In recent years the gaming community has seen a notable rise in popularity of notoriously difficult games ranging from big budget titles such as Dark Souls and XCOM: Enemy Unknown to indie titles such as Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac and FTL. These games can be so difficult that many are not able to even complete the game yet those same players still manage to hold high opinions of them. We’ll be exploring possible reasons driving the growing fandom surrounding games with significant challenge and what it is about these games that makes them so alluring.
Due to the age and experience of the majority of gamers this is likely a minor factor, however it is still something to consider and may illuminate why some older games foster such acclaim. A huge game that wasn’t particularly easy to play and even harder to complete is Sonic the Hedgehog. Yes, this cutesy platformer starring a cartoon blue hedgehog is deceptively difficult but speaks to the way that games designed for children were still no walk in the park. Some of this is due to technical limitations such as not being able to save, however in Sonic the Hedgehog there were no continues either so you had to beat the game in a single sitting (or risk blowing up your console/ burning down your house). A game that must’ve felt like a brick wall for many children but still managed to enthrall a generation and become an extremely popular franchise (let it not be unsaid, 3D Sonic games SUCK).
Arcade games used to be more prominent and most of them are almost impossible. Of course this derives from how arcade games were designed ( i.e. feed me coins!). With arcades slowly disappearing, those who grew up pulling on the shirts of parents for a coin to buy them yet another retry are finding it hard to find those experiences again. These harder games scratch that itch and now with less real life money however the risk and reward aspect fill in that gap (more on that later).
Challenge is so refreshing
The majority of popular games nowadays are designed so that they can be beaten by anyone, a consequence of the ever growing price of developing games, even genres typically not targeted towards casual audiences such as role playing games. An example is The Elder Scrolls in which older games in the franchise were almost impenetrable, then 2011’s Skyrim became hugely popular because of its ease of access and the fact that it could be played by the average gamer. This is not necessarily a bad thing; developing a game that targets the most common denominator will net more profit which in turn leads to higher budgets for the next entry and of course ensures that there will be a next entry. This does however mean there is an overwhelming amount of big budget titles that offer little challenge. Developers do make an attempt with higher difficulty levels, collectibles, and other side distractions put in to appease the more dedicated player.
The difference between a hollow victory and rising as a phoenix
The difficulties in these games pale in comparison to those designed from the ground up in terms of quality. An example is the trauma-inducing veteran difficulty on Call of Duty: World at War, as someone who is a glutton for punishing games this is by far one of the most difficult games I have completed. The problem is that it’s difficult for the wrong reasons, a combination of artificial difficulty where you die very quickly and spend the majority of the game led down and replaying the same section until you are lucky enough to progress, yes luck. The other glaring problem with this is that surviving sections is based on whether it’s hailing grenades or whether you are experiencing a tsunami of grenades. Instead of being more challenging and fun, it becomes a repetitive chore and embodies what is wrong with these artificial difficulties.
A well thought out way of making a game accessible but still able to offer a quality challenge for those who seek it is turn-based strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This game has Easy, Normal, and Classic modes as well as “Impossible” which, rather than artificially making the game difficult, does some interesting things. For example, on easy difficulties you have significantly more funding at the start, soldiers cost less to buy, AI are less likely to use special abilities, and you start with some facilities already. On harder difficulties however, especially classic, it feels like the way you are supposed to play with a high difficulty curve at the start and once you get up and running you actually feel like you are leading an elite task force.
What makes XCOM so interesting in regards to difficulty is its “Ironman Mode.” This is an option for any difficulty when you start the game which prevents you from making multiple save files and also saves after your decisions so you cannot load to an earlier state if you made a mistake. This makes you feel weight behind your decisions and for an RTS this improves the experience tenfold. Another interesting thing the game offers are Second Wave options. After completing the game you have options that augment the experience and players can tailor it to their liking. More options are made available the harder the difficulty you complete. It is a way to increase the replayability of the game but also a way for the player to create a more personal XCOM campaign and to tailor the game to suit their own videogame experience.
