One of the Big Stupid Debates in video games is whether games should be “hard” or not. The standard framing is that “easy” games are accessible but shallow, whereas the fact that “hard” games require effort and dedication makes them significant experiences, so the question becomes whether games should be “dumbed down” to appeal to more people or whether games becoming easier means losing the things that actually make them important. The reason this debate is stupid is because the answer is obviously not one or the other; games are allowed to be different things. But it also avoids the more important question of what difficulty actually does.
Let’s start simple. Mario and Mega Man are both games where you control a character who can jump, but only one of them is actually about jumping. What this means is that that jumping in Mario games has mechanics: you can jump farther by getting a running start, bounce off of enemies, etc. Thus, challenging jumps have a point to them. A pit that’s too wide to cross with a regular jump requires the player to learn to do a running jump, which then becomes an ability they can employ in the future. The challenge is interesting because it requires you to learn something.
Mega Man, by contrast, is about shooting; jumping just gives you another option for positioning yourself, so it doesn’t need to have its own mechanics. There’s no acceleration; your jump is a one-note action that always has the same potential height and distance. Despite this, there are instances in Mega Man games where you have to make as wide a jump as you possibly can, and the fact that there are no mechanics involved makes this an uninteresting challenge. You just have to keep trying until you get the pixels in exactly the right place, and once you’ve done it you haven’t learned anything. There’s no takeaway that you can apply to the rest of the game. It’s just a bland obstacle that you got past, and now it’s behind you.
The purpose of difficulty, then, is to require the player to exercise game mechanics. If a Mario game were easy enough that running was never helpful, or a Mega Man game were easy enough that you never had to shoot while jumping, then those mechanics might as well not exist. And difficulty is only justified if it actually does this – gives the mechanics a reason to exist. Otherwise it’s just wasting your time.
There is an extreme overabundance of examples where this is the case, to the point where there are several different categories of cliche on this subject alone. A non-exhaustive list includes: invisible flags triggered by talking to some random NPC, missing an item five screens back and being unable to progress without it, waiting for a random number generator to come up with the right value (or failing because a random number generator came up with the wrong value), custom interactions that don’t follow from the rest of the mechanics, secrets hidden in nondescript locations that can only be found by constant wall-hugging, bad controls and unclear graphics of all kinds, pixel-perfect action requirements, button mashing, insufficient information, unbalanced or opaque customization options, misleading guidance, required actions that don’t make sense in terms of the story (or morals, or common sense), and mandatory grinding. These are all examples of pointless difficulty: the game becomes “hard” in the sense that you have trouble proceeding, but it’s not hard for any good reason. There’s nothing you have to figure out or try to do differently. There’s just a big dumb rock in your way that you have to squeeze around.
(The caveat here is that all of these things – even bad controls – can potentially count as game mechanics if the game is actually designed around them. Randomness, for example, is a valid aspect of many designs, but if you’re going to fail the player randomly, that needs to actually be part of the game and not a mere impediment. It works in roguelikes because the player isn’t supposed to be able to win in general; it doesn’t work in Dragon Quest, where failing just slaps a penalty on you and makes you repeat some stuff you’ve already done.)
As an example of the difference, let’s say you’re playing a combat-focused game and so far you’ve been winning fights by just attacking everything as fast as possible. Then you run into a situation where two enemies are attacking you from different directions, so attacking one of them gets you killed by the other. In this case, the problem isn’t that you aren’t “good enough,” it’s that you need a different strategy. Maybe you have to defend and wait for an opening, or reposition yourself so that you can attack safely. In a situation like this, it’s entirely valid for the game to halt your progress until you’ve figured this out, to ensure that you understand that you’re doin’ it wrong. Offering difficulty mitigation options like being able to skip the area or buy upgrades is straightforwardly wrong here, because it allows the player to progress without learning the thing that the encounter was designed to teach them. On the other hand, if you’re in that same situation and you are doing the right thing, but you’re still failing because you’re not pushing the buttons fast enough or you can’t tell where the hitboxes are, then the game is actually wasting your time.
The reason ultra-hard games are generally bullshit is that the point at which this starts being the case comes very quickly. Once the player has figured out what they need to do, the game needs to stop being a dick about it. To take the most infamous example, I Wanna Be The Guy has basically no mechanics, you just move around and try to put yourself where there isn’t something killing you, so there’s nothing to exercise in the first place. Each challenge teaches you nothing but how to get past that one challenge, which makes the “difficulty” of the game a matter of mere time consumption and nothing else. This isn’t to say it’s poorly designed; on the contrary, it’s a very clear game with specific, understandable challenges. It’s just that the whole thing has no reason to exist in the first place (I mean, it explicitly exists as a fetish object; I hope I don’t have to explain why this is a bad thing).
