Debate: Should Games Be Difficult

Casper: This may sound pompous coming from an outspoken fan of the Souls games and Paradox strategy titles, but I don’t consider myself to be that great at video games. There are a few games I am pretty good at, but most games I start playing on the normal difficulty and bump down to easy if they get too annoying for me, as was the case with Shadow Warrior 2 and it’s bullet-sponge enemies.

Stian was kind enough to rub this in just recently, when he begged me to explain how I managed to lose so many lives in Yoshi’s Island. This made me wonder, firstly, just how bad at games I really am, and, secondly, how big of a role difficulty has in the games we play.

I personally don’t seek out games because of their difficulty and actually consider it quite frustrating if I don’t have any options to tweak the game to better fit my skill level. But Stian is a big boy with a lot of that real gamer cred. Surely, he plays every game on Very Hard with the controller behind his back, right?

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Stian: I think my life would be sad if I had a skill like this, as I do like the games I play to present a good challenge. However, this is not within the idea of NES-hard or Dark Souls memes necessarily, but rather that I want a game that focuses on how to give a good difficulty-curve. It is surely nice when games present difficulty-options to appeal to a broader audience, but I am always fond of those that neglect this for a clear idea in how their games should be played.

This makes it easier to study a game on how it was meant to be played and how it evolves and teaches the player. Such as when Super Mario 3D World teaches the player about new platform-mechanics in a safe environment before they are challenged with it, or in Castlevania Bloodlines where an enemy jumps into a hazard and dies, showcasing something the player can use to their advantage. Usually good variety and design carries a game, and entertainment should not just come from how hard a game is, but how well it is paced as well. 

Although, it has happened to me that some games are just too easy as well. I had a great time with Trials of Mana, but had it not been for me choosing hard difficulty, I’d probably be needing more breaks from it, despite its fun gameplay. Though I can agree that Shadow Warrior 2 is a poor way of presenting difficulty by making enemies bullet-sponges, shouldn’t players at least attempt normal play? I just find it weird to make games have an easy- or even a “story”- mode that makes interactivity to the point of non-existing. Especially when “Normal” is often regarded as the way the game was designed to be played.

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Casper: Not every game is fit for a real difficulty setting, such as, indeed, 2D Mario titles. What I look for isn’t always a difficulty setting, it can also just be leniency. What gives me trouble in a 2D platformer is that there is little room for error separating success from failure. One fall down a pit and you go back to the start, 1 hit and Mario loses his power-up after which a second hit does him in for good; back to the start you go.

I grew up playing shooters and 3D platformers, games where you have a health bar that gives you a clear overview of how close to death you are and how many more mistakes you can afford before it’s actually an issue. Teaching the player is a fundamental of game-design, but it does me little good if every little misstep on the road to mastery sets me back to the start where I witness that scripted learning moment again and again until I am absolutely sick of it. I am pretty sure that you, like myself, are all too familiar with the jingle that plays whenever you die in Castlevania

I respect that a developer may have had a vision for a game that won’t resonate with everyone. However, to quote a line you yourself sent me just recently:

“If it’s not fun, why bother” -Reggie Fils-Aimé

If Flying Wild Hog wants you to min-max an archaic RPG level-up system to keep up with bullet-sponge enemies or if Konami wants you to replay entire levels because a medusa head at the very end knocked you into an instant-death pit, chances are people are going to look for work-arounds or fiddle with difficulty settings to get around it. Especially when talking about retro games, you notice how the perception of what makes for “fun” difficulty has drastically changed the past 30 years. I don’t blame anyone for playing through Castlevania today with save-states or rewinds, even if that may go against the intended play experience of the developer.

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Stian: Bottomless or instant-death pits are a common threat in old 2D platformers that could definitely be an unfair element, but also one that can be used well. This comes to whether it is placed to not demand pinpoint precision (at least not in early levels), and if the level is short enough. Similar to 2D Mario-titles. It is here I sadly want to bring up a term that is quite controversial: “get good”.

Sure, I am familiar with the jingle, but that is how I eventually beat the original Castlevania. You should learn from mistakes, see how enemies behave, and then learn what the best cause of action is. And if I may, there is no shame in admitting defeat. I am not great at bullet hells, but I love how insane they can be where defensive play triumphs all. I suppose you could say here that “fun” is very subjective.

I do believe though there is a big difference if we use Shadow Warrior 2 and Castlevania as examples. Castlevania has a clear idea of how the medusa-heads move, making their simple pattern easy to learn and with how the first level gives you a clear idea of how Belmont controls, it keeps the game moving. However, from what I can tell, Shadow Warrior 2 gives you basically the option of either using ages on a couple of single enemies with no challenge or insightful mechanics, or just run past them.

