The Importance of Difficulty

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One of the main complaints gamers have regarding mainstream games these days is that most of them are too easy. A big reason for this is that as games become more popular, there is an increasing demand on producers to make the products that are more accessible to consumers. While it’s good to see the industry prosper, it takes away one of the key selling points video games have over other entertainment products: the challenge.

When you watch a TV show, there’s no involvement on your part whether the protagonist lives or dies. Sure, Dora the Explorer sometimes calls for audience participation but nothing you say will actually determine whether or not she catches Swiper the Fox. Likewise, unless you staple your own typewritten pages at the end of Harry Potter, nothing will change the awful fanfiction-esque feel of the epilogue in The Deathly Hallows.

I started playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night recently, an old classic I’ve always wanted to try because I didn’t have a PSX growing up. Right off the bat, you can already tell the difference in game philosophy then versus now. There’s no handholding here. You’re dropped in the middle of Dracula’s castle and, after being stripped of your high powered equipment, must fight your through the labyrinthine hallways of Castle Dracula with no guides whatsoever. There are no quest markers and no NPC guides, just a world map that gets bigger the more you explore the castle. Whenever there’s a barrier or a missing bridge that hinders your way, you’re left to figure out for yourself how to proceed. Sometimes, the game can be unforgiving, such as when the game leads you to a darkened hallway filled with deadly spikes. You’re supposed to change into Bat Form here and use your sonar abilities to make your way through. But the game doesn’t tell you this; neither does it teach you how to use your sonar ability. The game goes, “Oh you need your hand held? Piss off, I’m busy rendering more monsters for you to fight.” However, this emphasizes the need for critical thinking, not just button mashing, in order to defeat the game.

It’s easy to make a game difficult by just increasing the life bar of monsters or decreasing your character’s stats. This is a cheap tactic because all it does is handicap your player. SOTN is cleverer than that. By emphasizing the need for exploration you empower your player by giving him control on where he wants to go while also challenging him to figure out how to proceed past certain puzzles and enemies. The variety of monsters and enemies in SOTN also adds to the challenge. Unlike Call of Duty where every enemy is the same cut and paste hostile soldier, SOTN has the liberty of adding any monster from any mythology ever.Each of these monsters is different so learning how to defeat them also adds to the challenge in the game.

Video games need to be challenging. Only when games are difficult can there be a sense of achievement.This is where games like the Souls series shines. Not only do the monsters have large health bars and deal lots of damage, they are also varied and have different weaknesses. Fighting each enemy requires ingenuity and experimentation with different tactics and weapons. When you finally defeat one, you have a sense of accomplishment that you managed to outsmart the game’s punishing level design. There’s also the slight ego boost knowing that you beat a game that’s known to be unforgiving and difficult.

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We as humans have within us a desire to conquer obstacles. It is human nature to dominate. That’s why many of us gravitate towards activities that challenge us like taking up sports, engaging in debates, and even competitive multiplayer games. There’s a reason why the e-Sports scene is so huge nowadays. (The recent CS GO ELEAGUE Major had a prize pool of $1 Million. And that’s just chump change compared to what League of Legends and DOTA get.)

Video games need to show their teeth again. We need to be frightened and challenged so that we can roll our sleeves up and tackle them head on. If they’re just as easy as reading a book, I might as well stick to buying novels. At least they’re cheaper.

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