The Two Words We Must Allow Games To Say

By Danny Baxter / March 3, 2013

The lead designer of Mark of the Ninja on difficult games:

There’s a vital component to these experiences, though: they must be fair. I will have no truck with bullshit. Holding the player’s progress hostage in the name of difficulty feels hollow. For example, say there is a sequence of challenges and you keep failing on the third. For some reason, the game’s designer decides you need to repeat the first and second challenges in order to be able to attempt the third again, despite the fact that you have already demonstrated your competency with the first two. It’s pretty easy to see that as arbitrary at best and, more aptly, just wasting the player’s time.

To have a viewpoint like this is to overlook a large part of how single-player games can be challenging. People have complained about checkpoint placement since approximately the dawn of time, and millions of stubborn fools refuse to see how the concept of quicksaves as seen in most classic PC games completely overrides the notion of any sense of difficulty. The viewpoint is that if you’ve done something once, you should never have to do it again. The scenario’s been played out, the assets have been viewed, and having to replay any previously-seen part of a game is seen as padding out the game’s length “artificially”.

Super Meat Boy is this viewpoint given flesh. Most levels are beatable by just about any player in under a minute, and the entire flow of the game is based around rapid cycles of death and retrying. About a second after you die, you are back and ready to go — the game even acknowledging this by showing you all of your failed attempts at once after the level has been beaten. It’s a hard game, obviously. That’s what all the marketing says, and you’d be lying if you said you don’t jump into a few sawblades in a typical play session. It’s a hard game and yet everyone comfortably beat it anyway.
   SMB demands a few things — an acceptance of the deliberately inertia-heavy movement, an ability to put up with a frankly disgusting aesthetic, but the one thing it does not demand is consistency. Once you’ve beaten one minute-long level, it’s done forever, and your ability to do it again will never be called upon. This is the sort of difficulty that is palatable to most gamers — which is understandable, because it’s not really hard. But it caters to the illusion of being a difficult game.

But when you take out the need for consistency, you take out the main way a single-player game can punish and therefore put pressure on the player. If you mess up in SMB, you are not punished. The game doesn’t care. It expected as much from you. If you meet a grisly end in the final stage of Dodonpachi, you are going to replay all the previous stages that you’ve already played a million times before you can have another chance. And while they’re perfectly fun stages to play, it’s an unmistakable punishment to be sent back. The promise of punishment creates pressure to succeed. This pressure, and this punishment, is what defines a hard game. It’s what causes controllers to be hurled into drywall. It’s what causes flurries of keystrokes as the phrase “artificial difficulty” is dragged out onto yet another unsuspecting message board. And most importantly, it’s what causes the overwhelming euphoria, the goofy fist-pumping, the feeling of invincibility that lasts for days after Glow Squid meets an explosive end or Ornstein falls to your solo SL1’s reinforced club. SMB offers neither.

SMB’s influence is not negligible either. Hotline Miami is the same formula applied to an overhead action shooter. Die and you are back at the entrance to the current floor in seconds. Hotline Miami is a decent game with a great soundtrack, but a difficult game it is not. Its difficulty is just as illusory as SMB’s, but this game is at least not selling itself on that illusion.
   Not every game has to be difficult. Some people just aren’t good at games, some do not play to be challenged. But the rise of the no-consequence approach to game difficulty — cheered on by the quoted above — creates hollow, shallow pretenses at difficult games.
   We ask for games with interesting and meaningful consequences. We ask for games to explore every subject, to leave no taboo uncovered. And yet, despite all the things games can say these days, there are two words few people will let them say.