Welcome back, fair customers! I hope you enjoyed your cocktail last night. Perhaps this one, inspired by one Robert Frost, will also be to your liking.
Perhaps one of the most disheartening trends in video game development of late is the removal, or skirting, of “difficulty.” Traditionally, games focused on intense difficulty and mechanics that forced players to polish, improve, and master their skills in order to best the game at, well, its own game. In many ways this was due to the fact that games were created to munch quarters and force players to continue at a cost, or lose their hard work. As games moved from arcades to homes, however, that difficulty tended to remain in place: give players the challenge they wanted, and reward them with memories and stories to share with their friends and fellow players.
Recently, however, that trend has more or less evaporated; in some ways, gaming difficulty seems to have been diverted from its normal path in place of a Golden Calf, “accessibility,” sometimes known also through the infamous quote, “We want the Call of Duty audience.” The term “casual gamer” became something of an industry standard, but also a sort of a false idol: chase an audience that has had no real passing interest in your market, with the promise that they will be duly rewarded with victory with very little required from them, and they will come in droves.
And, perhaps sadly, they did. The Wii sailed to amazing sales heights on the back of “pick up and play” mechanics and games, flooding its market (and the market of competitors) with titles geared less towards the usual market, but more towards quick “cash grab” consumers interested less in battling heroically against the games they bought, but more looking for those games to hold their hands and give them “a good time.” Of course, people should get what they pay for, but in many cases this attempt to attract larger market share came at the cost of games developed with the challenge of their older compatriots.
Perhaps the most vexing part of this exchange, though, was that recent games made to some of the same difficulty standards were judged harshly: games like Maximo, for example, faired somewhat unwell in the light of the new “difficulty” standards; a game being “too hard for most gamers” was a point off a score, not a point added. The idea of mastery, of being rewarded for hard work, was replaced instead by the fact that “everyone” should be able to complete the game they bought regardless of how good or bad they were at it. Of course, difficulty settings have existed for some time, but the “new” era of difficulty settings was oddly skewed; in many cases, even playing a game on “hard” presented a challenge somewhere below that of the “harder” games of yore.
And in the very worst cases, the addition of “harder” difficulties was done, as per the current term that I like to play around with, “Artificial” means. In most cases, newer games, particularly games in the current generation, replace increased difficulty with “increased damage taken,” or “reduced damage given.” Others simply flood the game with enemies; some, like Hitman Absolution, place stock in the idea that making games “retro” or “purist” is accomplished not through programming, but by removing modern day conveniences like HUDs and navigation. All this truly accomplishes is giving the players who yearn for older styles of play a broken game; the game isn’t inherently more challenging, nor does the harder difficulty change anything in terms of HOW the game is played, in terms of enemy patterns, AI levels, or skill required on the player’s part. Instead, the difficulty is instead relegated to making things “disappear” that the game was created with in mind; removing a map does make a game more difficult, but it does so for the incorrect reason: players can’t see where they’re going, but the game is laid out with one specific path in mind, meaning that not having a map simply leads to endless wandering through areas than making the experience more difficult due to finding one’s path.
Similarly, recently released Bioshock Infinite does much the same thing with its touted “1999 Mode.” The game is built around a navigation mechanic, and 1999 mode disables it. The mode also increases damage taken by close to 5x, and reduces damage dealt to half. What this means is that players are not challenged with a more difficult game with better AI or forced to master secrets, as in FPS games of yesterday like Wolfenstein and Doom, but instead are left puzzled at why they continually die to over-powered grunts, who blend in with the environments and give no real idea of their movement patterns, while “boss” characters like the Firemen and Zealots die with extreme ease because they move in simple, telegraphed ways; a game that is more “difficult” should require that the player become much better at playing, or should have the challenge be placed at the foot of the player: if you are willing to master these skills and break the game’s “engines” down to your own design, you can march to the top of this hill and claim it as your own. Instead, players are left frustrated and desiring of more, finding it in either retro-rediscovery, or playing what are more or less considered “niche” titles.
One of the most recent examples of this is the PSN/XBLA game, Black Knight Sword. Created by Grasshopper Manufacture, Black Knight Sword is, on the surface, a simplistic sidescrolling action game with only 3 real “control” options: attack with a sword, jump, or use magic. The game however takes these three mechanics and requires players to not only master them, but understand them in specific ways in order to conquer the game, but also to discover all of its secrets: in one stage, in order to grab a Cat Head Grass (the collectible ‘secrets’ in each area), players are required to, with extreme speed and precision (and perhaps a bit of wiggling through a wall ‘accidentally’) to turn a giant cog-wheel, then turn it a second time, scraping under it before it becomes impassable and then also making a very quickly timed jump in order to arrive at the top of the cog before it becomes impossible to jump over. The sequence seems ridiculous, and the reward is mostly miniscule, except that it gives the player perhaps one of the greatest things a game can bestow: satisfaction. Instead of rewarding players with endless “loot” or achievements, the game simply gives the player the knowledge that they have collected that item, and when they wish to, they can view all the cat-head grasses they’ve obtained on the main menu (There is of course an achievement for collecting all of the grasses, by the way, but so is the modern gaming world).
