Why Are We Drawn to Punishing Difficulty in Games?
The release of 'Cuphead' has sparked a discussion on game difficulty. Here are my thoughts.
Difficulty in games has been on an interesting journey over the past three decades; the early generations of NES and SNES, where extra lives and continues couldn’t come soon enough, turned into more modest offerings in 3D. In the first half of the 2000s, we saw a tough title here and there, such as Ninja Gaiden’s 3D outings, but these were mostly relegated to the hardcore crowd before gaming went mainstream in 2007.
Beginning with From Software’s Demon Souls in 2009, which earned its place in the pantheon of modern classics and launched a classic gaming franchise, we’ve seen a return to the mainstream of brutally difficult games that really test your skill, standing at a contrast to other games which take the easy route and try to be as accessible as possible. But many more recent titles add a twist, something that really punishes the player for dying or losing a mission. My first crash course in brutal difficulty came with the veteran setting on the older Call of Duty games, but more recently I’ve become drawn to difficult yet rewarding titles that reward the player for overcoming the most impossible odds. By this, I’m talking about games which go beyond difficulty settings and offer even more challenging traits.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012 was the first game I played which had real consequences for losing; your best troops falling in battle and failed missions causing council members to surrender to the aliens, causing a game-over. More than any other franchise, XCOM may beat you down, but it encourages you to learn from your mistakes, which spurs you to claw your way back from defeat. XCOM 2 would up the difficulty even more with turn timers and a doom clock to keep tabs on throughout the game; after many retries of the campaign, I managed to beat it on ironman mode, which disables saving—which felt particularly rewarding after losing over 20 soldiers. Because of its unforgiving nature, XCOM succeeds at putting you in the shoes of a commander desperately trying to battle an overwhelming enemy.
This War of Mine would continue this same trait of perma-death; each survivor you control in the war-torn environment can die of hunger, freezing cold, or at the hands of violent bandits; lose them all and you lose the game. Each time you go out to scavenge requires a cautious approach and a heavy emphasis on stealth. On top of all that, the actions you take as the survivors can have dire consequences, such as intense depression, making them unresponsive to your inputs. I still haven’t managed to survive until the elusive ceasefire is called because resources and crafting materials are incredibly scarce. The game will also throw several unpredictable events at you, such as an uptick in crime or the onset of winter (which ended up doing me in on my last playthrough). These elements combined create a powerful atmosphere and emphasise just how ruthless it is for those caught up in war.
Alien: Isolation also drew a strong cult following in 2014; earlier this year, I beat the game on medium and the main source of difficulty stems from the save stations which serve as the only form of checkpoints throughout the game. This notion of losing progress may have been shunned by some, but for a variety of players, Alien: Isolation perfectly captured not only the feel of the tone of the 1979 classic, but also made the Xenomorph a terrifying and unstoppable force again. Any frustration caused by the game’s saving system was alleviated by making it through the dark corners of the Sevastopol station unscathed, feeling you had survived an impossible threat. Of course, the artificial intelligence of the Alien was incredibly unpredictable too, an achievement that few other games can match.
Cuphead’s release this year speaks to the massive volumes of creativity that come from developers, not to mention the way older genres are brought onto modern hardware. The game’s claim to fame in the difficulty aisle is its brilliant boss fights, which all have varying patterns to keep the player on their toes. I played an early demo of it two years ago at FanExpo Toronto and it certainly showed. While older 8-Bit games were limited by the technology of the time, Cuphead leverages its platforms to create a brilliant update, one whose endearing art style compensates for its tough difficulty.
So why do we love challenge in games? Because it’s what separates them from every other form of media. Conquering a difficult game is its own reward, leaving a feeling of accomplishment that can’t be matched by watching a film or reading a book. It also drastically improves a game’s atmosphere and tone, putting more pressure on the player depending on the context and pulling them into the avatar’s predicaments. With titles like The Surge and Nier Automata still making the case for challenging games, there’s still going to be a strong counterweight to all the casual, more easily accessible titles released on the market.