For those interested in a little throwbackground music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRfVKrC0nfc
When I was five years old the first Castlevania
kicked my ass. All of the Nintendo games kicked my ass. I remember my
father playing these games too, and in Mario
Brothers when sprinting toward a ledge to make a jump he would nearly toss
the controller out of his hands as his whole body shifted, as if actions beyond
his pressing buttons would add to Mario's momentum. It never did, and of course
like many people who first played those games, we never completed them. We even
have a term for that now: Nintendo hard.
And the consensus has been for years that those games went too far, that a game
shouldn't be so hard as to deny a player the full content of what they paid
games have become more mainstream this idea of difficulty being a bad thing has
infiltrated the gaming industry to the point where most games are very easy. To
the point of summer blockbuster casual. To the point of enjoying them with
popcorn. To the point of themselves being another form of fast food.
Consider that in order to enjoy most art that you need to go to it. You need to expend effort and time to understand just what a certain culture of creators are trying to do. Take for instance a book. There is an effort involved, which certainly becomes easier over time yet always remains, as reading takes focus, discipline. We understand, perhaps only subtly, that our commitment to a book adds to its experiential weight. If there was no effort that we had to give toward a book, how much less interested would we be in each paragraph, in each remark and nuance?
necessarily saying that easy games in themselves are a problem. They certainly
need to exist. My girlfriend is good proof of that: if it wasn't for Borderlands and the newer, blockbuster-like Resident Evil games, she would have
never sustained enough patience to understand what being a gamer is, and how
fantastic games can be. We need easy games: they are what we can use to invite
the uninitiated into our culture, into a medium we care much about, research
and write about, this thing we want to elevate to a form of art.
of that, outside of being a runway, a rolled-out-carpet for the casual, a lack of difficulty in games hurts us all, and it hurts us on
multiple fronts. It makes games more
addictive, more hollow, it simplifies them to the point of mindlessness, and if
prevalent enough, advertises that our culture is mostly that: something people
do to waste time. I'm tired of being told that our culture is about wasting
time, aren't you?
After thumbing down the last 7.62x39mm bullet the magazine
still looks half empty. The outside of the cartridge is stained with blood and
when you squeeze it in your hand it feels more like plastic than metal.
You press the magazine into the Kalashnikov, its barrel rusted and its stock
removed, in place is a medical-taped folding stock, mostly broken, its
metal hinges prepared to snap and cut into your shoulder. It's 2:41am, the
fire is dying, the men you came out here with are dead, and as you stand you can
feel your stomach drop. You're a mile out from supply and goddamn the wound is
bad, the bleeding has stopped but death is running toward you, and you know
that right now you have to move. You are so tired that you tell yourself I will just be quiet, they will not notice
me if I am quiet.
You move from the rusted platform of the hull
of the ship grounded into the mud of the swamp. There is no light. You halve your struggling breath for better or worse, and each step you take you tell
yourself continue, continue, continue.
smell your blood. Even if there was light you wouldn't see them coming. The
first of them brings a claw against your legs, the next against your throat. Your
body is becoming the hull of the ship behind you, two halves starved and
gutted, and you look back to it, the dying fire you left, and you close your
eyes and scream and hold the trigger down and one of them snarls and loosens and then you are standing again, mad in the
night, the gun jams so you drop it and run toward a faint orange glow miles away
while behind you they are chasing, but you have a grenade thank god, you pull
it and drop it in the mud, and pray it detonates behind you.
personally one of my favorite games and it is very, very hard. It is a game
where you have to eat for stamina, bandage your own wounds, sell and trade with
other rogue travelers, form alliances, run from monsters, and most prevalently,
start over, and over, and over. What makes the game so memorable, so vivid to
recall, is mostly within its difficulty. It's hard to imagine the above
scenario being so immersive if it wasn't for the fact that I cared that my character was bleeding
out, was too tired to move at a high speed, was wielding a mostly-empty and
half-broken weapon, was surrounded by a pack of invisible, blood-thirsty
monsters. And I knew, when I stepped out from the hull of that ship, that
chances are I wasn't going to make it. But because my character wasn't special
enough to get a free pass at the trials of the world, what became special was
the decisions I made to keep them going.
in games gives us three huge elements that work perfectly together: it makes
our decisions matter, it immerses us into the world, and it teaches us lessons.
When we dedicate ourselves to a difficult game and finally succeed, we feel
rewarded, just like we would at any practice in life. We may realize that the
learning of a lesson, whether from a book, another form of art, or by living
life itself, is often about how time spent translates into perspective
Difficulty makes our
When a creator sets out within their medium, one of the most
important elements of their work is that it has a sense of dimensionality, that
different parts of what they are communicating feel different from one another.
A C-sharp needs to feel different than a D-flat for a musician. For a writer,
the use of grammar and the power of vocabulary are like the artist's paints and
brushes. But just as important as the tools of the creator are how they are perceived.
