When Is a Difficult Video Game Done Right?

In anticipation of Dark Souls II’s release tomorrow, I looked back on my most recent favorite games of all time, and I realized something: I love a challenge!

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That is not to say that I’ll pass off on a game if it’s notoriously easy, for I play different video games for different reasons. I can go from playing something as cheerful and simple as Kirby’s Epic Yarn (2010) to something as frightening and difficult as Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989). Some gamers are like me, in that they always searching for a challenge, but most gamers shy away from one, in fear that a game is made difficult in cheap and unfair ways. This is true, that many games are notoriously difficulty for all the wrong reasons, but they are not all like that. Many other games are made difficult because of the way they were designed, and intentionally so.  This begs the question: When Is A Difficult Video Game Done Right?

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One thing for certain though is that more recent games do not take the difficulty level into consideration upon designing a game. Often enough, difficulty is an afterthought, which is why we see a lot of video games offering several difficulty options, where the game can be scaled to fit the player’s skill level. It is a nifty option and I am welcome to the idea, but too often have I seen developers make as little effort as possible, to make a game more or less difficult. For example, in a game like Darksiders, which is a hack ‘n’ slash action-adventure, and includes both heavy combat and puzzles, the change in difficulty only applies to the combat. Even then, the only difference that is made is that enemies take more hits and the player character takes less. If a player understands the rules of the game and has mastered the way the game is asking to be played, making such simple modifications won’t really do much in the long run. If anything, it’s testing the player’s patience, which can harm the overall impression of the product.


To be fair, a decent number of games get creative with the way they scale the level of difficulty. For example, in Ninja Gaiden Black (2005), playing the game on a harder setting will introduce new enemies and types that cannot be seen on the normal mode. Even when familiar enemies make a return, their AI is tweaked and the way they approach you is altered. These little additions makes the game both continue to feel fresh and new, and also adds an incentive for the player to change up his or her battle tactics, as they are faced with foes they are not familiar with. Though the addition is welcomed, it is still not a game-changer. Then there is Dead Space 2 (2011), a third-person, survival-horror shooter, which adds an advanced, unlockable difficulty setting known as “Hard Core”. This mode makes ammo and supplies far more scarce than usual and only allows the player to save his or her progress a total of three times, instead of unlimited times. A very interesting approach at reeling in advanced players looking for a challenge. Next, there is The Last of Us (2013), another third-person survival game, which also includes an additional, unlockable difficulty, known as “Survivor”.  This mode, like Dead Space 2, makes ammo and supplies scarcer, but it also turns off the normal setting’s “Listen Mode”, which usually allows players to catch a glimpse at the dangers that lie ahead by seeing through the walls. For me, The Last of Us does challenge scaling correctly, as the Survivor mode’s exclusions add an additional layer of complexity to the overall game, by making players rethink their tactics, assess the situation they are presented with, then make greater use of the stealth mechanics.


With all this in mind, you’d think that a game with a scalable level of difficulty could enforce  “challenge” onto players masterfully and with grace, right? Actually, I would have to disagree. See, as I stated earlier, the problem with a game including the concept of multiple levels of difficulty is that challenge is not within the initial mindset of a designer. In early NES days, a game was made challenging because of enemy placement, obstacles to overcome and the amount of helplessness that your character was faced with. Take Castlevania (1987) for example: The game only allows you to be hit four times before you die, unless you find hidden food that can be found throughout the levels. The game doesn’t tell its player this, but rather, they have to figure this out for themselves, by experimenting and taking the time to think it out. Also, if you ran out of lives in Castlevania, you had to restart at the beginning of the level. But from death, you learn about death, which in turn, you are taught the dangers of the games and ultimately, you learn to avoid, or even overcome them. This was a game that gave you a sense of hopelessness and fear; fear of being unable to see the rest of the game. The problem with newer games, even if they present a challenge, is that there is too much handholding. Players are told what to do, why to do it, and when to do it, and because of this mentality, all newer games are inevitably beaten with the passing of time. It’s almost as if video games of today were made TO BE beaten. It’s really hard to feel triumphant, victorious or even satisfied when a game helped you beat itself. Games like Castlevania, Contra and Ninja Gaiden (1988) are made to test you; make you WANT to see them be beaten and then feel powerful upon victory. That glorious feeling of true satisfaction exists because you beat the game with your own mind and reflexes.


Are we doomed to never see games made difficult correctly ever again? No. Not true at all. There are still games developed by big-time developers that offer a challenge in the true sense of the word (and plenty of indie games too, but that’s a topic for another time). The prime example, for me anyways, is From Software’s Demon’s Souls (2009) and Dark Souls (2011). Both games provide the same old-school ideal of challenge and satisfaction for several reasons:

1)   One, Singular Difficulty Setting, with the game designed around it.

2)   Little-To-No Handholding

3)   Challenging Boss Battles, and many rewards reaped upon victory

4)   The Fear and Hopelessness of not seeing the game to its end


I know a lot of people that shy away from these games, because they have deemed them to be cheap, unfair and “Way Too Hard”. Oh Contraire! They are not too hard, but rather, they choose not to stoop to the provision of the typical game conventions we have become so used to. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls choose to reject those formulas, and instead focus on what worked, and has always worked. No doubt, there are plenty of new and unique ideas and concepts available in these games, but what matters stays present and true. Here’s to hoping that Dark Souls II provides the same sort of grueling challenge! I say give these games a try, take it all in with an open mind, and see that there still exists developers that know what game design is all about, and that ultimately, difficult games can be done right!

About MagicSpartan

I like reading and writing short stories, as well as talking about and playing video games.
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