Don’t you think this idea of using save-states or rewinds, can be used for rewarding the player with minimal effort? Kinda similar to pay-to-win, as it does not take skills either?

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Casper: This is where my statement from earlier comes in. I do believe a game like Castlevania has a satisfying element of learning to it. Yes, you can (and probably should) master the art of dodging Medusa Heads, but retro games used to revel in making you replay entire stages if you messed up, or even the entire game if you ran out of lives. When are you supposed to learn if every attempt at doing so puts you back so far that you’ll be stressed out when you finally get back to where you were.

If you follow the evolution of 2D platformers through the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, you notice an increasing push towards difficulty-management through leniency. Levels started getting checkpoints, lives became increasingly irrelevant. Games didn’t have to become any easier, they just gave players more chances to learn.

This is where the “git gud” mentality falls apart for me. There are certainly some things you need to learn about Dark Souls to eventually get through it, but replaying the series over and over again gave me a lot of respect for how little knowledge of the game you actually need for that initial run. The first time I beat Dark Souls I was donning a black knight halberd and Havel’s armor. It’s not until I came back later that I learned all the other ways to play the game, many of which were more efficient and fun than just being a walking rock with a pointy stick. Dark Souls is punishing, but it always allows players to grind souls, call in some allies, wield easy-to-use gear, and over-prepare for its challenges. It’s a game that lets you make it more difficult when you want and it’s a far cry from a platformer that instantly kills you if a single pixel of your body grazes a spike.

Early game

Stian: There I do agree that games can have faults in being balanced, but with unlimited continues, for example, the only thing stopping you is your determination. Though titles that simply restart the entire game with minimal leniency in terms of extra lives or gaining those, should be questioned. It is here where I agree with you that the evolution of platformers has been usually for the better, like Celeste, for example, where lives are replaced with a death-counter. However, titles like Megaman 11 makes lives still relevant, and I applaud it for its attempt at such.

It is here I believe the design is everything. Lives could become irrelevant because of respawning the player by a forgiving checkpoint, but the New Super Mario Bros-series, were too easy to make lives even noticeable. So I believe again it is more about the game’s design whether lives should be included or not, and in general, for what challenge it wishes to throw. I do understand where you are going with Dark Souls, but that sounds like an automatic-win card as well. When a player has that, it is too easy to use it and possibly would just make the game a bore in my eyes. With all honesty too, Dark Souls also have unnecessary traps that are just uncomfortable with its control scheme. At least platformers revolve around obstacle-courses.

I suppose you could say grinding is a way to make a game easier, but to me, it is even a worse kind of busy-work than actually learning and overcoming a challenge. Anyone can play a turn-based RPG and press A to gain tons of XP to make a boss a piece of cake, but actually getting through a difficult fight or stage with sheer dedication and learning the game’s mechanics, is much more satisfying and interesting. It can also make it easier to see whether a setup was well-designed or not, instead of relying on easier aspects to make a game deemed good.

That being said, when you explore the world to use your noggin or overcome challenges to make elements easier, then I am okay because you have actually played the game and not gone in auto-pilot. This is one of the few areas where I definitely praise Breath of the Wild’s design, since exploration or clever work-arounds with its physics-engine is rewarded with ingredients, weapons or upgrades to make the adventure more comfortable. 

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Casper: I am glad that we agree that it’s a good thing platformers lowered difficulty by providing more checkpoints and changing the way the infamous Game Over works. However, I still think we have a misunderstanding in regards to the second issue. A misunderstanding I am determined to win.

What you refer to is called a First Order Optimal Strategy, a method of play that takes little skill to execute for how strong of a result it yields. It’s a design trap and my Havel-build in Dark Souls is an example of such, but not a problematic one. Lots of armor and a long, high-damage weapon is certainly a viable way to play Dark Souls, but it won’t make it too easy for you. It’s not a guaranteed victory if you manage to cobble this together yourself. Instead, it became an entryway for me that allowed me to later return as a royal fencer with an enchanted rapier or a shirtless madman with a chaos hatchet. 

Finding that one move that gets you through every fight or grinding yourself to a level where nothing poses a challenge anymore are ways to negate challenge entirely, but not fun for anyone involved. These are boring ways to play, as you yourself point out. My example with Dark Souls is just to show how I managed to get my foot in the door and beat one of these games, which was still hard. I wouldn’t be doing naked katana runs in the game nowadays if it didn’t have this flexibility to let me take a safer playstyle, nor would I be playing them if that playstyle rendered the game’s challenge trivial.

