Difficulty is Hard
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #127. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Here’s the Thing is where Rob dumps his random thoughts and strong opinions on all manner of nerdy subjects – from videogames and movies to board games and toys.
Everybody has their own reasons for playing videogames. Maybe they want to relax and zone out; maybe they want to feel like a hero; maybe they like to chase high scores; or maybe they want to be able to brag about how they beat a Very Difficult Game. Here’s the thing: I love a good challenge, much like many people who play games, but making something actually a challenge and not just bullshit shenanigans (bullshitnanigans?) is a huge challenge all on its own.
Granted I know talking about this stuff means a bunch of people will accuse me of needing to “get gud” and whatnot but that’s fine. I don’t need to justify or prove my ability to play a game on Impossible mode or what-the-fuck-ever to anybody. The fact remains that a lot of things people call “difficult” isn’t difficult so much as tedious and annoying. I’m looking at you, Hibari from River City Girls.
For as much as I’ve been loving the game, and playing it co-op with Diana, Hibari is a great example of bullshit. There is a level of normal challenge to her boss fight, sure, but where it falls apart is that god damn hairpin. She floats in the air and the only way to get her down to punching range is to wait for her to prep her hairpin attack, then dodge out of the way so it misses and bounces back to hit her. Thing is, this is usually happening while multiple smaller enemies are coming after you from both sides. And on top of that, the pin works on PONG rules so if you don’t get the angle right it’ll either miss hitting the boss or will bounce around too many times and disappear before it reaches her. This. Is. Bullshit.
Anyway yeah, making a game actually a (fair) challenge without resorting to “bullshitnanigans” requires a ton of adjustments and fine-tuning. And of course one person might think things are perfect and someone else might say things are too easy, so it’s basically a no-win scenario on top of that. But the thing is when that balance is well and truly struck, without resorting to by-the-numbers design methods like making enemies damage sponges or throwing six dozen elements on the screen at once so one would have to literally slow time to be able to visually keep track of it all, it feels amazing. And I don’t mean “Oh this is good because I didn’t fail at all” or anything like that. Failing can still be fun and rewarding, so long as it feels earned.
Failing can still be fun and rewarding, so long as it feels earned.
Now I know I’ve griped about how Dark Souls annoys me because occasionally it feels like it doesn’t respect my goddamn time, but an aspect of difficulty it gets extremely right is giving players opportunities to avoid what could otherwise be seen as unfair situations. Traps, ambushes and so on can almost always be spotted in advance if you’re paying attention to the environment. The game doesn’t simply blindside players out of nowhere but rather hints at what might happen if they haphazardly run into . . . well . . . just about any room, really. Again, this is a good way to approach difficulty. Similar to how the best action games have enemies with little animation tells or sounds to clue players in on what attacks they might be about to use. It’s still a challenge, certainly, but it’s a fair challenge.
I have no idea how many examples of bad difficulty are due to inexperience or a lack of time to polish or studio mandate or whatever, but it happens a lot and it can ruin peoples’ fun. The challenge shouldn’t come from needing to out-stubborn the game or trial-and-error memorization or straight-up luck. That’s not a challenge, that’s just bad implementation.
Rob Rich is a guy who’s loved video games since the ’80s, and has had the good fortune of being able to write about them. The same goes for other nerdy stuff from Anime to Godzilla, and from Power Rangers toys to Transformers. He gave up on Twitter, because Twitter is garbage, but you can still find him on Instagram and Mastodon.