The Small Town Bar at the Edge of My Childhood

In the south east corner of South Dakota sits a dwindling town called Wakonda. I wonder what the town is like these days. In my mind, in my memory, it is an echo, a ghost of days long gone. Wakonda no longer has a presence in my life but it played a major role in my childhood.

When I was kid my paternal grandparents owned a bar in Wakonda. It was called the Sundown Lounge. My brother (half-brother, same dad) and I would visit our dad every other weekend and we would usually go visit our grandparents at the bar. If we visited in the morning it would be just us in the bar and my grandma would make us breakfast. If we visited at night we’d be treated to the usual bar crowd, second hand smoke (this was before smoking bans), and the country music juke box.

It was best visiting the bar at night. Our grandparents would serve us chicken drummies, my favorite. I developed this habit of chewing through the bones. I was told to stop that because it’s bad for your teeth. There was this large rack that hung above the bar where various bags of chips and snack mixes would hang. As a real treat, after climbing up on the barstool with all four limbs, our grandpa would let us pick a bag to have. I always choose Gardetto’s.

The Sundown Lounge also had a pinball machine and pool table. My brother and I would grab a stool for the pinball machine. If it was a slow night, sometimes our grandpa would drop the balls in the pool table so we could just hit the balls around.

My brother and I could entertain ourselves the entire night in the Sundown Lounge. Never mind the fact children have no business being in a smoke filled bar. Never mind the fact the only reason we were there was so our dad could feed his alcoholism. Never mind the fact our grandparents had to watch over us because our dad’s addiction wouldn’t let him. Never mind the fact our dad would often drink and drive. Never mind, one night, he hit a pothole and lost control of the car, crashing through a fence and into a ditch. Where we had to spend the night at a stranger’s home in the middle of nowhere, while he spent the night in jail.

But the Sundown Lounge wasn’t the only thing for me in Wakonda. Just outside its doors was an entire town of memories.

My maternal great grandmother also lived in Wakonda. She was a stern old religious woman who lost her husband young. She also lived through burying two of her children, one to multiple sclerosis (my maternal grandpa) and another to cancer. But before she had to bury her children and before she passed herself there were the Fourth of Julys.

Every Fourth of July we would gather behind my great grandmother’s house and we would set off fireworks under the night sky. I miss that view, never take for granted a night sky untouched by city lights. My mom’s friends would come along with their own children. My childhood friends. It was an event filled with shenanigans and Midwestern summer foods. We’d run around the summer night setting off fireworks, throwing snappers and doodling in the air with sparklers. And the night ended with my great grandmother setting off a roman candle.

There was this kid that lived next door to my great grandma and sometimes when we were visiting my great grandma I’d hang out with him. We’d mostly play video games, I remember playing some wrestling games. But we also got really intense about trying to solve the puzzles in The Neverhood. Scribbled notes all over the place.

My dad lived in Wakonda for a little bit, giving me a chance to make more friends there when I visited. We played Pokémon cards and Pokémon Stadium. We would run around on summer days getting up to all kinds of trouble. Going to the pool. Getting yelled at by the life guard. I think that was the first time I jumped off a diving board. My dad got a dog named Jack. He was some sort Great Dane mix I think. He was this lovable energetic dog that didn’t like old people because his previous owner was an abusive old man. I tried to bike alongside him with his leash attached to my bike. After the one time I did that, I thought maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea. He ran really fast.

My dad was never much of a hands on parent. I know he loved my brother and I but the truly nice moments between us were few and far between. One weekend it was just him and I. He had to take me back to my mom’s. We got up early in the morning. And it was a perfect spring morning. The temperature was just right, a nice cool crisp morning but not cold enough to need a jacket. That intoxicating dew smell hung in the air as the sun slowly rose to the songs of the birds. The drive was peaceful and quite. It was just nice.

But why am I here? Why am I in Wakonda? It’s because it’s a nostalgic escape. Buried in my mind is this landscape of memories, from before the boundless optimism that can only exist in childhood faded. From before the cruelties of the world and the weight of lived experiences started to drag more and more on me. We should never lose the childhood wonder that drives us to make a better world. But with age it gets harder and harder. It’s this balancing act on a knife’s edge, oscillating between nihilism and trying to maintain hope.

