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An Examination of Difficulty in Gaming


Earlier this morning I exhibited a fit of nostalgia and had a strong desire to pop out my Game Boy Color. My copy of Super Mario Bros. Deluxe was all ready to go, and the sight of the cartridge took me back to a time when I would waste days away struggling to beat all eight worlds of this impossible beast. I fired up my GBC expecting to feel some sort of nostalgic frustration within the hour, but I quickly noticed that the game was nowhere near as difficult as I remembered it being. It took about two hours for me to complete all eight worlds, and it left me with a sort of pride one would feel after beating a five-year-old child at a game of chess. I was about to move on to a another game that would be more worthy of my efforts, but then I remembered the "For Super Players" levels that are unlocked once the initial game is completed.

Before I had completed two worlds, I gave up. These levels are excruciatingly difficult, to a point where they are actively punishing the player for daring to think they wanted a challenge. After almost three hours of trying to clear one pitfall that was just barely too long, I began to feel that nostalgic frustration. These levels left me in tears when I was eight years old, and I suddenly started to wonder why I was subjecting myself to this agitation once again. I turned my GBC off and went to go play some Call of Duty 4 campaign on the PS3. After finishing several of the missions on Veteran without dying, I realized that something was up.

I have known for a while that recent releases are, on average, significantly easier than retro games. Until today, however, I had not quite realized just how large that difficulty gap is. Playing both a retro game and a more recent release on their highest difficulties yielded significantly different results, and I wanted to know why. I have spent the rest of the day playing different games of different platforms with release dates of heavy variation to see if I could find some sort of pattern with their difficulties.

Because difficulty is so subjective, it's probably best to provide a solid definition to base these results around. Throughout this experiment, I considered difficulty a gauge of reflex, reaction time, and memorization. Since that "memorization" factor can cause a lot of wrinkles in measuring skill, I played games that I didn't have a lot of experience with so my "raw skill" could be more accurately determined.

Because I am apparently a masochist, the first game I played was Battletoads. This game is well-known for its difficulty, but it really doesn't start out this way. The first two stages are pretty on-par for an early-1990's release, but the game certainly doesn't stay this way. The third stage, Turbo Tunnel, is a tribulation of the most woeful proportions. This stage requires memorizing the entire layout of the level, alongside some insane reaction time in order to dodge projectiles that travel the distance of the screen in well under a second. The transition into the third stage of Battletoads is by far the most jarring difficulty spike I've ever seen in a video game, and the game really doesn't get any easier after this stage. None of the proceeding levels quite reach the transcendent level of difficulty presented by Turbo Tunnel, but they are still very difficult, and the thought of losing all of your lives and having to complete Turbo Tunnel again makes for some incredibly palpable tension.

I took a few minutes to digest the horrors of Turbo Tunnel, and promptly subjected myself to a completely different kind of awful, Takeshi no Chōsenjō, also known as Takeshi's Challenge. This game is extremely difficult, mainly because the player is thrown into the game with no instructions. The game is far too open-ended for most players to be able to figure out what to do, and frankly, I'm shocked anybody has finished this game at all. I looked up a walkthrough of the game and began its story. Arbitrary plot and idiosyncratic gameplay elements aside (at one point I had to let my controller sit for an hour otherwise I would get a game over), this game is punishing. The game doesn't start the player off with very much health, and at nonspecific points yakuza would beat me up and take away what little health I had. Once I completed most of the arbitrary story, I encountered a hang-gliding segment. It is, without exaggeration, the most difficult level I've ever played in any video game. It is a side-scrolling segment with a plethora of projectiles that have to be dodged or destroyed, but unless the player hits a gust of wind, there is no way to move up. The simple omission of the ability to move upwards makes this level infinitely more difficult because almost every object in view can kill you and bring you to a game over screen. Hitting the bottom of the screen will also result in a player death and a swift game over. After two hours of trying to complete it, I gave up and moved on.

