(Andy's note: this was originally written as a submission for Escapist magazine. However, I never finished it and obviously was never actually sent. I hope you enjoy it)
We've seen a good deal of "hard" games recently. The kind of games that punish you for small mistakes, the ones that don't have a save feature, permadeath, limited lives and other small restrictions. Why are these games so common nowadays? Where were they hiding all these years? And more importantly, why do we like them so much?
A bit of history
For the older crowd, the ones like me that started gaming in the 80's and 90's, difficult games were the norm rather than the exception. Many of these games were designed difficult just to get the player to spend more coins at the arcade. Think of early beat-em ups like Final Fight that pit you against hordes of baddies to save the damsel in distress. Think of Rogue and its hellish difficulty, where everything can and will kill you.
This early difficulty translated into consoles. Maybe it was because game designers were used to making hard games, maybe because they consciously wanted difficult games in their living rooms. Maybe it was because of technological reasons, limited processing power or whatever else. Maybe, as some have pointed out before me, it's because of bad game design. I lack adequate data to tell precisely why there were so many difficult games in that console generation to warrant its own trope name: Nintendo Hard (Warning: TVTropes link; you might end up wasting the rest of your day there)
What I know is that many of these famous games have a few core principles behind them, namely:
- Clear and concise objectives: Go right until you reach the end of the level. Defeat or avoid enemies that stand in your way. Rinse and repeat.
- Simple mechanics: Move around with the directional buttons. Jump, shoot, jump while shooting.
- Progressive difficulty: The first level will test whether you remember the mechanics. The last level will test whether you've mastered them.
So you have a clear goal, a clear way of achieving that goal and a series of tests on your abilities. There are no achievements, no way of tracking and displaying ("sharing") your progress with the world except for a photograph taken with a cheap Kodak and a letter to a videogame magazine, hoping to make it somewhere in the pages of next month's issue.
A bit of science
It's no secret that our brains are made for learning pretty much everything. At some time in our species' past we developed a part of our brains called the Frontal Cortex (or Frontal Lobe). Among its functions, it serves as a simulator of sorts: it lets us "predict" the future based on our actions.
Imagine that you're on the stereotypical African savanna some 200,000 years ago. A few weeks ago you saw a young wildebeest being eaten by a crocodile when it tried to cross a river. Your Frontal Lobe is able to recall this scenario and is able to test a number of possible outcomes without you having to cross the river yourself. It will use any relevant memories to try and piece what would happen if you try to cross the river at night or at noon, if you cross it here or a few miles upriver.
To us Homo sapiens sapiens this looks like a trivial thing to do: "Of course I can imagine what would happen, it's called common sense!" you might argue, and with good reason. The thing is that not every animal has this capacity and almost none has developed it quite like we have. Our species has grown used to this ability like no other in this planet: it's one of the cornerstones of scientific thought.
A bit of a mix
What does the brain have to do with all this? Everything. Being able to make a precise simulation in our head was a critical reason why we managed to thrive in an environment where pretty much everything was larger, faster and stronger than us. Good simulations led to good plans, which led to better results than trial-and-error alone. This is why we get an instinctive kick out of figuring things out.
Look at anyone mildly competent in sports. Even though there's a general course of action (get the ball through the line/hoop) it's impossible to memorize every single possible scenario. The brain uses any information available and makes a plan based on what is expected to get a good result and what isn't: Rodman is covered, Pippen is alone but in an odd position, Jordan is free and in position to take a shot. A 3-pointer later, you get credited with an assist, a high five from His Airness and a rush of dopamine. Feels good, doesn't it?
You might start to see the similarities with the list I made some paragraphs above: a clear goal and a clear way to achieve it. Difficulty, in this case, is completely unpredictable and will keep you on your toes (unless you're clearly superior to your opponent)
From old to new
Let's get back to old, hardcore videogames. Mario can only take one hit before dying, two if he's got a power-up and has to complete the level in no more than 300 seconds, an analog to basketball's 24 second rule which itself is an analog to literally having a predator on your tail. There's a certain pressure not only to achieving your goal, but to do it quickly, lest you give the other team the ball or your organs to the big cat.