It’s easy for me to get lost in the bitterness and cynicism. But I know there is kindness out there, kindness constantly trying to make the world a better place. I try to surround myself with kind people. The friends I choose are the ones that regardless of their life experiences are still kind. I believe in their limitless potential to make the world a better place wherever they go. They are my reminders to be kind. They are my reminders kindness always exists in the world and we should always be striving to make the world a better place however we can.

I have this sheet from kindergarten, it has prompts you’re supposed to fill out so others can get to know you better. Like “When I grow up I…will be a policeman” (that one hasn’t aged well), or “I hate to eat…peas” (I still don’t like peas). But at the very bottom of the sheet it says “One of the best things about me is…” to which I answered “I’m teaching people to be good.” It seems silly but I keep this sheet around as a reminder. A reminder of what it’s supposed to be about. People choose how to live their lives. Some choose to be cruel, others choose to be apathetic, and others choose to just survive. But we chose this! We chose that our mission in life should be to help people be good. Help make them better. Help make the world better. With no plan or inkling of how to do it! Is this an ambition only a child can have?

Eventually my grandparents sold the Sundown Lounge and shortly after it burnt down. Years later my grandma passed away and my grandpa now lives on a nice farm with my aunt. As the years went on those Fourth of July extravaganzas faded. My great grandmother buried her children and years later suffered a stroke. It’s not easy seeing the cognitive decline in someone that was always so sharp. Not long after she passed too. My dad eventually moved to a nearby city. Jack would be put down because my dad ended up in a place that didn’t allow pets and no one would adopt Jack. I miss him sometimes and I’ll always have a soft spot for big energetic dogs. As the years went on my relationship with my dad deteriorated because we would always end up fighting about his alcoholism. I haven’t spoken to him in years. My brother and I drifted apart as we became very different people. I never stayed in touch with any of the friends I had in Wakonda. So bit by bit my connections to Wakonda were severed until none were left. No reason to ever return. Now, for me, it only exists as a childhood memory.

I sit alone in the bar now. With a warm glass of beer as the light from the setting sun filters through the cheap colored window. It’s silent. I see my younger self run past on their way to play the pinball machine. They turn to look at me. What do I say? Do I say I’m sorry we weren’t always as kind as we should have been? Do I say I’m sorry we cut ourselves off from the world more than we should have? I’m sorry we didn’t do right by you. I’m sorry we failed to live in your spirit. What would my younger self say? Would they even care? Or would they say, the kind of child I was, say it’s okay? That it’s okay to forgive yourself. That it’s never too late to be better. It’s never too late to make the world better. It’s never too late to help teach people to be good. And like that they’re off to play pinball.

I need to leave now. I can’t stay here. It’s nice but it isn’t real, it’s only a memory. It does no good to stay here. It doesn’t hurt here, here in this blissful ignorant childhood. But there is real hurt out there in the world. Real pain we could ignore, real pain we could not care about. But that’s not what they chose. They chose for us so long ago, in the spirit of kindness, what we were going to do with our life. We were going to dig our hands into the messy world and try to make it better. On my way out I turn to look at my younger self one last time, watching them in their focused joy with that pinball machine. This time I’ll do better. This time I’ll make you proud.

Does WandaVision Need Villains? Reflections on the Villains of WandaVision and the Evolving MCU

WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have come and gone now, ushering us into Phase 4 of the MCU. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was billed as a more traditional MCU entry, WandaVision was portrayed as something indicating the MCU’s willingness to be more creatively open. WandaVision was also the first MCU television production we got to see where it’s both, production wise and creatively, all under the same roof. While this means the shows and movies are becoming more intimately linked than ever before, leaving previous TV productions in a limbo state regarding their canonicity, it also means the greater application of the MCU homogeneity to the shows going forward. While WandaVision starts out seeming like it’s going to be completely new for the MCU it ends up following into some old patterns that hold the show back, and indicates the MCU is not as creatively open as some would like it to be, limiting the creative future of the MCU.

WandaVision is a good and solid show, and is probably my favorite MCU project to date (we’ll see how it compares to Loki and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the other two MCU projects I am most excited about). It gives space to two characters that barely had much screen time in the movies. And crafts a narrative where we believe these two are in love, even if we didn’t see their relationship really develop in their movie appearances. Because of the TV format it has the time to explore the grief and trauma of Wanda, something we hardly saw in relation to Pietro and Vision before.

The show starts out by doing this in new and creative ways that feels fresh to the MCU, with its dream like ode to the history of American sitcoms, but as the show goes on it starts to pull its punches and starts to feel more and more like a traditional MCU project. And one of the ways this is felt most strongly is through the shows treatment of its villains. Or better put, why does WandaVision even have villains?

