Difficulty in Video Games

Ryan Engverson

04/06/2018

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.