With the release of Dark Souls II, the gaming world – or at least a certain portion of it – is practically drooling at the prospect of subjecting themselves to more of the series' unforgiving, hardcore difficulty level. Masochism runs surprisingly deep in gaming.
Dark Souls II and its kindred represent many people's vision of "true" gaming. The kind of game experience where you die a lot. By contrast, games that present less friction between the player and victory are often derided as less authentic. "Casual," as the epithet goes. Let's set aside for a moment the somewhat narrow perspective which dictates that the only "real" games are hard games; that mindset tends to lead to a counterproductive sort of classism based on subjective taste. Rather than debate how difficult a game needs to be, or what sort of personal failing would cause a person to prefer toothless games, let's consider instead another prospect. Isn't it entirely possible that many people – a majority, given the way decreased difficulty and increased sales seem to go hand-in-hand – don't like hard games because for the most part hard games tend not to be very good?
Oh, it's easy to make a difficult game. However, making a difficult game that also manages to be fun, or at least remain compelling to the player even when they lose, is a vastly more difficult proposition. That's always been true – classic games were often very challenging, but in many cases that came about as a result of sloppy, inept, or simply abusive design.
Ruthless difficulty is a grand tradition in video games, not surprisingly given the medium's extensive arcade roots. The entire business model of classic arcades relied on forcing players to insert another quarter every two or three minutes, and classic game design reflected that mercenary spirit: After a brief easing-in period, most coin-ops became punishingly difficult in the blink of an eye. It took a long time to iron that mindset out of games even after they made the transition to home systems and computers, likely due not only to inertia but also because game consoles offered terribly limited storage and memory options. When your game can only contain a handful of stages, it behooves you to make those few stages as difficult as possible to prevent players from simply clearing the game in the space of evening's rental and moving along to the next diversion.
As the medium gravitated away from the tests of sheer scoring capabilities in the face of inevitable failure that defined early '80s arcade games, the underlying mechanics of games often lagged behind the ambitions of their designers, making for games that achieved their challenge level with cumbersome controls, unreasonably difficult situations, or plain old lousy programming. Some of gaming's most infamously difficult classic moments came about intentionally. Jet Set Willy and Impossible Mission, for example, suffered from infamous bugs that rendered them unbeatable. Similarly, the grueling penalty for losing against the final boss in Ninja Gaiden — being forced to replay the three harrowing stages leading up to that battle – resulted from a programming error as well. (The developers liked it so much they kept it, because sometimes game developers actually are needlessly cruel.)
Meanwhile, the mid-'80s were rife with games whose hair-raising challenge level resulted from awkward design choices and worlds stacked against the player. The early days of Nintendo's Famicom in particular were practically a gold mine for unforgiving game design as inexperienced development teams rushed in to take advantage of the system's booming market without the time or knowledge to polish up their creations. A game like the infamous Atlantis No Nazo reeks of failed ambition – its creators had a lot of great ideas, but in practice those efforts amounted to needlessly obscure secrets, infuriating controls, and ruthless surprises and penalties. And that was hardly the worst game to come from that era; where it commands a certain fondness among gamers for the grandeur behind its mediocre design, countless others were simply terrible and lazy.
Accidents and poor programming are hardly the only culprit behind unfair difficulty, though. Just look at the mobile market, where free-to-play games in particular are consciously designed to use subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) broken difficulty in order to encourage players to pay for extensions or continues. Candy Crush Saga may not be the worst offender in this respect, but it's certainly one of the most notorious. After you work your way through the game's first world – in which it appears to be little more than a standard (if occasionally tricky) match-three puzzler – Candy Crush suddenly takes the gloves off. Suddenly, you find yourself losing far more often than you win, often with victory in sight. Candy Crush actively stacks its goals against you, forcing you to reach objectives that are nearly impossible under normal play conditions unless you're extremely lucky with being able to line up rare combinations of pieces. On the other hand, if you shell out cash for a continue that lets you play just a few more rounds, or purchase expensive permanent power-ups, suddenly victory becomes much less insurmountable. (Funny how that works.)