The MCU has long faced criticism for its villains. From their lack of complexity to their brief of use, or weak motivation. Many of the films had at least two villains, one of which often acted as a mirror to the main hero. If there was a secondary villain, a lot of the time they ended up being some kind of corrupted bureaucrat or politician. This sort of set-up has generally been a hallmark of the MCU formula. And it’s a reliable storytelling method, which is probably why it is a part the formula. It provides a consistent experience that is easily enjoyed by audiences. But if there is one project that didn’t need a villain it was WandaVision, and the fact that Hayward and Agatha were shuffled into these boxes in order to line up with that familiar MCU feeling creates a weaker narrative experience than if Marvel Studios had truly taken a chance and broken free of their formula.

Hayward starts the show in a reasonable position. He comes off as a little gun-ho but seems to have a sincere concern regarding Wanda, who intentionally or unintentionally can cause a lot of harm. But over time his transformation into full out villain becomes comical.

By the end of the show Hayward’s goal seems to be to resurrect Vision without the Mind stone. His exact motives for this seem kind of muddled. The show implies he might be doing it because he wants to have a weapon against alien threats but it’s also implied he’s looking for some kind of recognition, so his actions could also be read as a career stepping stone. Either way it’s noted his actions are against the Sokovia Accords, therefore illegal. The show never spends much time examining why he seems to be going to such great lengths, and ends up in mustache twirling moment where Hayward just straight up tries shooting some children. Afterwards he’s quickly swept under the narrative rug.

The thing is Hayward didn’t need to be a villain, this story did not require him to be a bad guy. And the show pushing him into that box felt forced and felt like that creative decision was made because the MCU formula demanded it.

Agatha feels even more shoe horned into the villain box than Hayward. The show slowly reveals her role in the events taking place. Where it’s finally revealed she simply felt Wanda’s power in creating the hex and came to see what was happening. The worst she can be accused of is not helping those in need but the show tries to frame her as a greater villain than she actually is.

Once her identity is revealed, Agatha walks this line between belligerent therapist, who seems sincerely interested in helping Wanda work through her trauma, and an amoral power hungry villain. But even the framing of Agatha as just a power hungry villain is undercut by hints that’s she’s concerned about Wanda’s role in a doom and gloom prophecy. In the end Agatha suffers a fate worse than Hayward’s, having her personality suppressed and freewill stripped away.

The show could have maintained the character drama without framing either character as a villain. They could have maintained the friction between Hayward’s methods and Monica’s, without him descending into outright villainy. Why does he keep Monica, Darcy, and Jimmy around? Why does everyone else at S.W.O.R.D. seem totally okay with his series of illegal activities? The formula needed him to be a villain so he was one, even if his actions and motives never made much sense.

And there is no reason why Agatha needed to be anything more than abrasive anti-hero mentor to Wanda. It even feels like this is what the show wanted to do but kept having to pull her back into villain territory. The MCU formula usually has the first major outing of its heroes face off against a mirror of themselves and here, even though it should have been, was no exception. So instead of just focusing on helping Wanda through her trauma and getting a handle on her powers, coming to terms with the harm she’s caused Westview, we end up with a witch fight in the sky. Similar to fights we’ve seen over and over again in the MCU.

Why does this matter? Why does it matter if the MCU decides to cling to its formula that demands villains be in something where none are needed? It’s that homogeneity I mentioned earlier. Before, Marvel Studios took care of the movies and Marvel Television handled the shows that were meant to be a part of the MCU (except for the X-Men related shows, which stayed their own thing). Under Marvel Television, these shows had a lot more creative freedom and weren’t forced to conform themselves to the MCU formula of the movies. This allowed them to do things better than the movies (villains, embracing the awesomely absurd, exploring more complex themes in nuanced ways, etc.). But then Marvel Television folded into Marvel Studios, not only leaving the previous TV productions in canon limbo, but also seems to mean the MCU formula of the movies is being applied across the board to future TV productions.

And the MCU formula is enticing, I get it. It’s a way to provide a relatively consistent quality experience. When you walk into a MCU production you know you are walking into something good, and depending on your tastes maybe something awesome. But I don’t know if I would describe any MCU production following the formula gloriously mind-blowing.