To sum up, difficulty is a matter of function and not preference. Every game has a correct difficulty level, which can be identified as the point at which the game mechanics are being fully exercised but the player is not being jerked around. We can think of this as an adaptation of Einstein’s old dictum about design: a game should be as easy as possible, and no easier.
But we still haven’t approached the real issue. If we accept that the purpose of difficulty is to require engagement with systems, the question becomes: who cares? Why should we bother forcing people to figure out an arbitrary set of rules and interactions?
This isn’t a theoretical question. One of the major trends in game design right now is games that don’t have mechanics. These games generally focus on story directly rather than wrapping it around a conventional genre design. They include Twine games and the type of exploration-based story games that are derisively referred to as “walking simulators” (that term alone shows you how bad the disconnect is: some people cannot conceive of games as anything other than toy boxes). This trend is a justified reaction to the fact that most game difficulty is bullshit. Worse, there’s an extreme amount of cliquishness (to put it politely) around the whole subject; there are plenty of morons out there claiming that games that don’t consume as much time as possible with pointless punishment “aren’t real games.” Rejecting this attitude is a worthwhile endeavor in itself.
What this means is that difficult games need to have something going on that justifies their difficulty – something that it’s for. Consider a sim game where the player has to make decisions about how to invest their resources. There might be a certain long-term goal that the designer wants the player to aim for, requiring them to save up and go without the smaller advantages that easier goals could provide. This could teach the player the values of patience and discernment: deciding what really matters and focusing on it rather than responding to every intervening distraction. And you could just as easily design the same game to teach the opposite lesson: that responsiveness is more important than meticulous planning. Difficulty is what allows you to do either of these things; it’s what makes one choice right and the other wrong. If the player succeeds no matter what they do, then it doesn’t matter what options they have. Without a specific weight behind each available choice, interaction is nothing but an empty mirror reflecting the player’s own preexisting prejudices. The point of art, if that is indeed what we’re talking about, is not to allow you to indulge your preferences in a way that makes you feel comfortable and entertained. It’s the exact opposite: to force you to experience something that you haven’t felt before, something that makes you uncomfortable, or that scares you, or that hurts.
(This is part of a broader problem wherein American culture considers “having it your way” to be among the highest virtues, when it’s actually borderline nihilism.)
But it’s possible for the same game to be equally difficult without being meaningful. If you’re given two seemingly identical choices as to where to invest your resources, and one of them happens to be better than the other for no real reason, the game can still be “hard” in the sense that you’ll fail if you make the wrong choice, but the choice doesn’t matter in any way other than the game giving you a pat on the head for getting it “right.” A game where you can make all the right choices without understanding why any of them are right is obviously hollow. RPGs, which tend to be among the worst-designed games, are often completely arbitrary in this regard. One attack will be better than all the others, not for any real reason, but just because the random mess of equations on the backend happens to resolve itself in one particular way.
So, difficulty is only justified if it’s based on mechanics, but the mechanics themselves are only justified if they actually mean something. This isn’t any kind of radical interpretation; it’s something we understand intuitively about every other art form. When we refer to a book or movie as “challenging,” we’re not talking about the same thing that we’re talking about when we talk about games. We’re talking about something that actually matters. Everybody understands the difference between a book which is hard to read because it’s trying to express something difficult and a book which is shallow but overwritten because it’s trying to make itself look like a big important art thing. This distinction is what the negative connotation of the term “pretentious” refers to. And most game difficulty is pretentious in this same sense: it gives the appearance of depth when there’s actually nothing there.
Nobody complains about Ulysses being hard to read, because it’s clear that that’s part of the point, and if you’re not into it you’re free to read something else. For games that are correctly difficult, implementing an easy mode makes about as much sense as rewriting Ulysses in plain English. But vanishingly few games are actually like this. The impulse against difficulty is the result of a correct observation: that the vast majority of video game difficulty does nothing but waste people’s time. When people say that they want a hard game to have an easy mode so they can experience the story, they’re usually making a valid claim, because games rarely have anything else going on (plus the story and gameplay rarely have anything to do with each other).
Another way to think of this is that selectable difficulty only makes sense because games aren’t designed well. This is analogous to how swapping out one rhythm track for another in a shitty pop song doesn’t make a difference, because it’s just there to fill space anyway, whereas changing the beat of a song that is actually well-written would ruin it. Having selectable difficulty levels in a game should seem as absurd as having selectable rhythm tracks in a song. Just as good songwriting is the art of turning a succession of noises into something with actual meaning, good design is the art of making mechanics meaningful.