By and large, however, lopsided difficulty still tends to result from well-intentioned design that goes astray. Creating truly great challenge requires refinement, balance, and simple instinct. A few contemporary studios, particularly Platinum, make tough-but-fair design appear so natural that it's easy to think of their work as effortless. But a game as demanding as, say, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance comes from a deft touch and massive effort; after all, it only became a Platinum venture once Kojima Productions realized it lacked the expertise to create a top-tier combat action game on its own. Rising empowers the player with great offensive and defensive skills alike, yet simply having access to those features doesn't mean they're immediately at your beck and call. Rather, it demands you learn the split-second timing of things like the parrying maneuver before you can rely on them – and once you do lock down the timing, they always work. They work because not only do the player and protagonist Raiden work in consistent unison, so too do the enemies. Foes obey the same constraints as Raiden, working within the boundaries of their individual animation cycles, giving themselves away with reliable tells. Rising can be hard as hell, but the craft Platinum poured into the game ensures it comes about that difficulty fairly.
Likewise, the Souls series has a reputation for being downright nasty. A single slip-up can result in a quick death, and the penalties for failure don't stop there. Dark Souls entices you to recover your loot from your fallen corpse, cranking up the difficulty in the process; loss becomes all the more painful for the way in which the game doubles down on it. As with Rising, though, Dark Souls also trusts the player to learn the limitations of the game, offering a huge palette of techniques and powers and expecting mastery in return. Knowing your character's potential, the range of their actions, the delay and recovery of attacks, the capabilities and habits of enemies – all of these things create the rigid set of rules under which Dark Souls operates. The game can be witheringly difficult, yes, but because it works so consistently, learning its rules gives players the means to triumph.
Unfortunately, Dark Souls and Platinum's oeuvre tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Most hard games stumble into their difficult and leave the player feeling frustrated or powerless. They lack the satisfying rush of mastery, because their moving parts don't work in unison. They rely on dumb luck. They fail the most essential litmus test of game balancing: Losing provokes a response of "This is stupid" rather than "I'll get it next time." It's the difference between a final boss in a classic Capcom fighting game like Street Fighter II – ruthless but ultimately manageable – versus a final boss in a classic SNK fighting game like King of Fighters, whose almost insurmountable difficulty stems from the fact that the computer doesn't have to obey the same rules as you. There's a reason people coined the term SNK Boss, after all.
Even great games can succumb to a single poorly conceived sequence or stumbling point. The otherwise magnificent Final Fantasy Tactics drove away many players with an incredibly difficult sequence of battles that required specific party or character builds for success – but once the player initiated those battles, they became locked into that area and couldn't back out to revamp their party without reverting to an alternate save... or, failing that, starting over entirely. Grand Theft Auto games invariably throw out a mission midway through in which the series' typically unforgiving physics collide unpleasantly with incompatibly harsh constraints, be it driving an ice cream truck under a tight time limit or being forced to fly finicky model airplanes through cramped urban environments.
The move toward so-called "casual" game design has ultimately been a matter of practical expediency rather than anything more nefarious. The more moving parts games feature and the broader the audience they're meant to appeal to, the harder it is to totally balance everything to ensure the systems work together perfectly and in a way that feels intuitive for all players. Games like Dark Souls and Metal Gear Rising can bank on their high difficulty levels because they specialize. Dark Souls is a massive, sprawling game that caters to a niche audience. Conversely, Metal Gear Rising is meant to have more mass appeal, but its design is extremely specific and focused on high-level melee combat in confined spaces.
Meanwhile, a series like Assassin's Creed wants to be enormous, open-ended, and sell multiple millions of copies. It can't afford to alienate large swaths of players by presenting too much difficult up-front. And it can't create too many intricately interlocked systems for a number of reasons, not least of which is that as many as six different studios work on each game and sew their disparate contributions into Frankensteinian patchwork. Victory in Assassin's Creed amounts to holding down a couple of button and dashing forward out of necessity more than anything else.
As with many contemporary game design debates, the question of difficulty boils down in large part to a matter of tastes. Some people want to be challenged, others don't. The universal solution, however, is simple: Support the people who make the games you like. If you like bone-crushingly hard (but intrinsically fair) games, support developers like From, Platinum, Team Meat, and others. If not... don't. As long as the games you love continue to command the loyalty of an enthusiastic niche audience, they'll be able to continue producing games for that crowd. As obvious a suggestion as that would seem to be, the sheer number of people who refuse to even consider buying Bayonetta 2 because it's a Nintendo exclusive suggests that tribalism may ultimately triumph over taste.
And maybe that's the inevitable way of things. But if nothing else, the continued existence of games like Dark Souls means that independent publishers aren't yet the last bastion of games that aren't afraid to pose a challenge... and that there's still a place for designers who understand how to make their games tough without being cheap.