The formula isn’t set in stone and Marvel Studios seems to be allowing some creative freedom within its formula’s boundaries but not too much it seems. WandaVision started out feeling like it was truly doing its own thing creatively but then it got pulled right back down into that old familiar MCU territory. And if the formula is going to be applied to all of the shows going forward that’s kind of disappointing.

I enjoy the MCU productions but I also love it when shows are allowed to go creatively bonkers. And TV shows are the perfect place for that. Shows are already a little more niche than the movies and they should be allowed to be more creatively niche too. But with that homogeneity it looks like we won’t be getting anything that truly breaks free of the formula. I’m not asking for all the shows to be done by David Lynch, but one or two wouldn’t be so bad.

I started this year really excited for the MCU projects because I saw a few things where I thought to myself this is going to be fun and different. But I’ve adjusted my expectations a little bit after seeing how much they seem to be sticking to the formula. Say what you will about DC’s habit of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks but seeing The Suicide Squad trailer embracing the absurdity of a giant alien starfish got me grinning ear to ear more than anything else. When shows are allowed to go creatively bonkers we get things like the music battles from Legion or Danny the Street from Doom Patrol (which gender/sexuality wise has felt more celebratory inclusive than anything from the MCU formula).WandaVision didn’t need any villains but it’s adherence to the MCU formula demanded it. And for that I think it was held back. Others have also pointed out other ways in which the formula held the show back from its creative potential. WandaVision isn’t a bad show, it’s a very good show but one I would have trouble moving into great territory. For a show where its greatest potential was away from the formula, to be pulled down by it, indicates an unwillingness to break away from it for any project. And now that everything is under one roof I’m disappointed that it seems all of the live action projects will be this way. No crazy out there creative endeavors. Who knows maybe I’ll be eating my own words in a few months. Maybe Loki, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or Eternals will show that Marvel Studios is willing to truly break free from their MCU formula. But until then I’ll be waiting to party hard with the giant alien starfish.

I’m Old and I Can’t Stand Cold Weather Anymore

As you get older you find you can no longer do things you could when you were younger. When I was in high school I could eat an entire pack of cheap hot dogs, buns and all, in one go. I could even scarf down a box of mac and cheese with those hot dogs. These days I barely get three hot dogs in before feeling over stuffed. This isn’t a bad thing though, I don’t need to be eating whole packs of hot dogs in one sitting. Reflecting on my childhood winters I’m amazed how much of a beating I could take from the cold and snow. Now when I go out in the winter, I chill much easier. Just like I can’t eat whole packs of hot dogs anymore, I can’t play in the Winter cold like I used to.

I grew up in a place called Sergeant Bluff. It’s a small city in the north-west corner of Iowa. It’s right next to Sioux City, which is where I usually tell people I’m from because there’s a higher chance you’ve heard of Sioux City than Sergeant Bluff.

The winters of my youth were consistent with some variation. Some years would have heavier snowfalls than others. But on the whole, Winter was that old reliable friend that visited every year.

Sergeant Bluff is technically a city but it’s weird to call it one. I could probably bike from one end to the other within an hour or less. I was raised by a single mom who needed to leave for work before I needed to leave for school, and apparently I was too close to the school to use the bus system, even though I lived on the other side of town. So I would either bike or walk to school. Obviously I would walk in the winter.

Winter molded me during those walks. We became close companions, Winter and I. I grew to weather Winter’s fierce cold. I rarely walked to school wearing more than jeans, a cheap winter coat, and a pair of gloves. If it was a particularly windy or cold day I might have a hat and face covering. On the coldest of days I would arrive with thighs like icicles that would take time to thaw once I reached my destination.

But my relationship with Winter didn’t end with me freezing my ass off walking to and from school. What childhood is complete in the MidWest without snow ball fights, building snowmen, and building snow forts?

And this is where my true hubris with Winter really shines. Rarely did I ever wear things like snow pants. I played in the snow with nothing more than a trusty pair of jeans. This was mostly down to the randomness of youth. Most of the time my winter fun would come about while walking home from school with friends or if I was hanging out at someone’s house.

If I was walking home with friends there was always the chance of a snowball fight. Especially if the snow was just right. That right combination of fluff and stickiness. These were spontaneous events and often enough I didn’t have the right gloves. About half the time I would just throw snowballs without gloves.

And do you think a no school day would keep me safe from Winter’s embrace? It didn’t. Even when school was canceled I would venture out and walk to hang out with my friends and the mischiefs of youth would follow.

