Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 19, 2015
What is difficulty?

2014 was a good year for indie games, there were literally thousands of them released for PC and / or mobile platforms. In several cases the reviews or even the advertisement of the game itself praised the game for being "difficult", an attractive proposition for game veterans tired of trivial games. But my experience with those "difficult" games was a disappointing one; apparently I have a different definition of what "difficult" means.

In my definition a person who is more intelligent or more skilled in gaming would do better on the first try in a difficult game than a person who is less able. I found remarkably few games to which that description would fit, although for example some puzzle games certainly qualified. But in the overwhelming number of cases I found games in which the basic gameplay was exactly as trivial as in mainstream games; and then the game hit you with an unfair surprise you couldn't possibly have foreseen, and then put a harsh penalty for failing on that. The so-called "difficulty" then is remembering the unfair traps the next time.

I have no problem with for example the difficulty of a jump-and-run sequence being that you need to jump at exactly the right point in time, with a very narrow window of opportunity. That is difficult. If the game then forces me to replay the 15 minutes up to that jump before I can try again, that is not difficult. It is just annoying. Jump-and-run sequences are also a good example of the game giving you good feedback: You usually can tell if you fail whether you jumped too early or too late. Far too many games have failure modes which don't give you much or any feedback. You fail, but you don't know why, so other than random trial and error you can't improve.

I like difficult games. I don't necessarily like unforgiving ones. And I certainly don't like having to replay the same trivial shit over and over, just because there is one unforgiving bit at the end of it.

For many games difficulty is more a matter of how fast you can twitch than any amount of thinking, ahead or otherwise.

In a lot of ways I'm playing exactly the same titles now I played years ago, just updated. Civilization and games where you build something fit into that. I've spent hours and hours messing around with the EQ Next Landmark beta simply because it's all about creativity.
My biggest issue has been games adding luck elements as the difficulty. Particularly strategy games like X-COM and FTL are guilty of this. You can do things right and improve your odds, but ultimately you have the strategy figured out pretty quick and you are just going through the motions to see if luck turns your way (and in the case of X-COM, simply save-loading if it does not).
Basically my problem with Dark Souls. Great boos fights, greate since of world and exploration, 10-15 minutes of easy trash mobs every time you die on the boss.

Though the main reason I stopped playing is it has no pause, adults need pause.
I don't go for arcade games much, but I've been having a lot of fun with Too Many Me (a 1/2-button runner where your character gets cloned when he jumps through a magic circle).

The reason I mention it is that the difficulty ramps up strongly, but you can choose to either get through each level, or go back and try to collect all three stars on earlier levels. And when you fail, it's never too frustrating as a level takes about a minute and you just restart when you die. A difficult game that gets it right.

At $1.99 it's a worthwhile purchase for almost any gamer IMO.
I was expecting you to mention you'd played Dark Souls, leading to this post.
I haven't played Dark Souls, because it was clear from the reviews that I wouldn't have fun with that game.
I'd recommend reconsidering the Dark Souls series. I find that I generally have similar tastes to you, based on your recommendations, and I quite enjoyed Dark Souls 2.

It really isn't a twitch game, it's more about methodical exploration of a fairly large and open world. The defining aspect of the combat is learning the telegraphs so you don't have to do any twitch-based gameplay, it's more about executing the correct action.
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