Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
I was recently talked into attempting a "level 1" playthrough of Kingdom Hearts II, which means playing the game on the highest of its four difficulties and equipping an ability that makes it so the playable characters do not get any stronger throughout the course of the game. In case it's not obvious, this is exceedingly difficult--and yet, those who have completed such a run often say it's one of the greatest gameplay experiences they've had. I'm not yet sold on it (and for those familiar with the game, I've just finished Timeless River), but it has got me thinking about the appeal of difficult games.
Difficulty in games can be a positive or a negative depending on the player and the execution. Some people just aren't fond of challenging games, and that's why many games have optional difficulty levels--those who'd rather just enjoy the story can play on "normal" or "easy" or what-have-you. Catering to players who enjoy a challenge, though, is considerably more complex, as games have to strike a balance between being challenging enough to feel meaningful while also being reasonable enough to be cleared. To further complicate this, not all players who enjoy challenging games have the same level of skill, so a hurdle that seems reasonable to one person may be insurmountable to another--and a seemingly-impossible task quickly breeds frustration, which can lead players to drop a game midway and to think negatively of the game or developer in the future.
With all that in mind, it seems kind of miraculous that there are games that are widely-regarded for being exceptionally difficult but also fair and fun. If you look at games with positive reputations for difficulty, though, they tend to employ one or more of a few common strategies, each of which either mitigates the frustration of the repeated failures endemic in high-difficulty content or provides ways for players to tailor the difficulty curve to their individual preferences and skill levels.
Do Touch that Dial!
One of the most creative solutions to this problem that I've seen comes from The World Ends With You (although similar mechanics appear in other games). TWEWY has four difficulty levels, which is not in itself particularly unusual. What makes TWEWY's difficulty system unique, though, is that players can change difficulty levels at any time, and--pivotally--players are actively rewarded for doing so. Each enemy has four different item drops--one for each difficulty level--and in order to collect all of them and 100%-clear the game, players must fight each enemy on each difficulty. Additionally, the player can adjust his or her level at any time while playing the game, and reducing your level increases the likelihood that items will drop.
This flexibility is important, and it's something many games (and especially older ones) avoid. The value in forcing a player to select a difficulty level at the beginning of a game is that it locks the player into one difficulty level for the entirety of a run, meaning any outside observer would know that someone who clears a game on "hard" was playing on that difficulty for the entire length of the game. Allowing players to change difficulties would theoretically allow someone to play through a game on an easier difficulty and then later switch the difficulty up and falsely claim they played through the game on the higher difficulty.
This concern is somewhat misguided, I think. If someone is so concerned about bragging rights that they are going to lie about the difficulty level on which they played a game, they're going to lie regardless of whether the game allows difficulty-switching, and the number of times I've seen someone try to back up a claim to completing a game on a high difficulty with an in-game screenshot is exactly zero. Inflexible difficulty levels have no real positive benefit, and they can lock a player into an unpleasantly low or high level of difficulty. This is especially problematic considering difficulty levels are inherently vague, and it's difficult to gauge the difference between "normal" and "hard" without being able to try both, which leads to most players just selecting the default option when playing a game (which is usually "normal").
Just offering the flexibility to change difficulty levels mid-run is not enough, though. Anecdotal evidence suggests players are more likely to drop a game entirely than to lower the difficulty when confronted with a frustratingly challenging obstacle. In order to break the stigma on reducing difficulty, a game needs to actively encourage that sort of switching. TWEWY handles this through its drop mechanics. Players are rewarded--and, at times, explicitly encouraged--for reducing the game's difficulty, which means pretty much every player is going to spend a good deal of time changing the difficulty levels. By incorporating flexible difficulty into another game mechanic, TWEWY eliminates the psychological barriers around adjusting the difficulty, which means players confronted with a frustrating fight are much more likely to reduce the difficulty temporarily and come back later when they're better equipped to deal with a challenge.
TWEWY's various rereleases lose this somewhat, but the original game had a highly unique battle system that required players to be doing completely unrelated things with each hand. This was a lot of fun, but it had a pretty severe learning curve and made certain fights a lot harder than they might otherwise have been. TWEWY's fluid difficulty system encouraged players to take their time adjusting to the game's mechanics, eliminating a potential frustration with the game.