I don’t remember if what followed was from a walk home or if I was already hanging out at my friend’s house. There was plenty of snow already on the ground and some more had started to come down. With nothing but jeans and a standard pair of gloves I went out to play in the snow, we built a little fort and crawled around in it. It was late afternoon and we were out there for about an hour or so. The sun was almost completely set before we stopped. I then walked home. I don’t remember feeling the cold. But when I got home my jeans were soaked in melted snow. I was very comfortable with Winter.

Ah, to frolic in the winter season as I used to. But things change, I grew up. I stopped having the time and space to play in the winter like I used to. I learned to drive, got a car. I was no longer forced to endure the cold. I became unaccustomed to the cold. Now whenever I go out into the cold of Winter I can’t stand it so much. Gone are those days when I could spend time outside and not be bothered by the cold passing through my laughably inadequate outfit for the season. I laugh now in my old age of thirty-one and think about how times have changed. I’ve grown old and can’t stand the cold no more.

But as I think about these changes I also think about how, oddly, Winter has changed too. It’s hard to describe, Winter as we know it is still there. Every year there is some snow, some ice, and some cold. And there are still blizzards. Just a feeling though, a feeling in my bones, that Winter has slowly changed. Winter’s reliable ebb and flow has wobbled a bit.

Winter I’m the mortal here! I’m the one that’s supposed to wither and die in the blink of an eye! Whole generations pass before you! Winter, my old friend, why do you look so tired? I never know when you’re coming or going anymore. And you never stay as long you used to. I know there were epochs on this world when you ruled it all and others when you just slept and let it be. Is this what it’s like before you go to sleep again? We get slow and tired too before we enter our eternal sleep. But you get to wake up again. Will any of our children be there when you wake up? Will anything of this world be around or will it all be new? The land I belong to has always known you. I should not be awake while you sleep.

Winter has changed, is changing, we know it is. Climate change is changing the world around us faster and faster each day. Every year we are seeing new record high temperatures. And global temperatures continue to rise. Winter will be with us for the foreseeable future but it will be become more chaotic. Our failure to tackle climate change is and will continue to sow chaos into every aspect of our world.

As I’ve grown older, environmentalism and tackling the challenges climate change brings has become more and more important to me. It isn’t easy any day. It’s become a balancing act of cynicism and hopelessness against trying to maintain optimism and fighting for the future.

When I remember the Winter of my youth it is coupled with a sense of carefreeness and boundless optimism that can only come from youth. The cold didn’t bother me because I was having too much fun! Every kid should have that. But as the negative effects of climate change creep ever more into our world, the chances for children to experience that lessens.

Famine due to the destruction of food sources, loss of home due to natural disasters, dealing with being a climate refuge, experiencing the violence around you as desperation leads to fighting over resources, experiencing extreme weather conditions. The list could go on and on. But it all leads to the loss of childhood that all should get to experience.

The loss of Winter. Nothing more than a memory moving further and further away. The loss of childhood glee, becoming harder and harder to pass on.

Winter I’m sad to see you go and I don’t like what’s coming over the horizon.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine: Reflections on my Journey Across America

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a game I want to enjoy more than I do. It has a lot I enjoy and find interesting. I wanted to finish the game before I wrote anything up but I’m having a hard time pushing myself to complete it. It’s lasted longer than I thought it would and honestly it’s lasted longer than it should, given what type of game it is. I will eventually finish it, I want to, but it will be a slower process. It’s not an unplayable game but if you do choose to give it a shot you should keep a few things in mind regarding the experience.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine takes place in America during the Great Depression. At the start of the game you are tasked with traveling across America’s landscape to collect stories. Stories you collect are treated like items in an inventory. Along your journey you encounter other travelers. Successfully tell them the stories they want to hear and they’ll slowly reveal their own personal story. The game ends once you have completed revealing the stories of these fellow travelers.

Skeletal figure walking across landscape
Story inventory screen

The Great Depression setting is a compelling one. Periods of distress in American history are not often explored in video games. It is a period rife with potential for narrative focused games. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like you get a greater sense of that history from the game. While the personal stories convey the struggles people went through you don’t get the narrative of the Great Depression itself. If you’re not familiar with the history it will just be some time in the past when America was poor.

