The Difference Between "Hard" and "Frustrating"
I would like to preface this by saying I love hard games. I love Demon’s Souls and most Atlus games. I play Touhou, though I have only beaten one of them and only on easy mode. I measure difficulty in ‘Megamans’. I do not believe those who play easier games are lesser or inferior, I just like hard games. The thing is, hard is an ambiguous word. A game can be hard for a lot of reasons, but as far as I am concerned, there are two kinds of difficult games: those that are hard and those that are frustrating. As a final preface note, unless stated otherwise, everything discussed in this article is set to the normal difficulty.
Hard games are deliberately hard. They are designed to be difficult, and make you work to complete a level, to get an item, to win a fight or complete a puzzle. They are games like Super Meat Boy that kill you a lot but keep death a quick thing and don’t make a big deal about it, or games like Persona or Megaman that are simply difficult. They are nothing short of challenging, and despite the difficulty I rarely find myself frustrated when playing them. Dying a lot, for example, does not have to be a source of frustration, especially when handled correctly. Demon’s Souls is a great example of this. Death is so frequent it is actually part of the narrative and, more importantly, it is quick. There is no long game over upon death. The character simply falls over and respawns at the beginning of the level. All you lose are your souls, the sort of all-purpose currency/experience you have on hand, and you can always go back to where you died and recollect them.
Shoot-’em-ups in general are an entire genre of games meant to kill players often, but they not only keep deaths quick, picking up exactly where the previous ship left off, but make it possible to recollect nearly all if not all of the power-ups lost. Of course, game overs are a different story, but seeing as the continue option puts you back at the beginning of the level, I have rarely found myself frustrated with them. It may be frustrating to be unable to advance past a certain point on the game, but that is more caused by player skill than faulty level design. Persona 3 and 4are hard games for different reasons. The game keeps you in a constant state of danger, as both your team and all the enemies can catch the other off guard, getting a free turn at the start of a fight. Many enemies have instant-death abilities, can gain extra turns by hitting weaknesses, or they can simply be much stronger than one another (I refer mainly to red-colored enemies). Because this goes both ways, proper planning and tactics can make almost any fight relatively easy, but if you go into a fight at a disadvantage, you can expect the encounter to end badly. Monster Hunter does the same thing, as going into a hunt with the proper tools, weapons, and armour can make it much easier (of course, skill and proficiency with your weapon is just as important), while going in even a little unprepared can spell disaster.
For the challenge hungry like myself, though, there is such a thing as too hard. In an age where many self-proclaimed hardcore gamers constantly complain games are too easy or too simple, the bar for quality difficulty seems to have dropped. People seem to forget that merely because a game is difficult, it is not always a good kind of difficult. Frustration is the main factor. If a game is frustrating it both breaks the immersion and takes all the enjoyment out of playing. Frustrating is when a game’s penalty for failing is not designed around the difficulty, or when the difficulty exists for superficial reasons. It does not have to be the entire game that is frustrating, either. Sometimes within a game there will be only a few scattered moments, but those moments are what separate a good game from a great game or a great game from a near-perfect one.
There is a delicate balance between the hard and the frustrating. The difference can be something as slight as a few seconds added by a death screen, or more often where game-overs make players pick up from. For example, Bayonetta is a game with a fair level of challenge. Not every encounter will leave you dead, but the boss fights take a certain amount of speed and skill and do not forgive mistakes. If I were to categorize it, I would say Bayonetta is more unforgiving than downright hard. The trouble is, these unforgiving moments have proven to be quite frustrating at times because a big deal is made of deaths. You get a slowish fade to a game over screen wherein it slaps a red jolly roger on screen, adding more as you die more throughout a chapter. On top of that, the game grades your performance for each encounter, giving you a medal-based score (stone, bronze, silver, gold, platinum) with a chapter average at the end of each chapter; if there is even one death in a chapter, it automatically defaults your grade to stone. I once had all gold and platinum for a chapter, but a quick-time event had caught me off guard, so despite my performance, I still got a terrible grade at the end. This is less frustrating and more disappointing, but it detracts from the enjoyment of playing the game. Plenty of folk do not care about the grade, and frankly on my first playthroughs they are not important to me, either, but being the kind of person that goes back to play again on harder difficulties and/or with a 100% completion in mind, it detracts from the experience. Persona 3, easily one of my favorite games and one already brought up as a hard game, also has the problem of frustrating deaths, as players can get a game over during long segments where they cannot save, and game overs send you back to the title menu. Overall, it is still a great game I would recommend to almost anyone, but its game overs can be terribly frustrating, no matter how great it is despite them.
I can still thoroughly enjoy a game with imperfect death mechanics, but something that really breaks a game for me is when a game’s difficulty comes from something it should not–something small and superficial that makes a game unnecessarily difficult. I am referring mainly to to games that are difficult or have difficult moments as the result of an imperfect, unpolished, or simply poorly thought out core mechanic. For example, Mirror’s Edge, while a game I liked enough to inspire me to write a brief article relating to it, there are a couple of things about it that made it more troublesome than it needed to be. Overall, it is not a hard game, especially the story mode, but every so often I found myself stuck on some jump or run because the edge-grab mechanic is finicky. There is no grab on button, it is an automatic action, but as a result many long jumps or wall runs were made infuriatingly difficult because Faith would simply not grab a ledge I both knew I could get to and knew I was supposed to grab. Multiple times I found myself needlessly frustrated because I simply could not make it across a couple clearly important gaps.
Both Mirror’s Edge and some of the Silent Hill games have trouble with combat, and though neither encourage fighting, both still have it and it is difficult to get through them without at least a couple of encounters.Mirror’s Edge’s problem is when Faith gets a gun. While first-person, the game is not actually a shooter, and thus the shooting parts feel primitive. As for Silent Hill, I realize they have clunky combat to add to the atmosphere, and most of them do a well enough job of it (I quite liked 2 and 4), but a couple of them could have learned from the others. I find it hard to believe a fully grown adult would have trouble swinging a bit of wood. When the attacks are slower than the sluggish monsters tediously inching towards the character, even combat with the weakest enemy becomes a pain. This would be fine, but the games force combat. Fighting becomes more of a pain than a fear thing, and once it gets to that point the game has lost its appeal.
I love difficult games, but that does not mean I enjoy being stuck in perpetual frustration. Frustrating games tend to be tedious, easily one of the worst adjectives a game can be given. I can only hope Demon’s Souls becomes the standard for hard rather than something more frustrating, and that those little frustrations in otherwise amazing games faze out existence.