How Should We Discuss Game Difficulty?

Why should games be hard? I think this a question that needs asking more than people tend to think it should be. There has been this unspoken assumption that a good game should present a challenge, something the player should overcome, because good design is inherent to the satisfaction of doing something tricky. Now, in some cases, this is true, but as a universal truth applied to the whole medium, it rings fairly hollow. This statement tends to belie a problem in games discussion, in that games are thought of as many separate parts. You attach different difficulties to different gameplay and attach that to a different story and context and you have a whole game, right? Of course, I don’t think anyone would assume thinking of games like that is healthy, but I think difficulty tends to get tripped up here, with how it can usually be slightly more modular, what with different levels in each game. We often talk about difficulty as some matter of fact thing, where hard is “satisfying”, but in reality, difficulty is a lot more complicated than that, and we need to start talking about it that way.

I think it’ll be useful to start with where this obsession with difficulty has come from: in pure design terms, it did come from an arcade era, where games needed to be difficult in order to make a profit. However, I don’t think that’s why a mindset of “difficulty = good” has prospered: nobody is arguing for life systems or pay to play games to make a comeback, people aren’t blindly nostalgic. I think difficulty has this special place because it is very easy to tie self value and identity into it, that people feel like being able to play a hard game is important and special. You feel good when you beat a hard challenge: this is part of why these games have a lot of value, actually, because that feeling is really worthwhile. However, with it being such a prominent part of games for so long, and with people getting quite good at a hobby they enjoy, a certain mindset unfortunately starts to present itself, the idea that one needs to keep this hobby hard to maintain this prestige a person’s placed upon themselves. If games offer more kinds of difficulty or difficulty scaling, then that’s clearly devaluing my accomplishments… yeah it’s silly logic, but it is worthwhile to examine to understand why difficulty has always remained a sort of sacred thing in the medium. That’s not to say challenge hasn’t remained in the medium for many good reasons, it’s just that when it comes to how we discuss things, there’s always a lot of resistance to the idea of changing our assumptions around it.

What issues does this bring up, then? I think the main problem brought up by difficulty as an assumed good in games is the shoehorning of it into games that really, really do not benefit from it. And I don’t mean like, games that have a certain aesthetic: any aesthetic can work with almost any mechanics, really. I mean that the overall flow and pacing of an experience can be really negatively impacted with difficulty not carefully considered. Consider a game where part of the overall charm and experience is something like enjoying a really good art direction, where each area is artistically wonderful and taking it in is one of the biggest reasons to play the game. A high difficulty risks going against this, stopping your experience of new art and trapping you in one particular area, blocking you off from the engaging aspect of seeing more of this wonderful art. Instead of seeing more, you’re stuck on one part, seeing the same place and style over and over, maybe even for hours. That’d probably seriously impact the experience if it wasn’t explicitly designed for in the process! Difficulty is not this inherent good, and I think it’s worth discussing how difficulty makes a game feel a certain way or if it has positive or negative benefits. A game being too hard can be a serious design problem. 

And if you want to see how disastrously wrong difficulty applied badly can go, I am still of the opinion that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game that suffers greatly for being difficult. I am saying this as someone who loves Dark Souls and Bloodborne, so trust me, when it comes to difficulty from From Software specifically, I am not one to shy away easily, but wow, I’m still disappointed in this one. Sekiro is not enhanced by being as hard as it is, and in fact is probably made worse because of it. The main problem Sekiro runs into is a lack of stuff to do beyond a boss fight when you’re stuck on one. Think of the gameplay loop at a hard Dark Souls boss, where you do have options: you can visit a different area, or grind enemies for some small stat boosts, or even try a different weapon if you feel so inclined. You have things to think about, try, and consider: Dark Souls definitely did not always get this right, but these small elements made roadblocks feel not like complete walls. The gameplay loop of Sekiro, however, does not allow for this. There are no stat upgrades to grind for, no different weapons or builds to try, and somewhat limited alternate areas, meaning that for the most part, when you’re stuck on a hard boss, all you can do is that one boss, and it is demoralizing. The difficulty doesn’t add to the world or make the gameplay flow feel more engaging, but on the contrary, it throws up endless obstacles to beating the game that give little room to breath or work around. The feeling of being a cool samurai isn’t enhanced by being stuck on a damn monkey boss for hours on end: it just makes you feel hopeless and frustrated. That is the main issue with Sekiro, the difficulty does not make you feel accomplished, it makes you feel stuck. It is a pure execution barrier with no workarounds or ways to try another tactic, and without a smooth effort to funnel the player into quick and easy retries (a la Super Meat Boy) the game at times feels like more of a slog than it really should. 

