When we talk about the difficulty of a video game, it usually means one thing: “This game is difficult”.
Difficult can mean different things. In the case of a game like dark souls, it means that a game is physically demanding. This may require a precise mastery of commands and superhuman reflexes. In a puzzle game, there is more cognitive training. Baba it’s youa game where players essentially code the rules by pushing boxes, features notoriously difficult puzzles that require high brain power.
But as video games have grown, they’ve stumbled upon a new form of difficulty that other art mediums are all too familiar with. A stronger emphasis on storytelling or thematic intent sometimes demands gameplay decisions that aren’t always player-pleasing by design. It’s an art-and-test approach that raises complicated questions for a medium where the ability to actually progress through a game can be a barrier to getting your point across.
Talk to a movie buff and they’ll tell you that the most famous big names aren’t always fun to watch. One of my favorite movies of all time is Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels, a three-and-a-half-hour film about a French widow repeating the same banal routine over and over again. It’s a tough watch. It features a handful of repeating static camera setups, barely a word of dialogue, and five-minute sequences where the main character prepares the calf in real time.
It’s excruciatingly boring, but that’s the point. If a film was to paint a portrait of mundane domestic life, it wouldn’t make much sense for it to be entertaining. Instead, the icy beat forces viewers to sit with silence. They start feeling nervous just as the titular Dielman begins to unravel, leading to a shocking conclusion that only works because of the grind that precedes it.
When I think of Jeanne DielmannI think about Death Stranding. Hideo Kojima’s big-budget mail simulator is one of the most polarizing releases to ever hit the gaming industry, at least on his scale. Its gameplay can be downright tiring, but that’s the reverse call. It’s a video game about reconnecting a fractured country. It literally forces players to do this by running them through unpredictable terrain that makes just walking boring.
Sam Bridges, the game’s protagonist, wonders what the point of all this is. Why go to so much trouble to unite a country that was destroyed by division? Some players will probably wonder the same thing, but there is a payoff. As players connect more regions to the Chiral Network in-game, they also connect to other players online. This region soon fills with useful structures like bridges and highways built by real players who have worked together to make the game better for others. It is an emotional system that makes the individual feel part of a larger community and reinforces why humanity is better when working together.
Part of the game has to be a bit frustrating to convey that message, and that’s what makes it difficult. Other recent releases have taken a similar approach. The last of us part 2 forces players to perform uncomfortable acts of violence (not recommended for dog lovers) in order to deliver a deep meditation on the inescapable nature of cyclical violence. Hellblade: Seanua’s Sacrifice threatens players with permadeath to communicate the kind of fear people with psychosis can feel. Return depicts inescapable trauma by trapping players in an overwhelming time loop.
Games with concept ideas like this can be stressful, frustrating, or downright boring to play. But they require decisions that the subject calls for, just as Jeanne DielmannThe unsustainable rhythm is a necessity.
While subjecting audiences to unpleasant experiences is the norm in all art forms, it’s a much more complicated idea for video games. Physical difficulty is a unique feature of interactive media. A reader can work their way through a dense book (whether by sight, braille, or audio) given enough time; after that it comes down to whether or not they can figure out what it means. With video games, there is never a guarantee that a player will be successful from start to finish.
This tension comes to the surface in Sifu, a new indie kung fu game from developer Sloclap. It’s one of the most punishing video games I’ve ever seen. Players must fight through five levels over a lifetime. Each death increases their character’s age, making them a wiser, but physically weaker martial artist. Get too old and it’s game over. There is no room for mistakes. Every death is a firm pat on the wrist from a stern mentor demanding that players do better.
There is a purpose to the penalty and players who can go all the way will fully understand that. In our review, writer Otto Kratky had glowing praise for the way the game delivers its message without compromise. “In more ways than one, the ‘you can do better’ mantra of self-improvement is central to the whole game,” he wrote. “Repetition and memorization are the two keys to playing successfully, but to beat the game itself, players will need to improve in almost every way.”
A successful player will feel like they’ve spent a lifetime mastering the art of kung fu, with each failure only making them more focused. But that could be lost on someone who just can’t understand its deliberately ruthless systems. Maybe that just reinforces the point. If you lack the patience and resolve to master its combat, then you may come away with a better understanding of the amount of work that goes into perfecting such a precise art as kung fu. There is a lesson to be learned from failure.
Yet there is a unique challenge here. Nothing stops me from looking through Salò or the 120 days of Sodom (except for a weak stomach and two hours of free time). I can see his grotesque depictions of torture and draw conclusions about his critique of fascism. On the other hand, I could spend dozens of hours playing Sifu and just never come to its thematic resolution. I can watch a playback on YouTube, but physically playing it is the goal. Is it an effective work of art if the message is locked behind so many requirements?
These issues become even more complicated when you think about accessibility, which presents a more pressing issue for games in general. What kind of message a player physically unable to play Sifu with its current demands when told that they have no choice but to “do better” or that they will never master a skill? This is probably not the intention of the artists.
Each art form presents its own set of accessibility challenges, but gaming has a specific communication breakdown that’s only deepened as games seek to offer more intentional thematic takeaways.
Tam points are exactly where accessible design combined with options can help. I’m removing the difficulty modes for a sec as this is a different chat, but in this design process a lot can be learned & could have made this game the go-to for creating challenging and accessible games.
—Steve Saylor (@stevesaylor) February 6, 2022
These are not “difficult” games either. The Dark Souls series has become a poster child for gaming’s big ‘difficulty speech’, but Sifu faces an entirely different problem that only intersects with him. Players will die a lot in transmitted by bloodbut the struggle only keeps players from seeing all the cool bosses and locations in the game. Deaths don’t stop players from grabbing a big thesis. Sifu has different, philosophical ambitions, which can be clouded by the act of playing.
In one accessibility review for Death Stranding: Director’s Cut, can I play this? Writer Courtney Craven criticized the game for its reliance on physically demanding trigger holds. “I don’t really know what the game is actually about,” Craven writes, “because like the original version, four hours is all I’m going to get and, like with any Kojima game, you don’t understand what’s going on until you reach hour 58.”
When the experience at to stop there for a gamer, Sam Bridges’ initial thought becomes the ultimate point of the game: it’s just not worth it.
Video games found themselves in a difficult phase of growth. Developers are increasingly using interactivity to communicate ideas, which sets games apart from other art forms. But there are inherent barriers to the medium that make it difficult to communicate certain ideas in the same way as a film, novel, ballet, or opera. The game could become a more exclusive art club than any of them.