The art style and music of the game initially drew me to the game. The pre-release marketing didn’t reveal much about the actual gameplay of the game so I didn’t know what to expect in that regard. The art and music did not disappoint. Both fit the setting pretty well, though the art style is the more unique and pleasurable aspect of the game. The voice acting is top notch. The majority of the game is voice acted with pleasant narrations of the stories you experience.

The focus of the game is stories and it is the most polished mechanic of the game. The main way you collect stories is by investigating locations and experiencing something which then becomes a story you can tell. When you come across the fellow travelers, you tell these stories to them. Except they request certain kinds of stories. I mostly enjoyed this except for one aspect.

Each story is a certain kind of story (tragic, funny, hopeful, etc.). Most of this is clear cut, except for thrilling or scary stories. Stories are not labeled as such, you have to figure that out yourself. Which can be difficult if how you define a genre is different from how the game does. Progress in the game is defined by how much the other travelers reveal their own story. This only happens if you tell them the kind of stories they request. It’s really aggravating to tell stories you think are thrilling but they read as scary or vice versa. Otherwise I enjoyed the mechanics of collecting and telling of stories and would like to see it developed and adapted in other games.

story selection screen
house and traveler in scary storm

There are some other mechanics in the game. You walk around the map using your choice of controls. You interact with smaller locations or cities to collect stories. Larger cities can be entered where you are able to look for work or experience a unique story in the city. Otherwise there isn’t too much more, the cities can feel a little repetitive. Surprisingly there is a health mechanic in the game. It didn’t register to me until I died. I think I only lost health after hopping trains. The railroad people find you and beat you. You can heal yourself by eating food in the cities. There is also a currency and sleep mechanic. You use money to buy food or to pay to be on a train instead of hopping. And you usually get sleep when camping with other travelers.

city interaction screen

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine firmly falls into the walking simulator genre. These games usually last just a few hours. Any longer and you risk losing your player. I played about ten hours of the game and I’m having trouble keeping my interest and engagement up. There is no personal narrative to entice you along. Just stories from other travelers where the pacing is dependent on how well the player does with the other the travelers, so things can feel drawn out or repetitive. The mechanics are not varied enough to carry the game for hours on end. Even for others who enjoy the walking simulator genre this may be a tough one. Looking around, the game takes around twenty hours to complete. Which feels somewhat like a chore now.

The game should not be avoided completely. It has merits but it is a niche game in a niche genre. I’m not surprised to read that the game is not doing as well (sales wise) as the creator hoped (I have my own thoughts on his reflections concerning video games and the landscape of video games but that is a conversation for another time). The game is enjoyable but falters because it is a longer game for the mechanics and gameplay loop it offers. But it is still a game that can offer us a lot to reflect on for what we do narratively and mechanically in future games.

Difficulty in Video Games

Difficulty in video games is a frequent topic of discussion. Some think games have become too easy. They bemoan the days when games used to be more difficult. Others dismiss difficulty’s role as a part of the medium’s experience; asking easier modes be added to games selling themselves as a difficult experience. How difficult a game is, is dependent on the kind of experience the developers want to provide. Video games are an interactive medium and difficulty is an integral part of the experience.

To talk about difficulty we have to define what difficulty is. Difficulty is how easy or hard the mechanics and systems of the game are to engage with and master. Different kinds of games have different mechanics and systems. So a player might find some types of games more difficult but not others. Someone who plays shooters might find adventure games more difficult and vice versa. And in each type of game some games will be harder than others. Some shooters are more difficult than others; some adventure games have more difficult puzzles than others.

Broadly speaking there is unintentional difficulty and intentional difficulty. Unintentional difficulty is the difficulty of a game caused by poor design or implementation. Unintentionally difficult games are difficult due to of bugs or glitches. The developers did not do a good job of designing or implementing aspects of the game. Intentional difficulty is the intentional design and implementation of the systems of the game to provide a particular experience to the player.

Difficulty is an inherent aspect of the video game medium. Sometimes an element of the medium that can be taken for granted. People don’t always realize how difficulty can be calibrated to provide a particular experience. Some designers choose to lower the difficulty in their game to the point where it feels like it doesn’t exist to help facilitate a particular experience. To try and increase the difficulty would break the experience of these games. And the same can be said of those games that exist on the other end of the spectrum; the experience of games designed to be difficult would break with the lowering of difficulty. Though most games tend to be designed with a middle ground in mind with difficulty being implemented with a variable difficulty system.

