important thing to remember is that difficulty is just one thing that makes up a game and is in no way the deciding factor of how good a game is or how well it will or should sell. It is why I worry when I see games shouting about their difficulty curve as a selling point, because it makes me wonder what is wrong with the storytelling, characterisation, gameplay, controls, depth, visuals etc. A great game will be made up of strong aspects of all these things (where relevant) but above all, they will be measured on how they make us feel. Difficulty if done well, can make us feel like a million dollars. But if it’s used as a gimmick it can leave us with a sour taste in our mouths.
I hope this year we get off of the drug of the games with the “old school” difficulty and instead start talking about getting that feeling we had when we used to play such “old school” games. You know that feeling right, it’s called fun, and it’s the best feeling you can have playing videogames, irrespective of how easy they are.