Theory of (Difficulty) Relativity

Are hard games better than easy games?

Not long ago Game Show tackled this question and concluded that yes, hard games are better. Game Show is great, by the way if you haven’t heard about it. Every week they take on an interesting question in gaming, such as why games make us mad, whether games are racist, and what you should think of yourself if you enjoy playing characters of the opposite sex. But I’ve seriously digressed …

A recent article over at Ars Technica concludes that difficulty is …the point. I couldn’t have put it better myself and in fact I never have! Yet this has always been my sense of what it means to have a good game. Something which challenges us. Everything else appears to be designed for drones (or more accurately, droning out).

When I was a kid and learning to walk, it was hard. Now that I’ve ween walking for over a quarter of a century, it’s easy. I would never tell a baby, however, that walking is easy or that adult walking is better than baby walking. Because that doesn’t even make sense, right?

The question of difficulty, in the way that we typically try to understand it, also doesn’t make sense. Difficulty is relative, but also not in the sense that there’s no such thing as difficult. There is such a thing as difficult.

Part of it seems to be a matter of audience. Different people like different sorts of challenges. But it’s more true that all of us enjoy a challenge. Difficulty in games is desirable, but it’s up to us to find the kinds of games which satisfy that desire for challenge. Does this mean there’s no such thing as an easy or a hard game?

There are games designed so that even the newbiest of noobs can learn them while still giving quite a challenge and these games are even easy to play, such as Super Meat Boy. There are also games which assume you’ve played other games before. Then there are the Demon’s Souls, where you have to learn it to win, no matter what experiences you come from.  It’s a good illustration of a game designed to challenge every player. When gamers ask for a challenge, this is usually to what we’re referring: Games that require us to learn, think, and solve. Games that ask us to engage. Not all games ask us to engage, and this is how we know what an easy game is versus a hard game.

So are hard games better than easy games? Yes, but they’re better in the sense that we know how good it feels to triumph, to work for a victory; how rewarding it is to learn something new and apply it. And we know that mastery takes time, patience, and practice. We prefer to be challenged. Still, there’s a time and place for easy games, which may be designed for a more meditative, relaxing experience. The recent Rogue Legacy is a fair example. While the game is difficult, the penalties for dying are greatly diminished by allowing the player to start-over endlessly with a new level, new abilities, and improved equipment. It’s hard to keep a single character alive, but the game is supremely easy to enjoy even while dying. There’s room for all difficulties of games and it’s probably the case that easy games are great for winding us down, while difficult ones satisfy our need to be intellectually challenged.

Scree Tags: #gamedifficulty #gamertalk