The Art of Difficulty
Games are by definition sets of rules to abide by and goals to attain, and the sense of enjoyment that we get form games comes in the form of overcoming obstacles that keep these goals from us. Be it the sense of pride we get in overcoming the problem, or the satisfaction in out witting a set of restrictions, there is always a sense of difficulty in a game. If there is no difficulty, the game ceases to be a game and becomes a toy. The question then arises of how to approach difficulty when designing a game, and this is where things get interesting.
Most games have a reasonably predictable difficulty curve – things start out easy and the game gets harder in tandem with your skills or tools improving. However, many successful releases recently have abandoned this convention. The most famous example of this is Super Meat Boy from Team Meat, the wildly successfully indie game that uses difficulty and death not as obstacles, but as core game mechanics. SMB is an ultra-precise platforming game that requires split second timing and, by and large, trial and error in order to overcome.
Ordinarily, the game would be deemed too difficult to be enjoyable, but there are two key aspects that display that the game is deliberately difficult. Firstly, there is little to no penalty for dying. You respawn immediately and the background music plays on as opposed to restarting with each new life – you get right back on the horse. Secondly, the game is undoubtedly fair. If you die when playing SMB, you die because you messed up. The level design didn’t screw you, the game didn’t glitch, the controls weren’t shoddy, you messed up and you died. You’ll learn from it, and you’ll carry on.
This mentality can be hard to swallow for gamers. We’re taught that losing a game is a failure rather than a learning experience. The gameplay and fairness of Super Meat Boy allowed us to eventually overcome this and learn to better ourselves through failure, a useful life lesson in any right. The next issue is what happens if you remove the fairness?
What spurred me to write this article was my recent completion of FTL: Faster Than Light, an indie game from developers Subset Games. FTL is a fantastically difficult strategy game in which you pilot a Federation spaceship on a suicide mission to warn of an oncoming Rebel fleet. FTL is not fair. It borrows heavily in this mechanic from The Binding of Isaac, Team Meat’s other wildly successful release. Firstly there is a penalty for dying, a huge one. Your save is immediately deleted and if you want to play again you have to start from scratch. This is in and of itself a daring move as the player experience upon losing all of their work up to this point is a largely negative one. However, this is bearable so long as the game is fair, right? Unfortunately, FTL is not fair.
How do you make a game feel unfair? Make it inconsistent. Weapon drops, enemy encounters, level layout and resource availability are all randomly generated in FTL, and the last boss is so difficult that it’s entirely possible to start a new game that is un-finishable (within reason). This element of luck is extremely frustrating and takes a long time to overcome, much longer than Super Meat Boy’s level of difficulty – it’s not always your fault, sometimes you get screwed by the game. To illustrate this I’ll use myself as an example. I consider myself a reasonably adept gamer across all platforms. I have put 20 hours into FTL as of writing this piece. You know how many times I’ve successfully completed it? Once. You know how long a successful playthrough takes? About half an hour.
So how did Subset Games manage to make FTL enjoyable? Firstly, the game is short. The same goes for the Binding of Isaac, both games are very short and very difficult. Their short nature is an intentional design choice. If you were to put 2-3 hours into a game only to have it delete your save upon death you’d be very unlikely to play that game ever again. By being short, the game lets you fail and have to restart without losing too much of your time. Secondly, the game never tricks you. It’s unfair in terms of consistency in that the toolset you have will vary between play sessions, but what you do with those tools and how you approach enemy encounters is fair and totally in your control. How you spend resources, what systems you power, what weapons you use and when are all at your fingertips in FTL, and the ability to pause the game at any time to think out your moves carefully removes any possibility of the game springing something on you before you can react.
Difficulty is a key component in all games, but experimenting with it like Team Meat and Subset Games have done in these titles, which are a select few of the many out there (Spelunky, The Impossible Game, Super Hexagon), allows us to experience games in a different way. You’re not supposed to complete these games on your first try. You are supposed to fail, to learn, to grow and to adapt. This results in extremely memorable experiences and an unrivalled sense of achievement when you finally deliver the news in FTL or rescue Bandage Girl in SMB. We shouldn’t take standard difficulty curves as the only option, and I’m glad to see that developers are approaching the notion of obstacles in games differently and am excited to see where this takes us in the future.