Difficulty. It is something that no entertainment medium other than video games has to contend with. Our input as players defines our experiences with our games, in particular how challenging they are. One need only be present for a song or movie to finish in order to get the full experience. In order to get through a game however, one must be skilled enough to adapt to the requirements of whatever game is being played to “win” in the end. Some games give us fairer challenges than others, and it is in evolving game design where either frustration or satisfaction on behalf of the player are born.
The difference in fairness actually started as early as our industry’s arcade and NES-hard roots. Take early Nintendo and RareWare examples of Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels and Battletoads respectively. The poison mushroom from the original Super Mario sequel is a classic example of an unfair trap, similar in appearance to the usual power-up that makes Mario bigger and allows him to take one hit before dying. In this sequel, to spice things up, the developers thought it would be smart to betray the trust of the player and have it kill Mario instead. It may be amusing today, but looking back, poison mushrooms are a perfect example of a time waster: an artificial difficulty add-on that adds no real substance to the game.
Battletoads, as hard as it may be in many respects, actually respects skill instead of random chance. The rules of the game are usually defined; even the famous motorbike levels can be based on a player’s reaction time. It is hard as hell to react after seeing an obstacle coming for only a mere fraction of a second, but at least there are rules that can be understood by a hardened player with a desire to beat this, one of the most famous examples of NES-hard.
Interestingly enough, challenge in games has largely stayed the same, relying on these two methods of implementing it on behalf of the developers. Random bullshit and rule-based reactions or strategies provide us as players with obstacles we must overcome, and in my opinion, the former usually makes for frustration while the latter gives us satisfaction once we overcome a challenge, at least as long as we like the core game itself.
Take the Mario Kart series and its infamous blue shell for an example of luck-based crap. Sure, the vague rule is that this first-place ruining item can come tear up your day at any time, but before the horn-using days of Mario Kart 8, the item was practically unavoidable, leaving destruction in its wake for many awesome racers. Now, I also believe that Mario Kart gets away with being unfair in this way at times because of the novelty of it being a gut-busting party game, similar to the love-it and/or hate-it Mario Party series. This being said, we usually experience frustration when the blue shell comes our way because there is so little we can do within the rules to avoid it.
Platformers, as cited in The Lost Levels above, can also earn a reputation for throwing unfair crap at the player. To cite a game that implements challenge within the rules in a good way, however, my favorite 2D platformer—Wii U title Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze—handles its difficulty in a way that is satisfying. The Donkey Kong Country series usually handles its levels in a classy manner, beyond the occasional curveball (found mostly in the SNES days).
Take mine cart levels, in which you cannot see things coming until a second before they are about to reach you, or the frost-covered versions of DK’s home island. There are apparent rules at play, making it obvious that reaction time and precise handling of the characters are paramount. And since these different types of levels are designed well enough to teach players the new tricks that stages throw at them as the challenge increases, even dying does not feel like that bad of an experience because getting steadily better and better is a reward in itself (addicting level design and controls help too, of course). One does not get better at being creamed by the blue shell on the final lap. But one can make it all the way through Sawmill Thrill in one piece, even on the first try. And even if only true legends can do that, at least it feels possible to other players.
This is at least what I think about when I consider what frustrates me and satisfies me in terms of in-game difficulty. Something that teaches me and that allows me to pinpoint where I went wrong spurs me onward to face the challenge and perform better. Being ruthlessly blasted with blue shells or being forced to digest poison mushrooms out of inexperience or simple chance teaches me that life is unfair, which is frustrating. I mean, don’t we play video games in part to escape the real world and feel like we are in control? I think so.
But I also want to know what you think about video game difficulty. Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below!