As the medium has grown, games that choose to calibrate difficulty to provide a particular experience are often niche games and are marketed towards a more focused audience. Walking simulators make the choice to reduce difficulty in order to provide a particular narrative experience. Rich narrative experiences can be provided in higher difficulty games but a player’s frustration with the difficulty can distract from the narrative experience the game is trying to provide. Though walking simulators have their own risk of boring the player. Video games are an interactive medium and requires a certain level of interactivity in order to keep the player engaged with the experience. This issue of engagement is present in higher difficult games but for different reasons. As mentioned, frustration can cause the player to break away from the experience the game is trying to convey. Replaying or feeling like you are getting nowhere due to the difficulty causes a player to disconnect from the experience and may cause the player to give up on the experience entirely; the engagement is no longer a positive experience.

Most games these days choose a middle ground role for difficulty. Games for a general mass audience design an experience that is not dependent on low or high difficulty. Instead players are allowed to adjust the difficulty of the game to optimize their own engagement with the experience the game is trying to provide. Not too easy to bore a player but not too hard to frustrate them.

But some games choose a particular difficulty in order to convey a particular experience. When it comes to games with lower difficulty people tend to simply dismiss them as real video games instead of calling for a difficult mode. As mentioned before this can bore many players who don’t feel like they are engaged enough with the game. These games make a choice to reduce difficulty in order to let other aspects of the experience shine. This does not mean they are any less of a game than other games. To increase the difficulty would to break their particular experience.

A more intense conversation arises around difficult games and their choice to not include easier modes of play. Sometimes developers are asked to include easier modes to make a game more accessible to a wider audience. These calls feel dismissive of the role difficulty plays in providing a particular experience. Just as raising the difficulty of lower difficulty games can break the experience lowering the difficulty of high difficulty games could break the desired experience.

In the past year or so I experienced two works considered difficult works. While difficulty doesn’t exist in the same way in the other mediums, there are aspects of how they are structured or conveyed to the audience making them hard to experience in a similar way the difficulty of a game may make it harder for a player to experience.

Twin Peaks: The Return chucked any expectations of what I thought it would be into a garbage disposal and pulverized what was left. The original run of Twin Peaks and the movie Fire Walk With Me had some strange elements but still told its narrative in a relatively straight forward fashion. Not so with The Return. It’s hard to convey exactly what happened in Twin Peaks: The Return. I can try to provide a summary or cliff notes but so many aspects are highly interpretative. It is a piece of television that has to be experienced in every aspect. But some people won’t and that’s alright. The pacing zig zags everywhere. Episodes go by where nothing seems to happen. Episode 8 tells most of its narrative through visuals (very interpretative visuals) and non-dialogue audio. Some people will just not have the patience or want to think too hard about the experience to enjoy it. It is not an experience for them. And those that do enjoy it, revel in it, are not better than those who can’t get into. It’s just a narrative experience some are up for and others are not.

House of Leaves is a horror novel with aspects making it difficult to enjoy its experience. It interweaves two narratives and by the end you aren’t exactly sure what is real or not. House of Leaves is difficult in how it decides to convey its experience. Often the prose is not formatted in a standard way on the page. Sections of the book read like dry academic texts, long lists of references, or a seemingly large amount of meaningless footnotes. Like Twin Peaks: The Return some will face difficulty in experiencing House of Leaves. And again that is alright.

I consider both works good in their respective mediums but would not provide a blanket recommendation for them. I understand people have different tastes including the conventionality of conveying the medium’s experience, which Twin Peaks: The Return and House of Leaves do not follow. This makes them difficult works to access and experience. But I would never go to their creators and say, “Make this easier for me to experience. I want Twin Peaks to tell a straight forward story about Cooper escaping from the Black Lodge. None of this silly Dougie stuff or episodes of psychedelic imagery. I want House of Leaves to be published without all of its crazy formatting and useless footnotes.”

I would never ask these things because that would take away from the unique experiences they offer. To do so would to make them less than they are. Most games design their experience with variable difficulty in mind. This allows the player to adjust the difficulty as they wish in order to keep them engaged enough in the interactive experience of the medium. But some games want to provide an experience that is dependent on a particular difficulty, either low or high difficulty. In the case of games with low difficultly they should not be dismissed as not “real” games. And in the case of games with higher difficulty we should not feel the need to demand easier modes. In both cases the unique experiences provided by the game are dependent on the particular difficulty chosen by the designers. To change that would to break the experience meant to be conveyed.