After shaking off the redundancy of Takeshi's Challenge, I went for a more linear story, and played a few levels of Call of Duty: World at War's campaign. I played the same levels on both Regular and Veteran difficulties. While I'm not very proficient in WaW, I didn't find either difficulty to be very strenuous. Even on Veteran, things like grenade markers, regenerating health, and easy cover make the campaign experience relatively easy, especially compared to the efforts of the two games I've already discussed. While getting killed in one hit certainly is an annoying feature (I definitely died a lot), it really only stopped at that. Annoying. It might be because I nearly suffered an aneurysm playing Takeshi's Challenge, but I didn't feel frustrated in the least while playing this. It was quite a relief, actually.

But, I'm not playing these games to feel a sense of relief. I'm here to be punished by sadistic game developers, so I finished off this grueling experiment by playing Dark Souls. While it wasn't as difficult as Battletoads, it was still a relatively agitating experience. I'm not very accustomed to playing a game that requires so much patience, memorization, and strategy, and perhaps that's why the game is so difficult to most people. I don't exactly think the game is inherently difficult, but it does take a lot of attempts to beat the bosses, which is exasperating at times. Dark Souls is a game that expects a lot out of the player, and after getting used to some of the patterns the bosses present, the game isn't as much of a punishing experience as its reputation has suggested.

So, what has this myriad of games suggested about the difficulty of gaming as a whole? Well, I discovered that there appears to be two different types of difficulty: Natural and artificial. Natural difficulty can be found in games like Devil May Cry or Dark Souls, where adversaries are, by default, stronger and more agile than the player, and there is an immediate disadvantage to the player that comes with the base game. Artificial difficulty can be found in Contra, Ghosts 'n Goblins, Battletoads, or almost any retro game that is widely considered to be difficult.

A naturally difficult game is a game that expects a lot out of the player going in and maintains a consistent level of difficulty throughout the experience. To make another example out of Dark Souls, the game doesn't provide much of a tutorial and it never takes any turns into ruthless or pandering territory. Games like Silent Hill and Devil May Cry 3 pull this off as well, challenging the player's intellect, rather than their patience. These games aren't difficult just for the sake of being difficult; they actually improve the player as a gamer, and provide an incredible amount of satisfaction and fulfillment upon being completed. These games successfully employ difficulty as a means to reward the player, and their difficulty actually provides a lot of entertainment. It provides the player with a deep sense of self-worth.

There are two types of artificially difficult games: Games that spike difficulty through arbitrary factors like level design, objective, or enemy damage output, and games that employ difficulty settings to give the player an easier/harder experience on the same stages. Battletoads is artificially difficult in the way it amplifies its difficulty by simply making projectiles travel faster, and Takeshi's Challenge is artificially difficult in the way it actively attempts to discourage the player, either via yakuza or by providing absolutely no assistance in completing the random series of events that is required in order to beat the game. On the other side of the spectrum, however, is Call of Duty: World at War, in the way that it is artificially difficult on Veteran difficulty by simply decreasing player health to a drastic degree. Neither Battletoads nor Takeshi's Challenge reward the player for beating its perilous obstacles (Takeshi's Challenge nearly mocks the player with its conclusion) and in no way makes the player feel like any of their tribulations were worth the outcome. World at War doesn't provide much feedback, either, but at least it gives them the material award of an Xbox achievement or PS3 trophy.

Something else to be noted about artificially difficult games is that their difficulty seems to be employed in order to stretch the gameplay experience. For games like Battletoads and Takeshi's Challenge, this was probably because of hardware limitations, and the large amount of time these games consume would make the player feel like they were getting their money's worth. Contra and Ghosts 'n Goblins both have less than ten stages, and in order to justify the price of a full release, the experience had to be dragged out. Now that games don't necessarily need to be exhausting in order to warrant a full price, handholding is becoming all the rage. Tutorial levels, in-game hints, and NPCs that constantly scream what to do at the player make games so much easier to complete. Developers seem to think that the only way to make a game hard is to give the player no health, or to make levels deceptive, like I Wanna Be the Guy, which requires painstaking memorization and ends up leaving a lot to be desired.

Throughout these trials I have subjected myself to, I've learned that difficulty is an art form. Like most art forms, it can be gratuitously run into the ground and can simply be used as a gimmick. While adding a difficult edge to a game can make it fun and rewarding, it can also be abused and make for a very unforgiving and offending experience. As a gamer, I like to be challenged. I don't want my hand to be held, but I don't want to be bent over and spanked, either.
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