A Polemic On Making Hard Games Easy
Media personalities are insane. They are digitized egos yearning for validation in the black hole of opinion. No light escapes, but sometimes there’s a paycheck—unless the writers busy learning to code.
Video game critics (who will be called by their appropriate designation, “bloggers”) arguably exhale the largest gravity sucking spheres of nonsense. Either their editorial meetings race to the bottom of worst ideas, or the bloggers themselves are genetically predisposed to take quests from the worst kind of beliefs. Anyway, thank goodness Gawker Media still employs enough of these dupes or I might not be typing again.
The latest craze in the land of complaining surrounds game difficulty, spawning meme protoplasm I’m happy knowing nothing about. The general idea is this: some games are too hard and therefore need an easy mode. It doesn’t end there. Not only are some games too hard, but their rock-hard hardness is a detriment to the gaming industry.
Instead, difficult games should offer forgiveness. They should spread the love; spread each game’s warm butter across every person of every kind. In the same way, since I never bothered to learn the rules of poker the dealer ought to only take half my wager when I gamble my mortgage at Palms Casino Resort.
If time is a flat circle then it’s no surprise gaming’s corporate outlets are shilling the same hive mind thinking; FROM software has released another title. But I’m not here to talk Sekiro. I’ve barely played it. I’m here for abstract principles only. The kind of meaningless squandering you type up at 1AM. Let’s explore the abyss together, in the only way possible: meandering until you find a wall that will lead you out.
Long gone are the days when there was an in-group segregation called “gamers.” That’s nothing more than food for nostalgic vultures. My sixty-something aunt logs more gaming-time in a month than I do. She’s more of a gamer than me. What doesn’t follow from a universe of people staring at screens for points is the need to create equal access to all games.
Should Chinese bureaucrats scramble to build accessibility ramps up Mount Huashan? No. If a wheelchair-bound curmudgeon demands a sherpa carry them up seven thousand feet they should be rolled off the edge. Along the same vein, if you suffer chronic wrist pain thanks to years of lonely Friday nights—so that holding an Xbox controller fires off pins and needles like a piston engine—don’t play demanding games. Play bocce. I love bocce ball; I’ll even play with you.
Am I being harsh? In that case here are the mats for Terraria’s Ironskin Potion: one bottled water, one daybloom, and one iron ore. It’s easy to gather. You only have to dig a little ways down for the iron; daybloom glows wherevers there’s light; and c’mon, is it that hard to find water? Since you won’t be pew-pewing any of the bosses the enemies will be easy. It will be all sunshine and smiles for days on end. Queue the bloomer tunes and sail away to happy-go-lucky la la land. It’s just low-key enough that the early onset of arthritis won't bother your enjoyment.
If a game turns you off because of its difficulty it is not the game’s fault; it is your fault. You simply don’t mesh. Keep swiping right until you find something more your style. I promise eventually one game will also swipe on you. Let me help get this started. “SUPER DRAGON BALL HEROES WORLD MISSION is a Tactical-Card game packed with exhilarating confrontation…”; there ya go. It’s exhilarating too. My, my. Very positive reviews. It must be good! Seems like an accessible title after all, for an accessibility-interested player. Well, hop to it. Make sure to send MMOs.com screenshots.
If a friend tells me they don’t get Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker because it’s slow and boring, or they hate Plato because reading hard, or Home’s Resonance sounds like synths from inside a trash can, I don’t raise my glorious nippon steel to the sun and yell, “Let’s slap those creators up real good until there’s a version where you get it.” No. I say, “Hey man, that’s cool. Guess those things just aren’t your style.” I understand the media is not for them. They understand the media is not for them. Then I ask, “What do we have in common again?” “Laughing at influencers.” And that’s that.
My point being blog-criticism rolled off the conveyor belt of accessibility is bad criticism. Apply it to the genre ubiquitously and intentionally challenging games become bocce ball. An entire world of bocce ball. It would be an Olympic sport. Blockbuster films following the excruciating regiments needed to perfect the art of bocce. I want to be the bocce. “Hello AGDQ? I found it.”
As usual blogger-provocateurs don’t understand difficulty, accessibility, or the medium they write about. In the minds of snored-through English degrees difficulty is nothing more than a slider. A series of rotating dials on the developer’s vacuum tube computer. Adjust any aspect. Any at all! Just keep shifting them around until the metrics are harmonized to green on Easy, Medium, and Hard. As if Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstoppers come in AI-generated flavors. Pop one in your mouth and it moulds itself to the empty spaces between your taste buds.
But games don’t exist for singular persons, not yet. Do not judge a game by its ability to conform to any particular individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Games that adapt to You, and always find a path for you to win, are the future. It is coming. Sooner than later. Still, even in a world of AI-handholding I believe difficult games will thrive, and should be allowed the dignity of silence for the players attempting to climb them.
No game exists within its independent mechanics, at the edge of its isolated aspects, or the singularity of any particular moment. A game cannot be judged for its contribution to the medium except as the sum total of its played experience. It is conveyed through the player’s motions. As they move within a simulated world from point A to B, and undergo impressions billowing with emotion and accomplishment (a sense of increasing mastery), or tragedy and failure. The ideal balances this tension, and the player emerges—if they survive—from an incredible journey, or incredible failure.
Demand difficulty settings universally and handcrafted experiences are split like lovers. The game will be lost to itself, damned to look for its other half across a ghostly landscape. This, of course, isn’t true for every title. But for some games it rings hallow. It’s particularly true of experiences intentionally crafted to be difficult. In these games some players have to be allowed to lose. Because these games channel eternal truths mocked at by an age tuned to meme machinery.
Losing is fundamental. Not to games but to life. And it seems to me that the great difficult games are not just mirrors of the inevitable walls which rise in our paths, but they also seek to contain the tragedies and triumphs of what it means to be alive outside of a screen. To lose and to win is cathartic. And we don’t always win. Sometimes we even give up. The footsteps we tried to follow don’t match the size of our shoes. That’s perfectly acceptable, and it offers reflection if we cared to take it. Other times we rise and discover the limitations of perseverance—for better or worse—and are confronted with the hidden dedication seeking expression. The charm of a difficult game.
What is the ubiquitous marketing slogan for FROM software titles? The one that inevitably blankets them all? “Prepare to die.” It’s a phrase that perpetuates itself like death cap mushrooms by attaching to the roots of second-rate blogger’s cache of cliches: “Bubsy 3D is the Dark Souls of PSX platformers.” To win isn’t a rite of passage. It’s a test of the self. (And that is never truer than when applied to Bubsy 3D.) What isn’t surprising is a piss-poor Kotaku writer lugubriously throwing sticks on his own fire. What is surprising is how much we love to lose.
Now, there will be spitters, naysayers, reactionaries, neurotransmitically charged rabble-rousers who dream of cave-diving throats like a Cirque du Soleil audition. Of course there are. Opinion is a black hole shaped like a starfish. It is far better at digesting than it is taking in. And the blogger, being a sensitive specimen, typically only takes in what he loves. The cool streams of mass appeal are an alluring siren.
I am not here to defend FROM software. Only the notion that “difficult” games need to be allowed to exist for the culture of games. Barriers to entry create hierarchies. And it is within those hierarchies we can play at testing ourselves; rising or failing, it’s not important. Only that the experience is crafted to ask of the attempt. And that we sit brave enough to try it. That is why we play difficult games, and why difficult games need to exist. To discover who we are.