Video Game Difficulty is a hot topic these days as a new barrage of games spotlighting difficulty as one of their core values continues to arrive. Whether we’re talking brutal platformers trying to emulate the success of ‘I Wanna Be the Boshy’ or the action adventure sub-genre known as ‘Soulsborne’… difficulty is being brought into the spotlight more than ever.
There are many different ways to make a difficult game. Both Souls and Boshy are among the first games mentioned if you ask people about challenging games, yet the two take a completely different approach to difficulty. What I want to do here is explain the way I look at a game’s difficulty, and touch on why I find some difficult games fun while others atrocious. So for those of you out there who keep asking me why I dislike Dark Souls… here’s your answer.
What Makes Hard Games Fun?
I mean, games are just entertainment right? Why would anyone ever want to beat their head against a wall for days trying to break it down with nothing but their bare forehead?
In the end, there are a few different things that contribute to this, but I think that the immense satisfaction of overcoming something that seemed impossible at first is the primary drive. Additionally, a big motivator is that feeling of progression. The thought that you’re actually improving at something, actually getting more skilled, stronger, or more knowledgeable over time. For me, at least, the above two are what make me look for challenges, but also what make certain types of challenges feel hollow. When the difficulty is handled wrong, it can leave you feeling simply tired, not accomplished. Even worse, sometimes it leaves you feeling as though there is no progression being made no matter how much you play.
But when it is all handled well, difficulty enhances every facet of the game. The story segments feel so much more impactful – after all, you had to overcome so much to uncover it. The bosses feel more grandiose and epic because they push you to your limits. And over the course of the game, when it’s done right, you really feel like you’ve learned something awesome as you worked your way through the trials.
What Is Difficulty in Games?
Obviously, difficulty is simply how hard it is to complete the game. But there are many different ways to make a game pose a challenge to a player. I’ve taken a long time to think about this, and I’ve categorized difficulty into a few styles. Specifically, I’ve come up with five categories to bundle difficulty into: Complexity, Precision, Punishment, Tuning, and Burden of Knowledge. So, to help understand both what I feel difficulty entails, as well as my thoughts on each form of difficulty, here’s a bit of a breakdown.
What is it?
Complexity is the combination of mechanical skills and mental acuity required for the game to be played. Does a game have challenging puzzles to solve? Does it require you to really evaluate the environment to figure out the appropriate path? Does it require you to input lengthy sequences of keypresses, or execute quick combos?
I usually think of this category separating mechanical and mental complexity into two separate styles. Good examples of mechanical difficulty are action games like God of War or Ninja Gaiden, as well as any competitive fighting game. Probably the best example of mental complexity I can come up with off the top of my head is Catherine, although things like the Uncharted series fit in here as well on the lighter side.
In my eyes, this is the healthiest form of difficulty in both forms. By making it about mechanical skill or raw mental ability, it really drives home that feeling of overcoming something impossible. Games that are challenging in this way tend to reward progression with accomplishment, and you can always easily see how far you’ve come.
I remember spending over half an hour just dying over and over again to a pair of ninjas in Ninja Gaiden Sigma, but when I eventually mastered the combination of blocking and attacking to take them out… it was oh so satisfying. And, of course, the masterpiece that is Catherine. Catherine is a game that holds difficule waty over your head, giving you just enough success to encourage you while still humbling you every step of thy with its challenge, gradually building up to each new trial. Yet looking back now, it’s insane to think how far I’ve come in playing it.
What is it?
Put simply, precision is how close to perfect you have to be to succeed. Anything from frame-perfect tricks, to jumps where you only have exactly enough space to land, to timing-based button-presses. While speedrunners often turn every game into an extreme test of precision, most games don’t force you to play like a speedrunner in order to simply complete it. There are some, however, that do require that level of unbelievable perfection simply to complete the game.