To set this argument in another context, I feel there is a big difference between a shooter where one or two weapons are easier to use, versus a shooter that allows players to effortlessly mow down enemies by relying on the aim assist. Or, indeed, I prefer 3D platformer that put me back on a platform with some health deducted should I fall, over a 3D platformer that instantly throws up the Game Over screen and makes you replay a whole level. The difficulty of a game shouldn’t lie in the punishment, but in the depth of the design.

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Stian: I will be honest and say that I definitely missed the point there, as Dark Souls will have its challenge even with the option for grinding. I just found the idea of getting help and such an easy way out from a tricky situation, but I am glad we can agree that there has to be some form of involvement from a good difficulty-curve in order to be engaged.

The last paragraph you present is one I do really like, but also find problematic. With 3D platformers that have longer stages and can lead to bigger areas to explore, I do agree that instadeath pits would simply become tedious and a poor form of difficulty. However, while Dark Souls has more to it than meets the eye, one could argue its difficulty-design is actually based on punishing the player. Let me put it this way, would you have preferred a setting if the souls were never lost upon death, or even never vanished from existence?

Rooftops

Casper: Well, that option exists. Players who are afraid of losing their souls (and thus their ability to upgrade and empower themselves) can wear Rings of Sacrifice to shield them from this fate. It’s yet another example of Dark Souls establishing a rule and permitting players to opt out of it if they are willing to forego other options. Especially in the original Dark Souls, surrendering 1 of your 2 ring slots is a steep price to pay for that feeling of security.

I realize that Dark Souls is a bit of an outlier in terms of game-design, so if I had to name some other examples:

  • A Hat in Time and Yooka-Laylee permit players to tweak gameplay features or customize their game experience through their badges and tonics systems respectively.
  • Games that give you a list of objectives to complete, but let you bypass those you don’t like by only requiring a number of them to be completed. This applies to a collect-a-thon like Super Mario 64, but also a sandbox game like Tony Hawk’s Underground 2.
  • Titles like Darkest Dungeon that let players turn off contentious features, which should optimally include annoyances like quick-time events that can be a hassle to less-abled players.

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Stian: That is somewhat interesting, as it takes away one of the key-elements that defines the Dark Souls series. I am not saying it is necessarily bad, but doesnt it make the mechanics less personal? I remember when Fire Emblem: Awakening introduced the option of toggling off permadeath, which I thought was awful. In a strategy-game with individual and memorable characters that could be worthwhile to your fights, death should not be taken lightly.

However, I actually don’t mind the examples you mentioned. Both A Hat in Time and The Impossible Lair (I am sorry, I do not want to touch the original Yooka-Laylee!) have the tonics as important gameplay mechanics that do not neglect the challenge, just tweak them. The Tony Hawk-series and Super Mario 64 also have a great idea of taking on the challenges you find entertaining for finishing the game, while making the other ones optional for 100% completion. Both still forces the player to do objectives that the game’s mechanics revolve around, but at the player’s pace. I have no true experience with Darkest Dungeon, so I am just gonna agree that QTE is not really a good setup to make a game difficult.

I do believe that these are great examples of difficulty being in the game’s design first and foremost. However, the game still needs to evolve and so must the challenge. Otherwise, there is no thrill or excitement in actually playing the game. Do you agree with this.

Cuphead

Casper: Naturally. Few games would benefit from a difficulty curve being a flat line all throughout. What I am advocating for is not a lowering of difficulty in its entirety, but to give players the tools to sculpt the curve and bend it to their liking. Not through easy-to-abuse tricks that leave players defenseless when they no longer work, not through difficulty modes that turn them into a God, and not through grinds that substitute challenge for tedium. As you say, difficulty should be by design and games that do this well will see their replay value skyrocket. Now, if you excuse me, I might replay the entire Souls series for the 11th time.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Matt says:

    In general, I am ok with games being difficult unless the punishment is not the loss of significant progress. Cuphead is a good example of how it should be done, as the boss battles are so fast-paced and short that you don’t feel like you just wasted a lot of time whenever you die.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Casper says:

      A good example, but how did you feel about the final few battles in Cuphead? I personally felt that King Dice was stretching it a bit, especially with how often I’d finally make it to him only to be wiped away in his first attack.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Matt says:

        Oh yeah, King Dice certainly broke that pattern completely. It was annoying to have to go through a handful of mini-bosses just to get to him and lose.

        Like

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