A few days ago I delved into a bit of what is known as “fake difficulty”, a means of making something seem harder by shifting numbers among other sorts. This kind of difficulty doesn’t seek to challenge as much as it seeks to pad out the gaming experience and frustrate people who are aiming for those 1 or 2 achievements for the harder difficulties. So with my established idea of badly designed difficulty, what can we try and consider as good difficulty? Well I’ll try and throw some ideas into the mix but I don’t promise anything, this kinda topic can be very subjective.
In my mind, a good way to present a challenge is to have people master a system or mechanic and then running on that mechanic to make the “harder” areas and challenges. For example, some games use a mechanic of button inputs or release of inputs within a very small time frame as a risk/reward system for players, usually called something akin to parrying or a perfect block, resulting in a dodge of damage or a way to survive longer even after receiving damage. As a fun little way for this to be looked at, I’m gonna compare how to make this harder correctly as opposed to what I see as incorrectly.
How to do it correctly? Making the new attacks require a slightly stricter timing or a series of successful “parries” to get out of the attack, while it should be more damaging than the rest it shouldn’t be too damaging as a highly punishing aspect of any experience feels like it is better to ignore rather than challenge, learning is just as important as the challenge itself.
How to do it incorrectly? Create unblockables that ignore the very systems you have been teaching the player, removing all that time spent mastering a rule only for it to be ignored. This little irk is something I found myself experiencing in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, a game that spends around 90% of its time telling you to learn how to perfectly time your parry to keep yourself safe as well as to improve your means of attacking each enemy. The other 10% is the introduction of completely unblockable attacks indicated by a golden flash that force you to rely on the characters far from effective dodges and jumps to get out the way, with these attacks usually being the most powerful the opponent can pull off. This was unbelievably frustrating as someone who was getting really good with the parry system only to be told it doesn’t work for this particular attack, nobody likes being told their efforts have gone to waste, especially if they were told to do it by the one reprimanding them. Then the games ass-backwards design essentially rewards you for taking a certain unblockable attack from the final boss to launch you into a cutscene attack that does the most damage you are ever gonna do to this boss. It is as if the games design suddenly turned from a high skill floor experience that vastly benefited those who learnt from each engagement into a complete mess of unimaginative difficulty, I haven’t felt so betrayed by a games teachings in a while.
I’m only gonna look at one more frame of difficulty otherwise this will become a bit of a bloated post and there is a lot to say about each. Let us take the idea of say, an FPS. What does an FPS foster in its challenges? Reaction time. Accuracy. Strategy. Spatial Awareness. Absorption of information rapidly. These among many are what we practice and better during the course of a playthrough, but how to make the challenges harder seems to be something not many can seem to get their heads around.
How do you do it correctly? Design attacks and environments that require those skills nurtured by the basic gameplay at a higher level. Make attacks counterable if the player reacts quickly or has a good enough aim, hazards that can ruin a player if he isn’t watching where he is going, set the encounters up as a disadvantage to the player on the surface while having a deeper layer of strategic decisions that can make the tide turn heavily in their favour. Take what the player has been learning and put them in situation that pushes those skills, it isn’t even a mechanic that you have created it is the very nature of playing the FPS genre that these skills have come to fruition.
How do you do it incorrectly? Well you simply do what I struck up issue with in the previous post about difficulty: mathematical difficulty. Make them have to shoot at that one guy a few more seconds, add a couple more enemies so that the sequence almost doubles in time. Have them only be able to take 2 or 3 shots before dying, forcing continuous retreats behind cover to wait, waiting has been at the core of the design right? Why not reduce the amount of ammo the player gets in tandem to all those changes? Less bullets for a squad of 3 more enemies who take more shots than before? Sounds like a gay old time to me. Borderlands did bad difficulty when I saw my brother play True Vault Hunter mode, a harder mode unlocked after beating it through once. My main issue was the fact that this basic enemy that wasn’t much of a threat but just unreasonably difficult do dodge is now scaled to his character, he gets killed by an enemy he has no way to properly dodge and it now takes much longer to put down. The game hasn’t become harder in a sense, just lengthier with the same issues it had before now only magnified.
On the whole, that is what badly designed difficulty or badly designed games do when you try to push its limits in the harder difficulties and whatnot: they make the cracks become more obvious. That one area that you thought was kinda stupid is now maddening when the checkpoints aren’t your saving grace. I recall one section in a game known as Jak II: Renegade on the PS2 that was fine on the normal mode if a bit irritating on the normal mode became a entire pace stopper on Hero mode. Before I was pulling through , not minding the enemies pinpoint aim outside my turrets reach or the complete lack of staggering on some occasions. Hero mode then turned it into several hours of attempting that damn beginning section where the only difference is each hit I take does double damage, godmode doesn’t do a damn thing when inside the turret and I felt upset. Not because I couldn’t do it but rather that I just found a exasperatingly boring section in the game marred with bad design ideas. It is stuff like this that I go to easy mode on a first play of a game in the first place, I can’t trust a game to not chuck in a moment that just sucks the fun out of the experience, don’t even get me started on side content or worse post game content where the rule seems to be “you don’t have to do it so it can be as bulshit as we want”.
What are games you have experienced a sudden halt in progress because of that section? When was the last time you felt challenged by a game that didn’t feel cheap or lazy? Can a game with very little chance to learn and high punishment be fun to beat? I personally dropped Demon Souls not because I couldn’t do it but rather that it felt like success was dirtied by getting killed just trying to figure things out. Thanks for the read and I’ll see you around.