You know what there’s not enough of in life? Difficulty.
Okay so that’s a lie, but you wouldn’t think it given how much the gaming community seems fixated on making everything harder, more challenging, and more table-flippingly tense.
Just the other day I had a craving for something I haven’t experienced in a while; the PlayStation classic Devil May Cry. I still remember those coffee fuelled nights in the middle of exam season, up until 4 in the morning welcoming the onset of arthritis. I remembered the cool environments, the cheesy dialogue, but most of all… I remember the series being unforgivably difficult. So much so I still to this day haven’t defeated the final boss of Devil May Cry 3- a distinction only held by two enemies, the other being Eagle from Advance Wars hard campaign.
So this got me thinking, why do we return to these horrific challenges with so much glee? To bring a more up-to-date example, the shooting star series ‘Dark Souls’, already with five titles in its catalogue Dark Souls is the poster child for modern so-hard-it’s-good videogames. And people love it! Grinding your face into a boss three dozen times before realising your character’s build stands no chance other than sheer luck… hooray? And yet we do love it. One of my own favourite games of all time is X-COM by Microprose, which is infamous for being so impossible that despite every copy being bugged to only play on ‘easy’ setting it still went down as one of the most challenging games on PC.
You’d assume people would rather slide through something simple and easy to relax with in their free time. A friend of mine makes a habit of playing every game on the easiest setting, since enjoying the stories and visuals is what’s more important to him. Whenever he finds me playing on Hard mode I’m politely instructed, “You’re having fun wrong.”
But what about the rest of us? Those willing to clean our bloodied arms, put the helmet back on our heads and charge the castle gates once again? Knowing failure is a very real possibility. Such people have created an entire corner of the industry for themselves, most noticeably in the modding community. Mods allow players to alter their game experiences in bizzare ways and many take this as a gateway to new challenges.
Is liberating Skyrim from the dragons proving too easy? Try the Deadly Dragons mod by 3Jlou to turn every fight into a near-death experience with fire breathing fighter-jets. Explaining hard mods isn’t so difficult though- it’s “because we can”. Mods hold their own appeal since they are just as hard, if not harder, to create as they are to play. Building a mod or even just being able to conquer one is its own experience. What then of games created with your frustration in mind?
I for one propose that we are moving BACK to hard games. There was a definite lull in the 90’s and 2000’s where the industry moved away from challenge and towards broader, more accessible experiences. This wasn’t because the typical gamer was becoming laz, it was largely in an effort to sell the medium to families and the younger generation via consoles. When I saw the Playstation and N64 launched they did so with a variety of simple, approachable titles under their belts to net people into the hobby. This same truth follows us to this day with the success of the Nintendo Wii and (sadly) the Microsoft Kinect.
A curious aside, this is in stark contrast to the industries OLD marketing technique of making everything head-smashingly difficult back when all games were confined to arcade cabinets. Back then everyone’s favourite classics from Missile Command to Mortal Kombat were expected to eat the change right out of your pocket. So in this example, difficulty equals profit! So it’s no surprise that desire died down once people no longer had to fork over silvers to play the next level. At least, it did after a fear years of developing for consoles; the term ‘Nintendo Hard’ is used to describe early generation console games even today.
But as we move further away from home consoles as the heart of the gaming world many of those old die-hard games are coming back. Bayonetta is the modern Devil May Cry and proves just as harsh at times. Some classics like Fire Emblem for the DS and XCOM for the PC have seen revivals and feature one of my favourite all time mechanics… Perma-death. You lost a soldier or a player character because you weren’t trying hard enough? That character is dead. Forever. And often these games will include autosaving so you can’t even go back and reload. Never before have I seen such a jerk move that should bring so much anger, but instead brings so much joy.
When it comes to these video games there is one pervasive element; it is you versus them. A single challenger against enormous odds, the kind of stories we grew up with no matter how old. Maybe it’s just me, but when I pick up a controller to play a difficult game I’m not hoping to be shamed and destroyed. I’m hoping to go against something that SHOULD shame and destroy me, but managing to pull through. So I can’t help but conclude with these games, like my old favourite Devil May Cry here, our reasons to struggle might be just the littlest bit selfish.
Video games were where the thought started, but I quickly realised just how far this desire spreads through the geek kingdom. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of my favourite passtimes- the tabletop RPG! Of course most people will immediately think of D&D with its so-many healing surges per day, action points for re-trying difficult saves, and the ability to literally raise players from the dead once a cleric reaches level… five. But that is not what I mean when I say tabletop games are a true culprit of masochistic game design! I direct you instead to games such as Mythic Iceland by Chaosium or Only War by Fantasy Flight Games. These are systems that make a world filled with hostile monsters and the occasional demon overlord seem… appropriately scary? Where if you see a monster (be that a snow bear or an alien that makes Ridley Scott want to sue) you’re just as likely to run as you are to fight it, or die. Or pray to your tabletop Gods that your flimsy excuse for a character can take a hit. Or die.
The answer to this kind of design is intrinsic to human beings- we want to survive. We feel the most engaged when we fear there is something to lose, or something to be gained. Many tabletop games make use of the second verse, but can be very soft handed with the first. With RPG’s there is an extra level that this struggle helps with, and that is Immersion. The feeling that we truly are exploring a strange new world of possibilities, made all the closer to home because we are not immortal here either.
Board games have been marching to this tune for a while, largely led by designer Matt Leacock who is responsible for the infamously beautiful Pandemic, as well as other nail biting horrors like Forbidden Desert. These games are remembered for one simple fact- you will very rarely beat them. For a hobby that began with titles like Monopoly and Snakes n’ Ladders this is a mind blowing claim, who would sink hours of their leisure time into something that’s out to destroy you? Because unlike video games where our desire for difficulty is in one person overcoming the challenges of many, board games give us entirely new motives. We want to fight WITH our friends against those trials- a perfect example is the game Castle Panic where every player relies on each other to defeat the game. Either you win, or the cardboard box does. That is, unless the challenge is coming from the other players, our friends now transformed into enemies at the table. That’s the niche that board gaming has adopted in the 2010’s – often called the new golden age of board gaming – now that video games have disregarded couch co-op and with it our opportunities to beat each other senseless. Or prove we are the wittier by outsmarting those we love (and then suffering the consequences).
In the end I believe every example listed all comes from the same place in our nerdy hearts. The place that isn’t satisfied with just being okay at something- we desire to Master it! To prove to the game that we will not go quietly into the night, for the same reasons we step up to the challenge when our friends think they can knock us down at a sport or at the table.
After all, you look at Mount Rushmore then come back and tell me humans are okay with doing things half-assed.