Difficulty, What is it Good For?

Most people rather would not partake in difficult tasks that have easier alternatives, unless you are a gamer. Difficulty, in this context, is defined as how thought provoking and skill intensive a game is required to get to the end. While difficulty can come in many shapes and sizes, most people consider difficulty to be an umbrella term for what makes a game challenging and forces the player to adapt in order to be successful. However, difficulty has adapted for years and changes depending on the genre. For single-player games, we can see the computer adapting to the player’s behaviors and forcing the player to find new ways to beat things than using the same tactic over and over. With the expansion of multiplayer games and high speed internet, the skill capacity for players are infinite so long as people are playing to get better. However, with the introduction of a new indie game named, Cuphead, people have been on the forefront for what is considered difficult and if games are actually difficult at all.

Jannik Refael Andersen from Gameatu brings up this fact from his review of Cuphead. In his review, he points out the fact that the challenging boss fights had intrigued him and provided a fresh new way of experiencing the run and gun genre. He ends his piece pointing out the fact that the game is not as challenging as many might say. He says, “Cuphead isn’t as challenging as the rumor might have it. You just have to notice the patterns and improve your timing” (Andersen). From his point of view, the difficulty of Cuphead is certainly not all that has it cracked up to be.

Ben McCurry from Destructoid has more to say on the publicity that Cuphead has gotten for its backbreaking difficulty. He starts to talk about his struggles keeping up with games since he was a child and how he has always been underperforming when he plays games. However, he decides to twist the argument to try and get to the core message of why this debate about Cuphead has began. Games have changed because the audience that are playing them have changed. No longer do people seek a game just for the sheer gameplay and nail biting decisions that may lose your precious quarters in the arcade. People look for more in a game these days. Some like a narrative, some like impressive visuals, some like a sense of connection to our real world, and some like all of them mixed together in a well balanced masterpiece. McCurry makes a great ending to his argument with, “Those who want to keep their games hard might miss meaningful yet easy games, and those who dodge a challenge could stand to miss out on a stern test” (McCurry). His final point makes a strong case that there will never be a good blend between what can be challenging and what can be unfair for others.

Rami Ismail from The Rolling Stones writes how games are neither hard nor easy at all. Ismail is a developer within Vlambeer, a studio that has brought out successful indie titles like Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, and Luftrausers. He tries to point out that the game only tries to trick the player into thinking that they came up with a solution to a fictional problem. People has to suspend their disbelief that they are playing a game and you are an actual character of the world the developers have made it to be. He goes into details about how a difficulty is made to reflect the player’s skill make it so that the player is neither frustrated with the game or completely bored of it. He makes the argument that, “…developers have more choice than ever to choose what they want their game to be, and that players have an increased expectation to be able to play the games the way they want…” (Ismail). His ideology that games should be built to reflect a person’s skill at the game brings up the grand idea that a game should cater to the player not to the world in which it was built. We can see this in more than just a game like Cuphead.

The Evil Within 2 had released this month and already has people talking about the difficulty that lies in it. Joshua Rivera from GQ brings up the fact that the difficulty you choose at the beginning of the game is very important as he talks with another employee of GQ, Scott Meslow. They bring up the fact that horror has a link between how hard it is and how scary it is. Meaning the harder it is to beat something, the scarier it might seem. However, if you have to fight the same enemy over and over until you beat it, then the game might seem more frustrating than scary. Rivera says, “I started a game on the lowest difficulty setting. I seriously regretted that” (Rivera). The author brings up a good point that difficulty can sometimes influence how scary, immersive, or imaginative a game can seem, but that cutting yourself short can make a game seem almost like a joke or a waste of time.

I stand with Ismail more than anyone. As someone who has been through game development, I can understand the viewpoint he comes from. It is impossible to keep all players engaged with a single ruleset and no way to keep a game from being too hard or too easy for everyone. In a perfect game, that would be possible, but there are no perfect games that will fulfill everyone’s desires. I also think that a game should be reflected of someone’s skill and will provide a steady challenge all the way through so that the player no longer has to think when they are playing the game. The way I see it, putting difficulties in games do not retract from the experience, but allow for the player to enhance how they want to experience the game.

I hope that Andersen can change the way he might perceive challenge. The fact that he believes Cuphead is not as hard as others might make it look is a valid statement, but you cannot assume that all players can improve their timing and learn patterns. We live in a post-modern era of gaming where developers try to include as many people as they can. That means that some people have the inability to get better at a game through sheer impulse. As you age it takes longer to react to stimuli, for instance, demonstrates that not everyone can improve their timing when it is already physically impossible to achieve. In this light, Andersen cannot make the assumption that all people can get better at a game through sheer impulse alone.

This does not mean that every game should have a difficulty to fulfill everyone’s wishes of how hard they want the challenge to be. Some games simply do not require a difficulty because the challenge is not a part of the equation. Some games are built upon the experience, not the rules that lie within the gameplay. However, I think that in order for gamers to get past difficulty debates, games need to get better at finding ways to change a difficulty. Instead of making the damage of enemies, lowering an enemy’s level, taking away how many enemies there are, or giving the player better equipment, we need to find a way to change the difficulty to adapt to what the player wants to test with. I have always tried to challenge myself with the hardest difficulty, and always ended up getting angry at the game when I was younger. However, I learned that it was better to take the extreme difficulty as a challenge instead of a method of proving my worth. This not only allowed for me to actually beat the game with patience and virtue, but it ended up influencing me more than I knew. Not only has playing these games with extremely unfair rules changed me for the better, I have also learned patience and the ability to push myself even when everything seems dire. I am not trying to say that people should play these games with such sadistic difficulties, but it certainly can help those who are seeking a mental challenge to push themselves harder than they normally would.