When it comes to perfection, platformers are king. There are few games that require the same level of extreme precision as ‘Rayman Origins’ or ‘I Wanna Be The Boshy’. But there are another set of precision games that we often don’t think of: Rhythm games. Whether it be Osu, Guitar Hero, or hybrid rhythm games like the recent Crypt of the Necrodancer.
Precision-based games are usually games that I tend to suck at, just to be honest. That being said, I don’t have any objection to games that utilize this type of difficulty. It’s fascinating to watch someone succeed at a game like this, and – much like the previous category – it is always easy to tell when you’ve improved. One of the games in this category that I found incredibly engaging was Rayman Origins: the sense of improvement was amazing. It was so easy to see how much I had improved, and even making it a few steps further in a stage than before was immensely satisfying.
What is it?
I struggled with naming this one, but I think in the end ‘Punishment’ captures what I’m going for best. The concept of ‘punishment’ in video games is the penalty you get for failure. It’s not about how easy or difficult it is to fail, it’s about making failure hurt. A lot.
The most extreme examples of this type of difficulty are Rogue-Like games, where a small failure literally means starting over from square one. But a more popular example of this type of situation is the ever-prevalent Soulsborne subgenre, where you can lose all of your currency if you’re unable to return safely to where you died, yet death looms around every corner.
As a general rule, I strongly dislike this method of difficulty unless it is combined with other forms in an interesting way. For me, this often feels like a poor attempt to extend the life of the game without really adding any real benefit to the fun at all. There’s no satisfaction in victory for me if the only thing holding me back was how far I fell when you made a small mistake. Satisfaction for me is born out of overcoming some form of actual difficulty, not the game’s attempts to make me feel bad about my failures.
That’s not to say I’ve never liked a game like this. Off the top of my head, I recall getting great joy out of Rogue Legacy, which had an element of the ‘Rogue-Like’ difficulty tempered with just enough continuity to keep it satisfying. But in general, if a game’s primary difficulty focus is just on punishment, I won’t enjoy it simply because victory always feels disheartening, not exhilarating.
What is it?
This is a fancy word for ‘throwing numbers in your face’. Games whose difficulty is handled this way simply amplify numbers to a degree where everything has to be difficult. Whether it be damage values that will kill you in a fraction of a second or simply making fights contain more baddies, tuning refers to when a game makes things difficult through the use of numbers.
If we’re being honest, every game does this to some degree, but RPGs with difficulty options tend to be the most notable examples of this. When you go from Normal to Hard in a lot of RPGs, the only thing that changes is the statline of the enemies, and often in extreme ways.
This being the primary recourse of most RPGs when it comes to difficulty is why I usually play RPGs on normal. Some degree of this is logical, when it comes to creating a difficult experience. Afterall, if everything is weak you really limit your options as far as difficulty goes. But when a game relies too heavily on this, the game is no longer asking you to get better, it is simply asking you to out-level or out-gear the encounters.
5) Burden of Knowledge
The game’s burden of knowledge is how much information the game expects you to know going in. I’ll be honest, I considered not including this, but I figured a brief mention to what makes most multiplayer games difficult was worth mentioning. In a lot of the more prevalent competitive multiplayer games, the burden of knowledge is one of the biggest sources of raw challenge the game has to offer. The level of information games like League of Legends or StarCraft 2 expect of the player is insane, which can lead to people feeling these games are just ‘too difficult’.
In the end, this one is what it is. There’s an upper threshold before the game becomes simply impossible to learn, but overall, this is an important tool and there’s not really much more to be said on it.
So What Does it All Mean?
Obviously, I can only speak for myself. The importance you place on each facet, and which facets you find fun or not, will determine how much enjoyment you’re able to get out of each game. But I’d like to take a moment to touch on a few specific games to kind of give a better insight into my thoughts here.
Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky 2nd Chapter
I loved this game. But I hate its hard difficulty. When you go from normal difficulty to hard, all they do is spike up the damage and durability of the enemies to a ridiculous extent. And in the end, all playing on hard does is force you to take advantage of the few balance issues the game had because you simply couldn’t progress otherwise. Additionally, since the game’s saves felt all too infrequent, it made dying feel incredibly punishing as well, because you lost so much progress whenever you hit one of the game’s numerous game overs.
They clearly balanced the game around normal difficulty, because it doesn’t suffer from any of these issues. It was simply a case of relying too much on numbers tuning to increase difficulty. I’ve seen this type of problem in several other RPGs, but this was the most significant example since the difficulty turned one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played into a boring, grindy exercise in frustration.
This game is the perfect example of complexity on the mental side. The puzzles are very intricate overall, with numerous solutions to nearly all of them. They do a fantastic job of building your puzzle solving skills over time, although since you’re being constantly presented with harder challenges, it’s easy to miss how much you’ve improved until you go back and play it again.
The game also accentuates the mental side of the difficulty with several precise mechanics that can kill you if you make a single misstep, but never makes this feel overly harsh by offering you a healthy amount of retries as well as well-placed checkpoints to ensure you never lose much. It’s a great balance of complexity and precision, to make the difficulty high enough that they don’t need to be overly punitive to really challenge you. And the constant progression of difficulty ensures that every victory is always intensely satisfying.
I generally suck at games that require extreme precision, I’m not going to lie. That doesn’t mean I dislike it, but it does mean that I don’t often have the inclination to put a lot of time into the games that require such extreme precision. Resogun is my exception. Bullet Hell games are probably the pinnacles of precision-based difficulty, often having just a single position that is safe on an entire screen, and a fraction of a second to move to it.
Resogun is not quite that extreme, offering a few different difficulty settings. The lower ones are fairly approachable but the highest difficulty is what I’m here to discuss. You spend a lot of your time making extremely narrow decisions about where to maneuver amidst a sea of bullets, ships, and creatures. I loved that they utilized rewards to create the same impact on difficulty as a high degree of punishment would but without the lows. I also really enjoyed the hint of strategy that added complexity to the game overall.
Here we get to the crux of it. If I like difficulty, why do I hate Dark Souls? It’s really simple: Dark Souls uses all the wrong forms of difficulty without counterbalancing it with any of the forms of difficulty I enjoy. In Dark Souls, most enemies will do a massive chunk of your health, with bosses often doing the vast majority of it, in a single hit. The numbers are really high, yet they don’t counterbalance this by giving you fun and intricate tools to work with. You essentially just have attack, block, and dodge for the most part… To make matters worse, the game heavily abuses another ‘bad’ form of difficulty: punishment. Everything you do has enormous consequences, which can be fine in some cases, but usually only when the game utilizes other forms of difficulty to make what you’re doing satisfying.
The combination of punishment and excessively high numerical difficulty turns victory into a matter of inevitability for me, not so much skill. There is very little mechanical depth to this game, it’s a lot of very simple actions that are simply repeated ad nauseum until you mess up or win, so I will eventually beat the encounters – it’s simply a matter of time. As a result, it doesn’t feel satisfying to win, but it does feel awful when I lose. The game has a ton of negative feedback but no positive feedback – it constantly makes me feel awful as I fail and get punished for it, but success simply feels like the inevitable result of playing, not any sort of great accomplishment. And, as a result, I just feel tired after playing it. If I want to feel tired while also feeling as though everything I do is futile, I can go exercise. I don’t need a videogame for that.
Difficulty is one of the most critical parts of a game to get right. When it is done right, it’s a magical thing. It evokes such amazing feelings in the player: accomplishment, progression, and self-confidence. But when it’s done wrong, it leaves the game just feeling hollow and pointless. What I mostly wanted to share here was a bit of insight into how I view difficulty in games, and to cover some of the best examples I could think of, both good and bad, of how difficulty can impact the quality of a game.
Please share your opinions on the subject, especially if yours differ from mine, in the comments below. I would be really curious to see how you view the subject.