I could take a shortcut through the gorilla enclosure to save time…
Moving away from difficulty and towards other aspects that contribute to more challenging games becoming popular is the risk and reward aspect of them. The best example this generation is Demon’s/Dark Souls where every time you die you lose all your souls and humanity (you die a lot). What this game does, however, is give you the chance to get them back to return to where you died before you die again to retrieve your souls. There are no lives but you are punished for dying and therefore are encouraged and rewarded for playing slow and smart. By that same token, you are punished for running in fast and stupid. Similar to XCOM: EU it adds weight to your decisions, however in the Soul’s games you are taking a more active role which makes the experience more visceral and tense.
Enemies are scary, not only because they can kill you (a lot of the time with a single blow) but because of what you stand to lose, exploring the open world of Dark Souls for the first time is also a tense and thrilling experience. The unique multiplayer in the game also adds to the risk vs reward in the game. Here is a scenario for instance: You are stuck on this level and have been for a while so you want help from people, in order to do so you must consume an item and restore your humanity. Whilst human you are able to summon help but it also opens you up for attack from anyone and can make the level significantly harder, you also don’t know if you will be summoning someone who is very good at the game or someone else who is stuck. Making decisions matter is what keeps gameplay interesting and adding an online element means that these decisions matter every time you make them, you never know what you are going to get.
There is more than just risk and reward that makes the Souls games so compelling, the game has no difficulty level however,it becomes easier as you progress getting better equipment etc. but more importantly what makes for a truly gratifying experience and the reason why the Souls games are so beloved is that you as a player become better at the game which fills you with a real sense of accomplishment. You will gain in confidence in where you can be that person who helps a player who is stuck or invades worlds to make levels more difficult for others.
I was in a randomly generated world before it was cool
More difficult games are prevalent in the indie gaming scene and are also some of the most popular, this is due to budget and the fact that developers are not forced into developing for a mainstream audience; by being indie their audience also tends to be more niche. Hotline Miami is a recent example of a game that achieved critical acclaim and has been very popular despite being difficult.
Super Meat Boy is incredibly difficult however it avoids punishing the player by making death a painless experience (for the gamer, sorry Meat Boy) by having short levels and instantaneous respawns when the fleshy chap slaps into the spike wall for the 15th time. After you’ve completed a level you get to see Meat Boy’s numerous deaths all at once as well as that one time that you achieved victory. It’s incredibly satisfying as you soak in your victory and avoids being a chore like retrying in the aforementioned Call of Duty: World at War.
Roguelikes, a sub-genre of RPGs that incorporate randomness and permanent death, are also a big hit in the indie scene despite their difficulty however it is the journey in these games that are enjoyable with so many variations you really don’t do the same things twice. My personal favorite is FTL which makes you feel like a captain of a ship whilst you juggle power to shields, weapons, and life-support while also micromanaging your crew. You also come across random encounters in which you are given choices, choices which could be a major boon or could be game ruining. It is like a Star Trek game without the licensing (no I don’t mean a mediocre Third Person Shooter *sigh*).
The Binding of Isaac is another great roguelike however, unlike FTL you have more direct control; the levels are randomly generated as are the rewards and even the bosses. There is hidden depth but what helps the game most is that the gameplay is basic, so much so that anyone can play it but it is truly rewarding to those who spend more time with it and understand the abilities and what special items do.
Could be a coincidence
Maybe I should take off my tinfoil hat and consider that maybe the fact that these difficult games are popular is solely because they are great games regardless of their difficulty rather than that their difficulty makes them as good as they. Possibly, but for me the challenge of these games is certainly what makes for an experience that’s both memorable and rewarding, especially since the saturation of the market with Dudebro shooter 7 or Mr Cutesy’s platform adventure. Not bashing a single game just trying to point out that there isn’t enough variety in big budget releases and that companies play it safe by going with winning formulas, none of which are “make the player really work for that ending.”
With players itching to get their hands on any next gen game I personally hope developers take advantage of this launch window of opportunity and push games that the average consumer wouldn’t usually consider. Perhaps we could see some big budget roguelikes or something totally unique like the Souls series was to this generation on future consoles. Time will tell but for now my fingers are crossed.