Modern gaming has found itself in a funny place. Due in part to the bloated budgets that many games have, developers seem to want people to see all of their game. In doing so, games are now shorter, less dense, and, by and large, easier.
In response to this, a movement has arisen by which games are designed to be difficult. Games such as Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, and others use their difficulty as a way to draw in gamers who find themselves unchallenged by most modern games, using slogans such as “You Will Die” as a way to showcase their difficulty and hardcore nature. As a result, “hard games” are a rapidly growing subgenre that is filling a need that gamers have. Many gamers want deep and difficult experiences to challenge the limits of their problem solving skills, hand-eye coordination, and mastery of a game’s mechanics.
However, a problem has arisen out of this need for “difficulty.” Some developers have a much better grip on difficulty than others, and design mistakes are being made repeatedly in the name of making a game “hard.”
I want to present to you three design choices that can make the difference between a frustratingly hard game, and a game that is hard, but fun and rewarding.
Problem #1-Control Consistency
In my review of Deadlight, I failed to mention the amount of times that I died while playing the game. I wanted to, but explaining exactly why this was bad would have made the review way too long. Deadlight was inspired by games such as Limbo and Super Meat Boy, and will often find itself being compared to those games when being described. Deadlight brings the numerous deaths of those games, but it’s missing one key element that doesn’t allow its difficulty to be fun.
The controls in Deadlight aren’t nearly as precise as the game asks you to be. When transitioning from moving to trying to jump straight up, for example, I found that the game required an extra beat or two before I would be able to jump straight up to a platform above me. If I didn’t wait, the character would leap forward, usually putting me into harm’s way. I died numerous times from this, especially once the game forces you to execute precise movements under duress. A game testing your mastery of its controls would demand precision under duress, and that is something that can make a game fun. The idea of nailing specific actions in a game under extreme duress is a tried and true mechanic, dating back to the days of the NES. Super Mario Brothers had a time limit to force you to move somewhat quickly, and, when that failed, the level would scroll under your feet, adding more pressure to the gameplay. Completing a perfect run through a level while outrunning the screen was an accomplishment, but it was only possible because you knew exactly what Mario was going to do when you executed certain commands. Deadlight, on the other hand, does not afford the player this same courtesy. When using the axe to fight zombies, for example, the game establishes that hitting the zombies with the butt of the axe will cause them to fall, allowing you to quickly move past them. However, this is not consistent. There will be times that the zombies don’t fall, and there’s no indication to the player what caused the sudden change. Being that the game forces you into combat situations more and more often as you progress, these issues pop up repeatedly and are a constant source of frustration the further you progress.
Problem #2-Impossible Situations
Dark Souls is one of my favorite games of this generation. Its predecessor, Demons Souls, was the first original mainstream title of this generation to be actively lauded for its difficulty. One of the main tenets of the Souls games is that if you are entering an area for the first time, you need to keep your shield up (if you have one) and always be acutely aware of your surroundings. There are traps upon traps upon traps in those games, but they’re all telegraphed if you’re paying attention. The game introduces itself by killing you, early and often. Enemies that appear to be early-game fodder for training can easily take you apart, and those early lessons teach you that no enemy is to be taken lightly. If the player is playing either of these games in the normal third-person adventuring fashion, these enemies and situations can appear to be impossible. They are not. There is nothing that happens in the Souls games that the player cannot see or hear coming, and there are few deaths that could ever be categorized as “cheap.” Sometimes the way out of a situation is so difficult as to be absurd, but there is almost always a way out without dying.
However, there are some games that you simply must die in order to figure out what to do. You need to try the wrong thing over and over until you figure out the exact way the developer wants you to do something. Difficult games are fun when they allow the player to explore and experiment without feeling arbitrarily held back. They cross the line, however, when a situation is designed to kill you the first time you go through it. Things like having the floor instantly fall out from underneath you, or having an enemy burst through a door that you cannot see, or lulling players into a false sense of security only to kill them are things that make games feel unfair. In a properly designed difficult game, all of the deaths should be able to be explained in a way that makes internal sense within the game world.
Super Meat Boy works so well because in addition its mechanical prowess, the punishment for death is light. Sure, you have to start the level over, but respawning is instantaneous, and the game’s replay system allows you to literally see your progression throughout the level. It’s ingenious. Limbo kept death light by having the player die in the most gruesome and somewhat hilarious way possible. Saws would chop the player into bits, giant spiders would impale you with their appendages, and other assorted things would make you wince and say “ooh!” every time you died. The deaths were the way the game released tension, as the player would be under such pressure until a death occurred (usually accompanied by a loud noise), mimicking a horror movie’s rhythm of creating and releasing tension.
The Souls games also made death interesting by making it a part of the mechanic of the game. Dying does not stop your progress. It merely delays it, and if you can make your way back to where you died, you are rewarded with retaining all of the experience that you obtained prior to dying. Some of the most thrilling moments in the game are making your way back to your bloodstain and escaping with your life and experience intact. Additionally, there are different perks that come from being “dead” as opposed to being “alive,” causing some high-level players to purposely kill themselves as a strategy.
As long as developers can give players the tools to be as precise as they need to be, don’t put them in impossible situations, and make the process of dying rewarding, then a game designed around difficulty should be fun. My fear, however, is that many designers will misinterpret players’ desire for difficulty as a sign that they should design their games to kill gamers or impede their progress in a cheap or unfair way.
There is a thin line between games that are difficult but fun and games that are difficult and maddening. By paying careful attention to some of the problems of their contemporaries, talented game designers will continue to make rewarding games, while lazy or less talented developers will be rightfully scorned.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.