That sense of satisfaction is maybe the heart of the matter: games are no longer about a bond created through a player and the game, but instead are now a “social” experience tied to gamerscores, achievements, and being able to say you too completed a game. Perhaps one of the oddest current gaming complaints is that a game is “too short,” in the case of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. The game can likely be completed by the most average of players in perhaps 8 hours maximum, but “completed” is maybe the wrong word. The player can see the entire plot, but they likely could not collect all hidden items, listen to all codecs, unlock all upgrades, or complete all VR missions. However, this “shortness” is reflected in review scores (many of which are played on easy to allow for “speedy” finishes to games before a deadline, so take reviews with a grain of salt), despite missing something rather key. Many gamers, those enamored with the medium, replay the same games over and over, always looking for more things to do, unlock, discover, or simply find ways to beat the game “faster” than they did before. With the move to more “casual” experiences, as well as focusing on creating movie-like narratives, games do indeed become completed in short times, but they also then lack any real reason to continue playing them after completion. In this case, the complaint of “too short” is very true; there is no reason to invest time beyond completing the main “story” of a game, and there’s no impetus (or sometimes even ability) for players to go off the rails and experience the game for themselves. The difficulty in this regard acts as a “speed limit,” making the game either longer or shorter depending on how hard or easy the game is.
The Demon/Dark Souls games, then, probably exist as something almost of an anomaly in the “modern” gaming world. They give very little narrative, focusing more on letting players discover and create the experience for themselves. Enemies are punishing, but not simply to infuriate: they possess patterns and strategies, and require players to use patience and take notice of what enemies are doing in order to find the best way of confronting them and conquering them, whether they’re bosses or simple “grunts.” And, perhaps most shockingly in the age of instant-respawns, regenerating health, and “shield” mechanics, Souls games are not just willing to let players fail, they place all responsibility for those deaths at the hands of the player. If a person dies in CoD, they die despite regenerating health, cover mechanics, and other things that are literally forcing them to remain alive despite lacking the skill to understand how their deaths happen–instead of recognizing their mistakes, they instead cry about “unfairness” or “cheap” deaths–and thus don’t learn, requiring more hand-holding. Souls games, however, take the more “hands off” approach to this. If a player wishes to run off a cliff, there is no invisible wall to catch them. Want to attack a giant creature, or a shopkeeper? Go ahead. The consequences are one’s own, and the game secretly desires that you recognize and take responsibility for your actions. Your death is your fault, and you can learn from it, or continue doing it over, and over, and over, and over again.
This sense of “responsibility” perhaps most easily links back to that sense of satisfaction. There are many ways in which Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls perfectly encapsulate gameplay styles of yesterday, crystallizing them in new forms for new players: learning the game, mastering it, and discovering anything requires that the player enter into a covenant with the game. As long as the player is willing to work at it, learn from it, and hammer away at the game, the game will continue to reward them with satisfaction, whether it is from new areas, hidden lore, breathtaking landscapes and hidden secrets, or simply from collecting the “best” weapon that player could hope for. For those willing, there is an endless amount of content to be found in Souls games, much beyond the simple surface of the “narrative” behind it–most expert players could likely “beat” the game in a few scant hours.
It is likely that games that vexed players for years, like Ghosts and Goblins, have seen their days come and go…from the mainstream market. Smaller, niche titles, and “indie” developers, are perhaps the only places left to turn for players looking for these sorts of experiences again, or looking simply for a game that gives them the tools, and lets them build, instead of a predetermined “roller coaster” that shows the player through a series of great set pieces, and deposits them back where they started. Sadly, difficulty in games tends more towards the heavily flawed “Purist” mode of Hitman or “1999 Mode” of Infinite; it would perhaps be great, in the future, to discover developers have gone back to creating titles that challenge skill instead of endurance, test mettle instead of patience.
While we wait for those days to return, however, there’s never been a better time to rediscover the “hard” games of the past, because there is always the sad possibility that those games may become lost relics; enjoy them while you can, lest they be wiped from history forever; in the modern gaming world, Shelley’s Ozymandias still rings true: “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.” For like the sands of time against a statue, there is the possibility that difficulty and challenge may simply become worn away and forgotten. Perhaps, though, the era of Kickstarters, of retro-revivals, and of indie-developers may place a buffer between the altar of “difficulty” and march of “mass audience appeal.” And perhaps that buffer will be enough, a blanket to stop the corroding winds, as long as there are people willing to help hold it up.