Can a game be too hard? Well obviously yes, but that question is missing the point. There’s always opportunity for a game to be as hard as a week old bagel, but if it feels fair and the player feels as if they are improving then the game will still be fun regardless. On the other hand, an easy game can also still be fun if designed so as to not become boring. Video games will always have an audience that are not interested in a huge challenge and will not like being introduced to harder games. That being said, a game’s difficulty is not tied to its quality.
I spent most of my youth playing games on a Sega Mega Drive, back in the day when it was a given that every game had a choice of difficulty. I would ALWAYS choose the easiest difficulty, being scared of the potential challenge. Since then, I grew up and discovered games like Super Meat Boy and my attitudes have changed drastically. I started to feel like if I didn’t choose the hardest difficulty in a game, then I was missing out on the core experience it had to offer. These days, while I feel I’m a bit more mature and don’t put so much importance on it, I still understand the significance of a challenge. It was Dark Souls that made me really think about difficulty as an important part of game design. A difficult game makes you think about it more, it allows you to become more immersed in its mechanics. Walking through a game as if god mode is on can be satisfying, sure, but not nearly as rewarding as the alternative.
When people think of hard games they often think of games labelled as “Nintendo Hard”. Most games of that era were hard due to either poor design or a shameless attempt to pad out the runtime of an otherwise short game like Castlevania. They weren’t designed with the intention of being a fun challenging game in mind. This is where I think the idea that games can be too hard to be enjoyed comes from. Today you don’t really see games that punish you by making you start all over again when you have died an arbitrary amount of times. And you definitely don’t see games like Independence Day on the PS1 with merely four missions made longer with unfair deaths or time limits. Yes I’m STILL bitter about it, what of it?
Having said that, Desert Strike on Mega Drive was and still is one of my favourite games of all time, despite it being only four missions long. Yes it was brutally hard, and yes I still have not finished it to this day, but it was just so much fun and so damn rewarding when I did finally beat that first mission, followed by the feeling of being a god when I beat the second mission. One day I will have you, third mission, oh yes I will. The difference in the case of Desert Strike is that the game was actually hard by design, not unfair with the illusion of challenge. Of course there are games designed to be unfair on purpose such as I Wanna Be the Guy, but I would still argue games like those are designed pretty terribly. Intent does not excuse poor game design.
But then we also have games like Dark Souls, good games with its difficulty intelligently considered into its design. If a player dies in Dark Souls, they really feel the consequences of losing all of their hard-earned souls. Anyone who has died twice right after beating a boss will know the pain I’m talking about all too well. This forces the player to play the game with more caution, making them get better at the game and feel a proper sense of achievement when they overcome a difficult challenge. It ends up making gamers like me who have beaten it to talk about the accomplishment in the same way that people talk about climbing to the top of Mt Everest.
There is the flipside to that feeling however, that being the feeling of utter frustration before you truly “get gud”. Although the feeling of wanting to hurl a controller at your cat because another Dark Souls boss decided to use his most powerful move on you while you were trying to heal is annoying, you do at least get the opportunity to regain what souls you lost to that cheap, stupid death. It is this concept of balancing the consequence of failing with the difficulty of the task at hand that needs to be considered when making a hard game that is still enjoyable.
Games like the lip-vibratingly titled VVVVVV or Super Meat Boy are great examples of games that are painfully hard but make sure that the consequences of failing is losing about 30 seconds of progress at worst before you are respawned instantly. There’s no waiting through an overly tortured “You Died” screen along with some animation that looks like the main character needed to have a little lie down from the stressful day he’s having. This means you can try again right away, and even though it’s hard, if you do it enough times you can still succeed and enjoy the game. In fact, in Super Meat Boy you get a nice little replay that simultaneously shows you all your deaths as well as your victory, making you feel like a total bad-ass for overcoming the challenge.
There is one section of VVVVVV that is worth pointing out to explain how it is still enjoyable despite its incredible challenge; that being the truly maddening entitled “Veni Vidi Vici”. This section takes most people hours of repeating the same 10 second sequence in order to beat, but it’s also a section that is entirely optional and only for the 100 percent completionists. But despite its incredible difficulty, the ability to start again instantly allows players like me to beat it; take THAT Everest conquerors!
I have often felt that a game should be as difficult as it was designed to be. It just seems like giving people an option to change the game’s difficulty is taking away from the intended experience of the designer. I can understand how my own reasoning is flawed however. If a game is designed from the ground up to include varying difficulty levels, it can work quite well and usually get players interested in playing it over again at a higher difficulty, adding replay value to a beaten game. Having said that, I much prefer the idea of optional challenges like the optional Veni Vidi Vici challenge I mentioned earlier, or the Emerald Weapon and Ruby Weapon bosses from Final Fantasy VII that end up being harder than the actual final boss of the game. This allows people who have thoroughly mastered the game to enjoy a greater challenge without punishing players who are more interested in just completing the story, otherwise known as players who need to “git gud”. To me, this is a better way to reward players who want a greater challenge without sticking an arbitrary difficulty wall in the middle of the main experience for those who don’t.
Difficulty should never be considered an alternative to good game design, nor should it be a factor that affects whether people play and enjoy a game.
-Written By Nathan Merry