In the past, there has been a lot of discussion around the nature of difficult games. In a way, very difficult games almost serve as a genre of their own and we see them in all sorts of forms. There are bullet hell games which honor a timeless genre that’s been around for decades. There are platformers that can be absolutely bonkers. And then there are “soulsborne” games that are a relatively new genre. At the very least, the name is relatively new. Their roots go back a bit and with an upcoming remake of Demon’s Souls, one of the earliest titles in the genre, and the first in a franchise that inspired the name, the discussion around these games might crop up again. So why do gamers have such a love hate relationship with the genre?
For one, they’ve always been present although the difficulty of the games was motivated by different design philosophies. The lifespan of a console game could, for example, be extended by difficulty and progressing to the final levels would be a sign that the game has been mastered in some capacity. And after beating the game, many titles allowed players to set goals in the form of a scoreboard. Then there are arcade titles. It seems fair to say that maintained interest in certain games came from their difficulty. The more quarters they ate, and the more obstacles put in a player’s way, the better the likelihood that they would play more and, therefore, spend more.
Nowadays, the difficulty of games seems to be its own reward and the difference in design is apparent. For one, they usually feel fair and a player’s defeat is usually their own fault. Not always, but usually. The difference, I find, is they want the player to win, the player just has to figure out the way to overcome the game. This is true of the classics, of course, but the progress lost is limited and the focus is on the player getting right back to the obstacle they are trying to overcome.
This leads to a feeling of mastery that is satisfying. The development of skills also comes in different levels. On a smaller scale, players learn how to fight different bosses. After that, they learn how to upgrade their character or come up with an optimal build, assuming RPG elements are present in the game. Then, mastery might mean learning the best path through the game. Perhaps the player moves onto speed runs. But this sense of growth is a huge part of what makes these games work.
Then there is the pure excitement of it. A player in peril is a player on edge. This is an emotional engagement that might seem easy to manufacture but it is often missing from games. The Dark Souls games, in particular, increase this sense because you lose “souls,” when you die. Souls are the currency used in the game, both for buying items and improving your character. The player is then offered one chance to recover their souls. If they die on that journey, the initial souls disappear. This can be even more perilous if grinding stats is the route the player finds most useful.
Of course, this isn’t for everybody, which can be a bit sad. Not everybody has time to grind stats or learn a game that begs for a pretty big commitment. Unfortunately, that bars them from experiencing the rest of the game. This can be frustrating when you consider how unique the lore, story, and tone of these games can be. That might be the part of the game they want to experience.
Then there’s the question of accessibility. These games don’t often include easy modes which means there are gamers with disabilities who might not be able to experience the game in the same way they can partake in other genres. There could be a fix to this, but it hasn’t happened in any significant way at this point.
So, in a way, the problem with difficult games is their difficulty. They can be frustrating, inaccessible, or otherwise unappealing because of their mechanics and those mechanics might be the only thing keeping someone from enjoying the rest of the game. For others, the rewarding feeling of overcoming these obstacles is a huge part of the appeal. But might there be a way that both parties can get what they want? It’s not like their individual experiences need to affect one another.