I don’t want this to be all negative, though, so where difficulty actually works great in harmony with the game design is the roguelike genre, too many to name really. This genre, when done right, is a great showing as to why difficulty is something to be considered, because the difficulty of a lot of roguelikes is not an external element, but something vital to the core design. The whole concept of this genre is that you’re endlessly retrying randomly generated levels, and a proper “run” of these games is usually much shorter, as it takes less than an hour to actually beat the end goal most of the time. If you could just blaze through it, you wouldn’t get to see what makes roguelikes cool! You wouldn’t have a good motivation to see changing level layouts or interesting character build opportunities, none of that. What makes a roguelike good is the endless variation that a seemingly small game space can make, and without some sort of buffer in between you and “finishing” it, many people would get to the end once and feel their motivation to keep going disappear.  The difficulty here is integral to the whole idea of many games within the genre, and it’s the reason why roguelikes have a reputation for being harder than most games: they work well within that design space. That’s not to say an easier roguelike can’t be made, but more that you’d have to change a lot of the design to make it work. Difficulty is not some modular element to be slapped onto a game thoughtlessly, is what I’m trying to get at here. It’s a core element of what games are and feeds back into the design of them at every turn.

On another level, I think it’s important too for there to be a wider understanding of how difficulty as a mechanical element of a game can impact other areas. Kirby’s Epic Yarn, famously a game that will not let you die at all, actually does this really well, because the overall aesthetic and tone of the game flows in very well with that casual and easy difficulty. Nothing feels dissonant here, so the overall feel of the game is intentionally easy to fall into. On the other hand, a hard game with a cutesy aesthetic could intentionally contrast those two elements, creating a fun dissonance that the game leans into for a memorable feeling. I Wanna Be The Guy famously did this, and while nobody remembers the art style on its own, everyone remembers how goofy that art style feels in the face of the brutal gameplay, making it really memorable. Difficulty can also factor into story and thematics: Dark Souls is a game series about cycles and the futile feeling of them, and mirroring that in the endless cycle of dying to a brutal world in the mechanics is something that almost everyone ends up commenting upon. It can even foster community in interesting, external ways! Street Fighter 2 encouraged local knowledge sharing and community meetups in the arcade due to the complex and difficult nature of the fighting mechanics, while Animal Crossing in a modern era encourages the online sharing of creative projects with almost no barrier to entry. Difficulty matters in so many ways, and obviously game designers get this. There’s no way they don’t!

What I’m arguing here is that we, as an audience to this work, need to be discussing this better, not talking about gameplay as some sort of external element that has an objectively better state. When we talk about a game being hard, it shouldn’t just be a matter of fact statement, we should care about why a game is hard, what it adds, and what purpose it serves beyond a vague sense of accomplishment. I don’t want a repeat of reviews like Cuphead, where every review talked about how it was “hard and worthwhile” without ever expanding on why it was good that it was hard. Reviewers could have talked about how they felt the difficulty was dissonant or fit in, how it impacted the overall flow, how it interacted with the aesthetic and tone. None of that was talked about quite often, and I find it a little depressing that games like that get immortalized as “hard” with no qualifiers or critical thought as to why it was designed that way. A better dialogue with difficulty as something inherent to the very design of the game is needed, and we need to change the tone here to just take difficulty as something that is never inherently better one way or another. Why is this game hard? Was that the right choice for this game? Did it make the experience better, conflict with other aspects, change how you thought about the story, frustrate the pacing, like, any of this! I don’t want essays on difficulty, but I want something beyond “I felt rewarded because it was hard” as the final word on game difficulty.

Games are going to move forward, do cool stuff with difficulty, and find better, more creative ways to integrate it into the overall perspective. Shouldn’t we be able to move forward in our discussions at the same time? I’ve heard some cool stuff: I’ve heard a reviewer mention that easier modes of difficulty in Doom Eternal made them buy into the power fantasy more. I’ve also heard how the difficulty + assist mode in Celeste made many players buy even more into the themes of struggle and support in that struggle. I want these experiences voiced, and I want to discuss why difficulty makes our experiences better or worse. Hard is not always rewarding, nor is it some external element that can be applied everywhere. It’s a core part of game design nowadays: so let’s act like it.

Thanks very much to my lovely patrons, and a very special thanks to Acelin,  Cynamon, emma space, Jane Wick, Kelli Mariella K, MerrylBerryl, Modnar, Shaun Adarkar, and Sinon Lynx.

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Author: Queenie

A trans girl who has things to say

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