Editorial: Difficulty

Saxton Hale created a difficulty setting once, but it killed people.
Saxton Hale supports hard mode!

Hello, readers, and welcome to this week’s editorial-word-thing! If my love of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls were not a dead giveaway, I really enjoy difficult games. Sure, beating games on super hard mode gives a player a lot of bragging rights, and some games attach achievements and unlockable game modes to clearing the harder difficulties, but I, personally, just love the feeling of barely beating a boss or level. There are a lot of ways games can make themselves appear more difficult, and many new gamers fail to see a point in “hard mode” or “game overs.” Hopefully I can shed a little bit of light on both of these areas, after all, it is one of my favorite parts of any game.

So, why do games have “game over” screens? It seems silly that developers would pour months into making their games, praying that gamers can experience and enjoy the entire game, only to include setbacks and difficulty spikes that force the player into a game over, right? A good difficulty curve makes a game more memorable; a player is going to remember the ten game overs received in the final dungeon of doom a lot more than that boss the party killed in a few hits earlier. Any rewards from a difficult spot, especially cutscenes, are going to feel a lot more like rewards, and less like something the game throws at players to progress the story along. The biggest thing to come out of a difficult game, though, is the lack of hand holding the game does. We have all played games long enough to know what to do in most cases, and things like games forcing players through tutorials, pointing players directly to the next quest spot, or respawning players right where they died at simply feel like insults after all these years.

Think killing hundreds of monsters is bad? Scott had to get a girlfriend before he reached level 2!
Grinding is never fun, but leveling up is.

Of course, hard games can feel a bit insulting or downright infuriating at times, too, depending on what methods the game uses to spike its difficulty. One of the main ways of making games feel harder, by increasing enemy levels by large amounts, and forcing players to grind, is not even a real increase in difficulty at all; a good RPG should challenge players by forcing them to modify old tactics and come up with new strategies on the fly, like the cliche elemental-weakness changing boss or Demon Wall, not by ripping players away from the story so that they can go punch slimes for ten more levels. Another poor method, which also happens to be from RPGs, is poor balancing of items and skills. Oblivion, for example, is horribly guilty of this; in Oblivion, characters who fight with magic or ranged weaponry are much weaker than a pure face-to-face melee character, and spend a majority of their fights running backwards, throwing spells and arrows at a single target, and the second two or three more monsters join the fight, players might as well concede defeat and reload their last save. To a somewhat lesser degree, games that employ skill trees, such as Breath of Death and Dragon Quest IX, can also cause players to put themselves in a tight spot; since these games give players various skills to pick from upon each level-up, it is possible to pick skills in such a way that characters are much weaker than the game intends for them to be by a certain level or area. In Breath of Death it is possible to give a certain character skills that only work in a single dungeon, while Dragon Quest IX will not say a word if the player tries to pour all of their skill points into a talent tree a character is not able to use. While it is possible for players to research the best possible character types and skill set ups for a game, it is no less frustrating when a player realizes fifteen hours into a game that they picked the wrong skill a few hours back.

Difficulty for action games is a little harder to pull apart. Recently, extremely hard action games have begun to carve out a niche for themselves with games like Ninja Gaiden and Demon’s Souls, and many other games feature optional insanely difficult modes, such as Resident Evil 5‘s professional mode and Muramasa‘s shigurui mode. The same infuriating, horrible, dirty methods of increasing difficulty in any kind of action game are the exact same methods that make these games what they are, . Instant death is easily the biggest issue, though; not only is it a massive slap in the face, but killing players outright removes the stress and fear that comes from being almost dead in favor of pushing players back to their last save point. Being left with barely enough health to survive the next attack, despite how easy the game may be, can make any situation feel like the hardest, scariest part of a game ever, one false step and the player might lose all their hard earned progress so far. Being almost dead is one way the fights in Dark Souls and Monster Hunter seem so fun. Another mixed method is limiting a player’s resources, which is practically a requirement for survival horror games, but in other situations this method can make games feel impossible. For example, the scarcity of ammo in Fallout 3 can put particularly trigger happy players in situations where they are out of bullets very often, there were tons of points in Dark Souls where I found myself wishing I had just one more potion, and Cave Story+‘s hard mode limiting the player to only three HP(read: not very much) makes the game nearly impossible.

We will never be as great as Success Kid, though.
The feeling of finally beating hard mode is always great.

Despite how much I may hate some dirty tricks games use to up the difficulty, I still love trying to overcome the hard parts, be it grinding, trying to fix an underpowered character, or limping through a dungeon with no potions left. I would love to see this “super hard mode” niche continue to grow for action games, and possibly even reach the more traditional-style RPGs, but in the meantime, there is always Dark Souls and the Shin Megami games to replay. Of course, there are many more ways games can be difficult, such as throwing players into unfamiliar situations, limiting the players ability to level above enemies in an RPG, and so on, but that is what the comments and future articles are for! What are some readers’ opinions on difficulty or favorite hard games? Does difficulty even make a difference, or does it ruin good games?


  1. So many comma splices Michael…
    Mr. Mackenzie would be disappoint.

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