It's pretty brilliant.
Failure is Cheap
Another significant component of difficulty in games is the cost of failure, measured primarily in terms of time. Games penalize failure in all sorts of different ways, but they almost always amount to the same general thing: some activity or portion of the game has to be re-completed. In the most traditional sense, this amounts to being returned to the last save point or to the beginning of the level and needing to repeat the cleared portion of the stage. Many classic platformers have a "lives" mechanic, which means the first few failures move you back to the last checkpoint (a relatively small failure cost of time), after which the next failure results in needing to redo the entire stage (a relatively large failure cost of time).
More and more often, though, you see this failure cost being minimized. When a section of a game is very difficult, it can be fun to attempt it again and again, getting gradually better until you're finally able to clear it. What isn't fun is returning to that point of difficulty, especially when the lead-up to the challenging moment is not particularly hard or interesting. If, for example, a stage in a platformer contains a difficult element, such as a long series of jumps, near its end, and the player is required to replay the entire stage each time he dies to that element, the player ends up wasting a great deal of time replaying long stretches of the stage that he or she has already mastered. If, hypothetically, the stage takes approximately 5 minutes from the beginning until the difficult section, the section itself lasts 30 seconds, and it takes the player 20 attempts to clear, that means by the end the player has spent 10 minutes on the actual challenge and almost two hours on the drudgery that is returning to the point of difficulty.
This becomes frustrating very quickly, and it severely tests a player's patience.
Unless the lead-up to a challenging sequence in a game is explicitly part of the challenge, there is no disadvantage to minimizing the cost of failure. Frequent check-points and fast reloads can take the time required for repeated attempts of a difficult section of a game from minutes down to seconds, and the impact of this is twofold: not only does it minimize the player's frustration at the time required, but it also makes it easier for the player to see progress on the challenging sequence itself. It is much easier to learn to clear a difficult part of a game if the repeated trials are not interrupted by other irrelevant gameplay sequences.
For extreme examples of games effectively minimizing the cost of failure, look to indie platformers like VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy. These games feature sequences of highly difficult platforming challenges, but checkpoints are so frequent that the cost of death is essentially zero. There is not even a loading screen breaking up the action--if you fail the platforming challenge, you simply reappear at the edge of the screen, ready to try again and again until you get it. This sort of forgiveness turns difficulty into something like a puzzle, encouraging players to experiment and find ways to eventually clear things. High costs of failure discourage experimentation, but with low time-costs of failure, a player can try something unusual fairly easily. If it works, great; if it doesn't, the player has only lost a few seconds of time. A platforming sequence can take twenty or thirty attempts and still only eat up ten minutes or so, minimizing the likelihood a player will get frustrated.
This philosophy isn't necessarily limited to platformers, either. TWEWY, for example, allows players to immediately retry any fight after losing, eliminating the irritation of having to sit through pre-battle cutscenes again and again on repeated attempts--a common complaint especially in older RPGs. Similarly, Atlus's Catherine is a furiously difficult block puzzle game that manages to avoid being unnecessarily frustrating largely due to its generous check-point system.
The Game's Cheating!
Arguably the most important component of fun difficulty in a game is a sense of fairness. Even in very difficult games, the game's rules and expectations need to be clear and reasonable, and the game has to adhere to those expectations well. Nothing is quite so frustrating as a death in a difficult game that springs from a glitch rather than from player error. Nearly clearing a difficult fight only to get stuck in a wall or to fall through the floor is incredibly irritating and can easily drive a player away from a game.
Bugs like that are fairly common, especially in larger games, and easier games have a bit more room for error in that regard, for two reasons that feed into each other. Easier games tend to require less exacting play, so while technical issues may be annoying they're much less likely to result in a player death than they would in a situation where a single hit can be fatal. Similarly, in easier games a single random death due to bad luck is much less frustrating than it would be in harder games, as those sorts of setbacks are rare and can be recovered from with relative ease. In a very difficult game, unfair deaths compound the frustration of the difficulty and may make it feel as if the game is unreasonable or impossible.
