Difficulty in games is a contentious subject sometimes. It’s a fair target of discussion, though, since the audience’s involvement is what sets games apart from other media. There are several axes to consider when discussing difficulty, and several precedents that have colored the scales differently; this isn’t going to be an opinion-heavy piece for the most part. I just want to lay out my perception of ways difficulty is created, influenced, and received.
Easy — Death of the Tutorial
Okay, let’s start with the obvious. There’s two sources of difficulty: the game designers/developers, and the player. Those can be further subdivided into intentional and unintentional types and sources of difficulty from each side!
Tutorials are intended to introduce you to game-specific mechanics and acknowledge which series- or genre-spanning precedents the game in question is utilizing. If anything can be learned from proverbs, though, it’s that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; the product of those intentions is much more important. Such is the purpose of Death of the Author. Divorced from the intent of those who wrote it, a tutorial should be exceedingly clear, truthful, and thorough in conveying the nature of the mechanic in question.
Pictured above is the tutorial for fishing in Nier. With a dedicated questline that reaches across both halves of the game, the fishing mechanic is rather important to understand the workings of! However, while the tutorial doesn’t include a single false statement, it neglects to inform the player that in order to hook a fish, all they need to do is pull back on the analog stick, and then move it in the opposite left-right direction of the fish’s movement to reduce its HP. Pressing (on PS3) the cross button does nothing but attempt to instantly land the fish, with a success rate that is based on the fish’s remaining HP, making it absolutely terrible when the fish’s HP is full.
This is an example of a poor tutorial. Unintentional, or Cavia intentionally trolling the player? I’m not quite sure, but it doesn’t change how poorly the mechanics are conveyed and it was a sticking point for me for a while.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance had detractors rightfully claim that the parrying mechanic was poorly explained by the game. This is clearly a case of an unintentionally poor explanation, since it’s a core mechanic in a highly focused game; fishing properly in Nier was never more than sidequest material.
For the record, I was aware of how to do this thanks to ChipCheezum’s video tutorial from his LP of the game. A simple change in wording to indicate that “tap the analog stick in the direction of an incoming attack” and “press X” were to be simultaneous actions, akin to a Smash attack in the Super Smash Bros. series, would make it completely clear and negate a lot of trouble people had with grasping the mechanic.
I recently watched a stream in which Dust: An Elysian Tail was played for a short time; the streamer was in the tutorial/prologue of the game and refused to pay attention to the tutorial text popping up. He ended up taking something like ten minutes to solve the thing I hesitate to even call a puzzle in the above screenshot, where you use your previously-explained Dust Storm action, which pulls most active objects toward you from basically across the screen, to pluck an explosive fruit and pull it up to the explosive wall that’s not even two screen lengths away.
I have no sympathy for you if you outright refuse to engage with tutorials and then complain that the game isn’t clear about how you need to progress. Ignoring tutorials can range from intentional stubbornness to unintentionally being distracted. Don’t be intentionally stubborn.
I’m just including this to be completely petty about it, but the same streamer skipped this vital tip about parrying that makes tougher enemies actually manageable fights and then spent a long time fighting enemies that necessitate parrying and the ensuing frailty, and dying a lot. Please, for goodness’ sake, don’t ignore tutorials on principle, especially if you’re playing for an audience. It’s terrible.
Past the developer-intended difficulty is a different realm: the self-inflicted challenges. Speedruns and more general gimmick runs are in this subdivision. These aren’t explicitly condoned in the design of the game, and in fact, often exploit or ignore the designed intent of the game in their execution. You really aren’t supposed to beat Ocarina of Time in under half an hour, nor are you supposed to beat Resident Evil 4 in under two hours, or using only rifles, but it’s sure as hell possible. Restrictions or aspirations are often what games devolve into when you have too much experience in it to have much fun playing it regularly.
This divide between the design’s difficulty and how much the player engages with it is the most easily recognized and remedied, if needed, aspect of difficulty. If a tutorial is lackluster, or a mechanic more complex than expected, we have the internet to connect with people who will likely be willing to help us out.
Normal — DEX vs INT
Gameplay requirements fall on a spectrum, from pure reactive dexterity in action games to more in-depth or intuitive knowledge of the systems at play and how to manipulate them in RPGs and strategy games. I went over this to a degree in Objective: Impossible, but different games require different kinds of attention to hit a win state. You’re not going to start up a Devil May Cry game and make any progress without quite a bit of dexterity and some experimentation, and you can’t fire up Pokemon and make it very far without understanding how levels affect stats and type effectiveness.
However, even if you’re more inclined to one side of the spectrum, if you have enough information, you can build up a buffer of equivalence in the half of the equation you’re lackluster in. If you’re personally balanced to be more intuitive than reactive, you can mimic people more skilled at reactive games until you gain the feeling for how the game handles and adapt to it on your own terms. If you’re not so great at intuition with tactics and such in RPGs, you can have a guide to combat your shortcomings and supplement your competence!
This is the biggest chunk of players’ participation in difficulty as a system. Higher levels of difficulty change factors that play into this equation of what the game requires/requests of the player. It basically boils down to bigger numbers a lot of the time, but that changes the sustainability of strategies with respect to the resources (in-game and out-of-game) required and possessed, like health, ammo/magic, etc. and the player’s endurance. Knowing the challenges you’re going to face in different difficulty settings, such as DMC’s Dante Must Die, MGR’s Revengeance, or Bayonetta‘s Hard? That’s the foundation for knowing how to handle them and come out the victor. The same is true of something like a superboss in Tales of Symphonia, Disgaea, or a number of other RPGs where dexterity isn’t a factor in competence.
Older games were also predicated on experimentation or foreknowledge; the term quarter-eater refers to an arcade game or arcade-style game like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, that is designed to be extremely challenging and only conquerable by repeated failures and collective experience/knowledge achieved over many lives. NES and SNES action games also relied on this style of difficulty, and even to this day, the lives system, largely obsolete in its purpose of forcing more money out of the player’s wallet, pervades platforming games in its unexamined ubiquity.
Hard — Gods Bound By Rules and The RNG
Sometimes knowledge is not enough. Sometimes the laws of the systems are steeped in chaos. The term Random Number Generator, or RNG, is used to describe a subsystem designed to generate a sequence of outputs with no outwardly discernible pattern. There is an equation, but the player is generally never aware of precise ways of manipulating it to get a preferential outcome. Games in the roguelike genre or claiming to have roguelike elements rely heavily on RNG that alter the starting conditions or the obstacles the players will face.
In contrast to RNG, there are games that run purely on systems that are deterministic to a degree that can be measured by the average person, or RNG so simple that it can be manipulated with very little effort. Golden Sun and its sequel The Lost Age, for example, have pages upon pages of methods discovered by players to guarantee rare or legendary item acquisition by using certain sequences of spells and attacks on certain enemy groups that are guaranteed to spawn thanks to saving and resetting in specific places. Final Fantasy games, too, ran their bosses on scripts more than randomness for a majority of their existence, and The Legend of Dragoon doesn’t even have random level-up stat gain values, instead having a flat array of stats for each character at each level.
There’s not much you can do against the RNG unless you’re playing at an extremely high level and can repeat optimized precision inputs, and thus it’s the hardest factor to grapple with for normal players.
Full-Stop Finite Denouement — Conclusion
To me, difficulty isn’t inherently bad like I have definitely seen a few people exclaim, in particular non-battle difficulty in RPGs. I prefer my games to have some varying challenges to overcome, because while the equivalent of a walk in the park is relaxing, it’s not exactly fulfilling as a player and participant in the medium. This is, of course, subjective, but I really do appreciate the advent of difficulty settings in games to allow folks of different skill/patience levels to get through them while still offering a challenge for those, like myself, who wish to enjoy such a thing.