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On Difficulty in Video Games

On Difficulty in Video Games published on No Comments on On Difficulty in Video Games

Some people get off on hard video games. The joy for them comes from the challenge of overcoming obstacles. There are entire genres of video games that appeal to people who want to be kicked in the balls 99 times so that on the hundredth time they can do it back. But what makes a game difficult? How do developers define and create difficulty?

For the purposes of this article, I want to look at parallel examples of games, one of which I think is hard and one of which I think is unfair. Again, for the purposes of this article, these are the definitions we’ll be using for these terms:

A hard game is a game that you lose frequently because of a lack of skill on your part as a player.

An unfair game possesses in its gameplay one or more mechanics that are designed to kill the player in a way that is generally unexpected or otherwise difficult, through the skills that you have been taught up until that point, to respond to. This definition sounds a little awkward, I admit, but it will make more sense as we get into examples.

Super Meat Boy (Hard) vs. I Wanna Be The Guy (Unfair)

SMBTeam Meat’s Super Meat Boy is hard as balls. I still haven’t beaten it because frankly I’m not that good at precision platforming. The thing about Meat Boy though is that at very few points in the game does it introduce new concepts to you. From the get-go you know that most things need to be jumped over, keys unlock certain blocks that you need to progress through, and salt is bad. That’s basically all there is to it. Through simple context you know that an enormous circular saw probably shouldn’t be touched, and the tube with a laser coming out of it that’s pointed at your face will probably shoot something at you. These are simple cues. The difficulty comes from facing many of these obstacles at once, coupled with a high speed and small safe zones in each level.

On the other hand, let me break down a very plausible scenario for you in a game like I Wanna Be The Guy: You enter a screen that appears to be a garden. This garden has an apple tree on it with five apples. You take eight steps forward and the fourth apple from the left flies out and kills you. Okay, you think, apples are bad. So the next time you get to that screen you dodge the first apple and fully anticipate the other four apples to fly at you and kill you but they don’t. It turns out that these apples are actually platforms that you need to use to ascend up the tree. So you jump on the first apple. Jump on the second apple. Jump to the third apple and die. Why? Because apples are bad you fucking moron, I told you that already! IWBTG says, laughing in your big, dumb face.

Obviously this is, perhaps, a weighted example. It’s significantly obvious to see why IWBTG is an unfair game without even having to compare it against Super Meat Boy. You advance through IWBTG by memorizing each screen and which things on it are hazardous, not through any gameplay skill. Of course, it could be argued that memorization is a useful skill for video gaming as well, but I digress.

Devil May Cry, series (Hard) vs. Ninja Gaiden, series (Unfair)

When I first brought this article up with Low Five, the people who had played these two games actually disagreed, saying that Ninja Gaiden was the “hard” game and Devil May Cry was the “unfair” game, but I disagree, and even after some discussion I’ve decided to maintain my stance.

Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry are ostensibly remarkably similar. They’re both 3D hack-n’-slash games featuring large masses of enemies with a shitload of health that do a shitload of damage. Your character is really fast and has the ability to knock enemies back to clear space and give yourself some breathing room between waves of bullshit.

So what makes Devil May Cry hard and Ninja Gaiden unfair? One simple thing: Enemies in Devil May Cry that aren’t on screen can’t attack you. If you’ve played both games it might be something that you’ve never noticed, but it’s true; if an enemy is not clearly onscreen (a sliver of arm or leg doesn’t count) then the enemy will stand there until such a time as the camera adjusts to make them more visible.

DMCThis allows Devil May Cry to rely much more on presenting genuinely difficult foes rather than enemies that disappear and then kill you from weird angles. When you face a giant fucking murder hydra in Devil May Cry and it kills you, it’s because you squared up to the hydra and lost. This is often the case in Ninja Gaiden as well, but there’s also a very realistic possibility that you lost because the camera jerked in a funny way and the hydra got off a free 70-hit combo that took away three quarters of your health.

There are other pairs of games out there that fit this mold, and maybe when I think of them I’ll write a follow-up to this article. For now though, that’s all I got. Can you think of any, or do you just think I’m full of shit? Feel free to let me know.

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