These abilities are skills. By definition, we aren't born with these, rather we learn to perform them and, when solving a particular problem, we get better at it and feel good about it. In older games, you could fly past every level if you memorized the entire layout and position of your enemies, but even doing so required mastering a particular skill to a great degree.
As years passed, videogames slowly got out of the nerds-only domain and into the mainstream of entertainment, but this transition didn't happen by magic and it didn't happen because everything stayed the same. I don't know the causes of this rise to popularity, but I know at least one of its consequences: a set of profound changes to the language and communication between videogame and player.
As many have pointed out before me, many relatively modern games suffer from excessive nannying: the game treats its users as people who can't figure out patterns, solve basic puzzles and even brute-force solutions to the challenges presented by developers. In a way, this was a necessary step to gather more customers (namely, those new to gaming). Certain patterns in a videogame are obvious to those accustomed to a genre and fly over the heads of those without previous experience. For example, read this awesome MetaFilter thread about a guy who has never played any FPS in his life.
So a good part of the developers' efforts were directed towards attracting new people, those who maybe didn't grow up with a controller in their hands and were buying their first console in its 5th, 6th or even 7th generation. It's a sensible economic decision: get more customers, since the old ones will most likely stay.
But this came to a price: some of us (myself included) gradually lost the sense of urgency and reward of old games. If you fail you can respawn at the latest autosave point and eventually beat that enemy. Even though it's a victory, it has an aftertaste of grinding, of succeeding just because I did it a lot of times, and not necessarily because I became better at some particular skill.
Now throw into the mix the age of those old games and their players. The kids that played with them are now in a position of greater (creative) power. They (we) have jobs, money and/or time and the natural creative spark that all humans share. In this sense, it was only a matter of time before they tried to emulate their childhood heroes and the first thing to do is to copy, to learn from the master by repeating his actions.
This too has been a complex process and, again, I don't know all of it. By copying, breaking, reading and replaying those old games to exhaustion, its core characteristics saw the light of day again, now in the hands of another generation, many of them lusting after the challenges they knew years ago.
So we have a perfect storm: many games "taking away" the difficulty of years past in order to attract a bigger customer base, a good number of now engineers, designers, composers and just adult gamers longing for days past and an enormous explosion in game developing capabilities. It was, in my opinion, just a matter of time before we saw a new wave of games with design philosophies of the past, with the technological capabilities of today.
So developers started to recreate difficult games, maybe just for the sake of it. Maybe they did know all that I wrote up there about the risk-reward mechanism and feeling good for mastering a skill. Whatever it was, we have slowly seen more hardcore games come to life, only with a broader, richer concept of hardcore difficulty.
We have static worlds and unforgivable enemies in Dark Souls. We have subversions of platforming tropes, in I Wanna Be The Guy. We have incredibly simplistic mechanics and brutal difficulty in Super Meat Boy. We have random maps, powerups and enemies in The Binding of Isaac. These are all difficult games, but each in its own way. All of these require more than random luck and grinding to beat.
Even more, these new concepts of difficulty have an implicit message to the player, a virtual spit-to-the-face: "Think you're good enough at jumping? You ain't got nuthin' on me, brudda!" Their status as difficult games in a market full of disposable mobile games and unlimited continues makes them a treasure. Beating them in the age of sharing is a new status symbol. Seeing your best friend at the top of the (personal!) leaderboard is a small but effective punch to our gamer ego. Merely playing these games is a matter of honor to oneself and our friendly competitors.
I think that developers and players alike never really stopped liking difficult games, but maybe we forgot about them somewhere along the road. Difficult games never disappeared, but they got relegated to the background for a while, when games were getting more popular and technology more exciting. But these games were sleeping giants. Hardcore games are coming back here to stay.
And I for one have never been more thankful for having the chance to be crushed at their mighty feet.