The Difficulty with Difficulty

There’s been two games that I’ve sunk my time into recently. One new, and one that I went back to. XCOM 2 and Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin. Both of these are well known franchises for being difficult, but the difficulty from both comes from different things.

Difficult games are also not for everyone, as rewarding as it can be for the player. So what’s so difficult about games that try and fail to make a hard game, and instead make something frustrating? Or is that a problem that is completely subjective to the player?

In terms of “Difficulty,” XCOM 2 has choices, four to be exact. This does affect the experience, of course, and even can be enhanced by “Iron Man,” which doesn’t allow you to reload any saves. What makes XCOM difficult is the randomness of some of the mechanics of the game. Shots have percentages to hit, to crit, and many other factors that affect them in negative or positive ways. There’s no way around this, a 95% chance shot will not always hit. It will not even feel like you’re missing only 5% of the time, because that’s not how probability works, but I’m no mathematician, so I won’t even bother trying to explain this.

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So the difficulty in XCOM can come from luck. You pull off a few good shots in an ambush, you don’t accidentally find multiple groups of enemies, you only manage to find and hit those precious high percentage shots. Then there are other games. A failed shot that you thought was a guaranteed hit misses entirely, a shot hits, but the enemy dodges, reducing damage. The enemy could even gain that critical hit that kills your best soldier in one fell swoop. It’s all about the dice rolls that the game does in the background, only showing you a brief glimpse on how the situation may turn out, whether it be for better or worse.

This, by no means, is a criticism of the game of the design decisions by Firaxis. It works well, and it makes every engagement intense. It teaches you to work to get those random numbers in your favour. Upgrading your equipment, make new strategies, try something different, eventually you will succeed if you stop and think things through.

Then there’s Difficulty in terms of Dark Souls. Dark Souls is tough, but it’s not unfair, it’s not random (usually) and you generally tend to fail through your own lack of knowledge or a mistake made. Enemies can tear you to shreds from the start if you play recklessly, the environment can cause you to fall to your doom if you don’t pay attention, a boss can one shot you with an attack that you hadn’t seen them use in previous attempts.

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So where do you find solace in a world that is trying to stop you from proceeding even five feet forward? You learn. You slowly step ahead, shield up, cautious. You watch the enemies attacks, learn their move sets and then exploit their weaknesses. You look around the environment as you slowly creep forward, making notes in your head about holes, enemy placements and other environmental hazards, then you die. You pick yourself up, and you charge through more confidently, and each time you return to an area, you can progress a little bit quicker. You’re learning through your failure, and each time you succeed, you feel more rewarded than you do when you level up in a multiplayer shooter. You feel like you actually accomplished something.

Then you relish in the fact you’re not alone. In Dark Souls, you kill a boss, and a sudden flood of orange messages appear on the ground. “I did it!!” “Praise the sun!!” “Hope!” Other people have accomplished the feat, just as you have. You don’t feel jealously, envy, you feel pride. Someone just like you, having the same issues you have, managed to beat what they felt was the impossible. It’s invigorating, it gives other people hope.

Scholar of the First Sin added something to Dark Souls 2 that returning players could relish in. Familiar environments are just as tense as the first time you discovered them. Maybe a weapon you clung to wasn’t where it used to be, or maybe it’s because the enemies are no longer in the same places. It felt new, but similar at the same time. The confidence you felt initially was soon sated, letting you know that there’s still things to learn, and you will still die.

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Now that’s the problem with difficulty in games. Most games just increase the health and damage of enemies. Some increase the amount and frequencies of battles. Some just make the game fight against you at every turn. Some games manage to make it your challenge however. “Here are the rules. I will not break them. Can you beat the challenge ahead of you?” The difficult games that some people play are frustrating. The difficult games I play force me to learn, to observe and to persist. Frustration cannot  be completely avoided, but it’s a frustration that allows me to return to the challenge later, with the mindset of “This time you won’t beat me, I’ll beat you.”

To me, these games scream “You can do it!” rather than forcing me to shut the game off to calm down. It makes me strive to that rewarding feeling of success. Difficulty is difficult to master in games, but I’m glad that this modern era of gaming has these kinds of games.

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