The Elitist Nature of Difficulty

This month’s roundtable topic of difficulty (hosted by Corvus at Man Bytes Blog) seems particularly apropos, given my current absorption in Landstalker, one of the most notoriously difficult games I’ve ever played.

The fact that I’m enjoying Landstalker this much necessitates the question of why I put up with as much punishment from this game as I do. Instead, however, I’d like to tackle the question of varying difficulty levels on a single game.

I played through Fire Emblem for the GC, and enjoyed the normal mode a great deal, but I found that it was a little easy for me. I grew up playing Shining Force 1 and 2, Vandal Hearts, and have probably sunk about 24 days of play time into various versions of the Advance Wars Series. Turn based strategy comes fairly easy to me.

So, I went back to play Fire Emblem on Hard difficulty, and found myself utterly uninterested. By “Hard” difficulty, they just meant that they had buffed the attack, defense, and evade stats of all of the enemies (or similarly nerfed all the same stats on all of my characters). The AI, as best as I could tell, remained entirely unchanged. The game was most definitely more difficult, but more difficult just because they punished me harder for the errors I committed. The same misjudge of how much damage an enemy does that might cause a small shuffle in my battle plan before now would require a restart, because I lost an important character.

Needless to say, I wasn’t very pleased, and didn’t complete the game a second time. I think I speak for everyone when I say that an increased difficulty level that encompasses more inventive AI, and more difficult puzzles is always more rewarding that an increased difficulty level that merely increases the health and damage of all the monsters.

Advance Wars, particularly Advance Wars Dual Strike, were very good examples of a hard mode that didn’t gimp your abilities in any way, but required that you made much more efficient use of your resources to pass the challenge at hand. Sometimes, the computer was more intelligent, sometimes the odds were just stacked more heavily against you, but it required that you play the game not just tighter, but better. How exactly they accomplished will be saved for when I write about my love affair with the series, but suffice it to say that the game accomplishes this impressive task.

Of course, the problem with producing more satisfying variations in difficulty is that it requires more work. The relationship between the riddles in Silent Hill on low difficulty and extreme difficulty is almost non-existent, to the point that it might as well just be an entirely new puzzle game. That hardly seems fair, though. In order to have really satisfying difficulty variations, your designers need to work twice as hard as your writers, composers, artists, or producers? (Assuming everyone works equally hard to begin with, which is a patent falsehood) Of course, it’s also a patent falsehood that creating a new overlay of difficulty over an old game is exactly twice as much work, but I do submit that there is a rather linear correlation between additional work and additional enjoyment derived from the difficulty level.

So, what then? Wouldn’t a designer’s efforts be better put into creating additional games, a sequel or some such to the hypothetical game they’re working on in the first place? Yes, I’m aware this is a shamefully simplistic way to look at things, but assuming that you have an extra body of work that your designers are going to do, where do you put it to maximize the your profit?

More satisfying difficulty variations translates into more replay value, which can indirectly translate into sales, but what about just making another game, using the hypothetical puzzles that have been designed? Would that game just have to be entirely more difficult than the game that came before? It requires questioning the egalitarian nature of games. If there’s another chapter in a story that I’m involved in, but it got created to go with an insanely difficult set of puzzles that I can’t beat, I’m going to be pissed that this next chapter of the story is inaccessible to me, because I’m not good enough at the game.

My initial reaction to “I want to see more content, but I’m not good enough at the game to get there” is that it’s kind of unfair, but what is the whole concept of difficulty, other than something that prevents people from accessing new content entirely at their own pace? A more difficult game gives us a larger sense of accomplishment when we overcome the challenges that have been set out for us, but no matter how easy the game, we have to believe that there’s someone who can’t quite make it over the last hurdle. Do they just get shafted?


Brian Rubinow said...

I don't know if you've played "Ninja Gaiden" on Xbox at all, though you've probably heard how notoriously difficult it is, even on Normal. With that game, the extra difficulty both ups the enemy AI, and makes the player character take more/do less damage. Other than that, the story mode is identical.

I think the point of the difficulty in this case, and in similar games that you mentioned, is so players can play through the game once on a difficulty they can handle, and then, if they so choose, go back and try a higher difficulty solely for bragging rights. Of course, there was also the online-only "Master Ninja Tournament," the sole point of which was to take the difficulty of the game as far as they could, but that was entirely extra.

Anyway, I think difficulty is best implemented in a game where casual players are able to finish the game on normal, while those who want to test their mettle can try the game on hard. Both groups are happy, and neither are deprived of content.

Obviously, the worst use of difficulty is when it's used just to get more playtime out of a very short game, such as "Rescue The Embassy Mission."

Natalie said...

As to whether or not they get shafted, I think the question is whether they stay unable to beat the challenge that stymies them. If they do, then yes, they get shafted. But not all games have that sort of scenario. Linear games certainly do. Games with unlockable content do too (unlockable content is actually the most elitist form of difficulty-based access to content, in my opinion). But at least some games let you see everything there is to see, content-wise, straight out of the box. I'm thinking of games without story modes like Civilization.

Then there's the people who don't stay stuck at a particular challenge. But it's worth noting the game can shaft everybody at those points, if it's done poorly. A well designed game makes it fun to try to scrabble over the metaphorical wall blocking your path. These are the games that make you lie awake at night with the niggling suspicion that you must be missing something, and trying to figure out what it is. Or the ones that make you feel like you're this close to being able to execute your brilliant idea, if only your fingers would cooperate.

Even that last example, where the difficulty comes from as mundane a source as demanding that you execute your plan with great precision, is the sort of thing a game can make fun. The final boss of Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones is one of my favorite boss battles of all time. The challenge in fighting him is essentially a precision challenge; you're tasked with executing each of the maneuvers you've learned over the course of the game multiple times in quick succession (and, of course, figuring out which maneuver is called for). But by the time you got there the game made sure that you had already mastered the actual maneuvers; the only challenge was to string them together with greater mental and manual agility than before. The game wasn't asking you to move in a new way, or combine abilities in a new way you had never thought of, and then execute those new ideas with great precision. The result was that even though I died many times trying to beat the boss on my first time through, I always felt like success was within my reach. I wasn't dying over and over just to try to figure out what to do.

That kind of difficulty is elitist in a sense, but also empowering. It's less like being thrown into a room and told to figure your way out and more like exercising with a personal trainer who is encouraging you even as he sets you more difficult exercises.

William said...

I'll have to explore this in my next post, but it seems the question is what makes you want to keep coming back to a challenge, as opposed to just giving up in frustration after a certain amount of it.