For those interested in a little throwbackground music:


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 for.

As 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?

I'm not 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.

Outside 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.

They 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.



S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is 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.

Difficulty 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 gained.


Difficulty makes our decisions matter


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.

In a 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.

It 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.

Therein 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.


Difficulty makes games immersive


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.

There 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.

Yet 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.

No 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.

Difficulty 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 lessons


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.

This 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.

A game 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.

Even if 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.  





(*) Sequelitis : Castlevania 1 vs. Castlevania 2: 

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