We want our works to have emphasis to the audience, we want them to pay
attention, and to do that, we have to have some way to make sure that their
participation, whether passive or active, is attentive.
recent Dungeons and Dragons session I
played with a few friends, our Dungeon Master devised for us a very dangerous
situation: within a large room patrolled approximately 15 greater demons, each
demon patrolling individually with two flanking fire hounds. One of our
players, a bit drunk, gloriously proclaimed that he would tackle the entire
room himself. The rest of us tried to hold him back, convince him otherwise,
but when he left the dark shelter of the entrance we only watched. It wasn't
too long until he was thrashed, burned alive, his guts clinging heroically from
the 40-ft high ceiling. He character was damaged beyond saving, and for the rest
of the three hours of that night he could only watch the rest of us play, as we
devised a plan of taking the room's demons apart, then (drunkenly ourselves)
looted his corpse. Rest in peace Monk, you were brave yet foolish.
could be argued that the Dungeon Master, recognizing the poor decisions that
the Monk had made, should have improvised some way to save him from his
mistakes, just as it might be argued that in Mario Brothers a player's jump should be higher, that a soldier in
Call of Duty should be able to easily recover from wounds in combat, that bad
decisions and poor play should not affect the player. Yet if our Monk had
survived the room, what would that have meant for the decisions the rest of the
party had made—to hide in the dark, to tactically discuss plans, and to thoughtfully
overcome a challenge? The fact is, if the Monk didn't die, then the rest of the
party would be forced to acknowledge that any decision made contains the
same result: dimensionally, there is no difference at all between one choice
and any other: all lead toward the same win state.
is the tangibility of the game: difficulty is the texture that distinguishes
one choice from another. If it does not matter what armor one wears, the amount
of health one has, how far one can jump, how much time is left, then none of
these elements require any attention; they cease to have the friction that
keeps the gamer engaged to what the creator is expressing.
Immersion in games is a peculiar thing: essentially, it is when
the player experiences a state of being inside the world of the game. Not every
game's goal is necessarily to immerse the player, yet many of the best games do
just that. For some games we may say that we are in the zone, for other games it is more about being a part of a
larger thing that seems to be happening around us.
are many elements to a game that provide value to player immersion. A game's
details, the quality of its sound and visuals, the breadth of its history, the
characters we interact with and the stories we create along the way all
contribute to this greater feeling.
without difficulty, without that tangibility between one choice and another, players
often gloss over a world and may find themselves playing too long without any
real interest or commitment.
matter how detailed a world is, unless the decisions made inside of it matter,
it can be experienced like a fast-food. But difficulty stops all that. The
moment a player lulls, the moment a player stops caring or is incapable of
paying close attention—bam—they
lose the game. This is an important moment, as now the player is forced to
confront whether or not they are playing the game on autopilot and if it is
time to do something else with their day. The game will not artificially reward
them for being bored and pressing buttons. It demands attention, and if a player cannot give that then both the
game's intended experience and the player themself are better off if time is
spent on something else.
serves as the sentinel to immersion. It is the doorman that throws you out when
you've had too much to drink. It keeps you disciplined, and when you are ready
to game, it is the color of your effort, and the measure of your investment.
Difficulty teaches us
There is a reason that the trope of traveling up the mountaintop to the Eastern Temple fascinates us. There
is a reason that we say old age and hard times grants us wisdom. There is a reason
why we like training montages in all of our Rocky
films. We like to think that rewards are a product of effort, that we cannot
gain something without sacrificing something or expending some effort. If we
are going to be happy we should not stumble upon it, and if we are going to learn
it should not be easy.
is, of course, an illusion. While it is true that these things often require
effort, it should be no big secret that such an effort isn't necessarily tied
to the lesson itself. Yet for billions of people this is how we live our lives:
we do not allow ourselves to be happy without first feeling like we have
success, and we often do not listen to the experience of others if they are not
as old or tired as ourselves.
that is not difficult to us is often one where we felt like we overcame
nothing, experienced little, and from that we often derive that looking for a lesson
is unnecessary. But a game that challenges us also asks us to learn, and rarely
would we be satisfied containing these lessons to the specific game. The more
accomplished we feel, the more we press ourselves to look for meaning. For the
individual these lessons may vary, but it is no doubt that they are there, and
often a reliable translation of what the creators wanted us to learn. Castlevania teaches us how every
movement matters, how to look for fundamental methods that underlie systems, and how to repurpose what we find (the watch, holy water, axe) to work when our own methods cannot; it teaches an appreciation for
the origins of the horror genre and the benefit of attention to detail (*).
A modern example of difficulty, Braid,
teaches how prior, well-intentioned decisions can backfire on us; both in story
and in the player's actions themselves, we see how our very own intentions unto
the world can be a source of frustration. And whether there is supposed to be a
lesson or not, either in life or the games we play, it is the struggle that
pushes us to look for answers.
Look, I may be wrong about all this, and I don't mean to
imply that easy games are terrible. Lots of people find great value in games,
whether casual or difficult. And there is something to be said about there
being a hardcore crowd, and maybe I am a part of that crowd, and maybe what I'm
really after is converting others to our cause.
I'm wrong about the details, and even if you disagree with me, I feel like
there's something about hard games that just needs to be cherished, something
that puts them on a mountaintop to be admired. They don't just inspire us to try, or force us to accept the world
they guard, or press us to look for deeper lessons, or give us a feeling of
satisfaction upon completion. They also give us brotherhood, and sisterhood
too. Our time in these games brings us together. Within our struggle we build a
culture of humor. We learn to grin and curse and share and build more worlds.
We learn to continue.