Even beyond true glitches, though, difficult games need to be technically exacting in order to work well. A game that requires a high degree of player skill must in turn always respond the way the player expects. Inconsistencies or weak control schemes can leave a player feeling at the mercy of luck. An example of this would be camera control in the earlier Kingdom Hearts games. Although Kingdom Hearts II is significantly better than the original game in this regard, there have still been moments in my level 1 playthrough where the imprecise lock-on targeting mechanics have suddenly sent the camera in the wrong direction, leaving me open to attack from off-screen. Problems like that are forgivable in moderation, but they do add a level of frustration if they're a consistent issue.
The Lethal Elevator Attendant
There are, of course, some games that get away with just being completely unforgiving. You might call this the Atlus approach, due to the company's (now somewhat outdated) reputation for making infuriatingly hard games. Some games can have random deaths, heavy failure costs, and inflexible difficulties, and still do just fine. How do we account for those?
In a few cases, like Dark Souls or Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the punishing, old-school design philosophy is treated as part of the charm, and the types of players who gravitate towards those games take a sort of masochistic satisfaction in the frequent and costly deaths. These games by design do nothing to reach out to players who may have less of a tolerance for that sort of frustration--they embrace the frustration and revel in their difficulty.
Even these games, though, have ways of reducing the challenge. Nocturne, in particular, offers enough customization that you can usually build a team to mitigate the randomness and challenge of most fights, and in Dark Souls certain playstyles make the game noticeably easier than others. Nocturne is specifically built around the trade-off between preparation and difficulty, while in Dark Souls this de-facto flexible challenge comes across as more unintentional, but regardless, the unforgiving facade is just that: a facade.
For truly unforgiving-but-still-fun games, you have to look to more arcade-inspired works, like bullet hells and fighting games. The Touhou games are a great example of this. Touhou is considered a bullet hell--sort of like an evolution of the old arcade space shooters. Imagine Galaga, but everything moves twice as fast and there are way more objects on screen at any given time. These games are hard, and if you run out of lives you have to restart the entire game from the beginning. It sounds like a recipe for frustration, but it works very well, for one key reason: progress in the game is not winning, it's getting better.
If you play a game like Touhou, your goal is probably not to beat the game. If you're really good at the game, you're probably aiming for a higher score than the last time you played, whereas if you're newer to the series, you probably just want to get a little better, survive a little longer, make it a little farther. It's less a series of tasks (as most games are) and more the developing of a skill, like learning to play a musical instrument. With each playthrough, and each loss, you feel like you've improved a little, and so failure itself becomes a form of success. The reward for playing is intrinsic rather than extrinsic, so the game doesn't need to help the player along.
The same applies to fighting games, like Persona 4 Arena. Most fighting games live and die by their multiplayer and online modes, but often there will also be single player game modes that range from pretty easy (aimed at new players to help them learn the game) to stupidly, absurdly hard. The Persona 4 Arena games include a "score attack mode," which pits the player against a series of enemies with ridiculous advantages, to the point where the final enemy--a supernatural elevator attendant named Elizabeth--can heal herself to full at any time. Every time she does this, she taunts the player with a single cheeky line: "Do you have a problem?"
While this is somewhat frustrating at first, eventually the absurdity of the challenge sinks in and it just becomes fun. Score Attack is not tied to any story mode and the rewards for clearing it are fairly minimal, so it can afford to be completely unfair and horribly unforgiving. When asked, "Do you have a problem?"--a problem with the completely imbalanced power of the enemy, a problem with the hours and hours of retries the fight likely requires--the answer, I find, is usually, "No, not at all." The cost of failure is low--you just retry the fight from the beginning--and the eventual satisfaction of victory is a huge rush. Score Attack doesn't even pretend to be fair, and in the original game there was no lower-difficulty option, so clearing it feels almost rebellious, like you're doing something that really shouldn't be possible. By intentionally embracing that attitude and philosophy, it circumvents the usual laws of frustration in difficulty.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition