Let games be as challenging as they need to be
In a terrifying piece on the future of video games, Steve Fulton describes the rise of the hardcore and how developers are reconstructing the challenge of yesteryear to make games that matter. It’s a piece that scares and confuses me. I’ve been playing games that matter for years.
My favorite game is Kirby’s Adventure. It was released post-Super Mario Bros. 3 and Dragon Quest III, two games that championed approachable difficulty levels after their challenging sophomore efforts. While games were taking steps towards a more level-playing field in terms of difficulty, it was Kirby’s Adventure that went hog wild and took the approach to the extreme. 1993 also saw the release of Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, sequel to the impossible Battletoads on NES, and it was just as difficult as the original. Games still had a rocky road ahead of them but Kirby’s Adventure was an important first step.
In today’s market, though, games are too easy, apparently. Easy is a difficult word. I would argue that the games of today are more concerned with being fair than relying on cheap deaths and save points. Automated saving or save-whenever-you-want-to systems, regenerating health, and a natural understanding of how games work thanks to the passage of time have made games more approachable, alongside a myriad of other factors, too.
But the balance is difficult to manage. Mass Effect 2 removed a considerable amount of mechanics from the original in an effort to appeal to a broader audience. Missions were more guided and predictable, following a familiar loop of talk, shoot, talk with clear indications of what was coming next to make sure you could prepare in time. The galaxy felt smaller and more constrained.
As Fulton points out, there’s been a reaction to the more guided experiences of this generation. Hyper-difficult games like Dark Souls and The Binding of Isaac have found success despite the whims of the market place. These are games that revel in the oblique.
Which is great. I was worried that difficult games had fallen out of fashion. If gaming is for everybody then it must be said there should be games for every person of every skill level. I might not have the patience to enjoy hyper-difficult games, but I’m happy that they can be enjoyed at the very least.
My gripe with Fulton is his stance that “real games make you work for your bread”. What if I don’t want to work hard for my bread? There is a sense of accomplishment in games when I’m not challenged. It’s why Lego and toy figurines have endured as the quintessential children’s toy: they ask nothing of the participant other than a profound imagination. Why are we obsessed with bubble wrap? Why do kids find more entertainment in the cardboard box a game came in rather than the game itself? Because we enjoy simply interacting with things. Put us in a virtual environment where we can wander around and touch things and we’ll find something to entertain ourselves with. I’ve found an immense sense of purpose in the most mundane of video games. Yes, challenge can be important for some games but it’s certainly not applicable to all games.
It makes sense that DayZ is punishing because it’s about an apocalyptic scenario where humanity is forced to face its darkest demons. The Binding of Isaac alludes to the biblical story of the same name in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. These games are meant to be exhausting. They’re not happy experiences.
If we take Fulton’s argument to its logical, raging extreme we’ll ultimately be looking at a space where the only games we see released cater to one specific group. A place where all games evoke the same emotional response of triumphing an impossible hurdle. While that’s satisfying, we miss out on so much by focusing exclusively on this familiar tribal response.
What we should be doing is separating difficulty as a standard aspect of video game criticism. Like the regimented scoring criteria of Graphics, Audio, Gameplay, and Replay Value insane video game critics used not too long ago (and still do sometimes, regrettably), difficulty is no longer relevant at every interval. If we want a game to be difficult when it doesn’t need to be then we have to identify why we think it should be difficult in the first place and be super careful it’s not for some preexisting bias. This will vary wildly from person to person but it should at least promote good reasoning as to why we’re criticizing a game for being too easy or too hard.
Or maybe we can start using Difficulty as a framework to analyze games with? The definition would need to be severely updated from how we’re using it today, of course, but it could lead to some wonderful insight.
But Kirby’s Adventure doesn’t need to be difficult. Kirby’s Adventure is wonderful because it embraces its dream-like setting and creates a playground filled with opportunity and metamorphosis. It gives you the building blocks of the world and lets you play with it all free from the looming threat of defeat. I want these types of game to exist.
Does this mean that I want all games to be like this? No. You can’t apply the same approach to every game that comes out because every game, and every player, wants different things. The only reason that difficulty is mentioned in the same breath as Dark Souls, Binding of Isaac, and DayZ is that it’s an inherent part of each of those games. Kirby games are easy because they’re meant to be a relaxing dream.
So, let’s have games with appropriate levels of difficulty. If a game wants to be easy, let it be easy. Let easy games challenge other aspects of the human experience. Let easy games challenge the cliché that the best games ever made were those in the past when a high degree of difficulty was the norm.
Because do we really want to live in a world without Animal Crossing or Boku no Natsuyasumi? Do we really want to ruin the enjoyment other people find in their play?