Thinking about things this way broadens the conversation considerably. For one thing, video games are largely fixated on one particular type of difficulty, which is the failure loop. You’re given a challenge, and each time you fail you’re kicked back a bit so you can do it over and over until you succeed. This can be a perfectly valid design if it works according to the criteria we’ve outlined so far, but this one form of difficulty is often taken to be what difficulty in games “is,” when in fact the whole banging-your-head-against-a-wall thing is only one tiny corner in the potential space of game difficulty. We don’t have to let basic gamebros monopolize the concept of difficulty; games can be challenging in meaningful ways. As just a few quick examples:
- Games can be difficult in the same way good stories are: they can present unusual situations and evoke complex emotions that require effort to understand. Mechanics and interactivity can be used to convey different aspects of the story. So all those “easy” story games are actually harder than “hard” games in the way that actually matters: putting effort into them allows you to get something meaningful out of them. People complaining about story games they don’t understand are actually complaining because those games are too hard for them.
- You can have a game where it’s easy to win battles but hard to win the war. That is, actions in a game can be easy to execute but difficult to plan. Sim games tend to be like this: instead of immediately punishing you for each mistake, things just gradually get harder as you lose momentum. This allows you to keep playing and experimenting while also organically revealing the pros and cons of your chosen approach. The difficulty, then, can be in figuring out a goal that you actually want to go for rather than merely divining the series of inputs that will earn you a gold star.
- Some games can be thought of as performances: you always get through them each time you play, but the goal is to learn how to play well, where “well” does not necessarily have a strict objective definition. Rock Band would work this way if it didn’t have scoring mechanics; Rhythm Heaven gets closer, in that you can’t fail mid-song, but it still expects you to play “perfectly.” Speedrunning imposes this kind of difficulty on games that wouldn’t otherwise have it; style and creativity become more important than mere completion. A game could be designed to support performance in a creative way rather than merely tying it to a number.
- Aesthetics can make actions difficult to complete for emotional rather than mental or physical reasons. The classic example is the end of the last boss fight in Metal Gear Solid 3, where all you have to do is press one button, but the thing that pressing that button represents makes it hard to actually go through with it. This is just an example of this effect being used in one tiny place; imagine an entire game where your actions regularly had this kind of emotional weight.
It also has to be said that the failure loop has a particular dark side, as revealed by recent unpleasant events. What’s always been odd about the Saddest War is the ratio of how obsessive those fuckers are to how little they actually have to be upset about. Like, with other groups of reactionaries you can sort of get why they lose their shit; old-style Christian patriarchy, for example, really is on the way out and fundamentalists really do have to fight tooth and nail if they want to preserve it. But the market for dumb pandering action games isn’t in any danger, because the people doing feminist criticism and making experimental story games are a completely different audience (this is what the “gamers are over” article was actually about: the fact that there are other audiences). So the fervor of these particular reactionaries requires a different explanation, and the particular content of the games they’re so devoted to is the obvious place to look for it. Many Saddest Warriors have explicitly stated that they’ve been “trained” to do what they’re doing by the experience of obsessively overcoming challenges in video games (which, hilariously, is the exact argument that used to be advanced in favor of censoring violent video games), and their actions bear this out: they’re still banging their heads against that same wall, even while basically everything else in society strongly indicates that they’re wasting their time. And while it’s only a tiny minority of players who are acting this way, the unavoidable conclusion is that the failure loop really does contain the danger of getting you stuck in a rut, even when what you’re doing is objectively moronic.
So because “difficulty” is currently taken to be its own thing rather than one component of a worthwhile goal, talking about “necessary” difficulty at this point puts the cart several miles ahead of the horse. The horse is meaning. This is obvious once you recognize that being good at video games isn’t actually good for anything, but some people have trouble getting to that first step.
The unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of games right now aren’t actually good enough to compel any particular type of design. If they were, there wouldn’t be a problem. A good book that’s also challenging to read isn’t a problem because it’s worth it, and the fact that everyone understands this is why there isn’t a big dumb debate about it. People make their own individual decisions as to what they want to bother with, and everyone’s happy. In contrast, the people who want easy modes added to hard games so they can play them are wrong, not because there would be anything wrong with doing that, but because the better response to this situation is to find something better to do with your time. And the people who want games to stay hard so that they stay meaningful are also wrong, because difficulty itself doesn’t make an experience meaningful. The fact that people like this derive self-worth from meeting arbitrary challenges is a character flaw that they should be working to overcome rather than defending.
As it stands, the things that are hard about real life – choosing long-term goals based on limited information, dealing with people who are fundamentally different from you, making moral choices within an immoral system – are not only absent from video games, they’re all replaced by their exact opposites. Goals are always given to you, you never have to figure them out. You’re the only person who matters, and everyone else is just an instrument on the way to the good ending. And, worst of all, the system is always right. If there are level-ups, it’s always right to level as much as possible. If there are collectibles, you should always collect all of them by any means necessary. And if there are things that you can kill, you’d better get killing.
Games don’t need to get easier or harder. They need to get good.