The subject of difficulty in video games was discussed extensively a few months ago when Cuphead was released, but I think it is an interesting topic and worth speaking about. I have yet to play Cuphead, but I have played and loved the Dark Souls series, which is always brought up when discussing difficulty. My opinion on the subject, in its simplest form, is that difficult games are fine, easy games are fine, and games with multiple difficulty options are fine. Not every game has to appeal to every player. There are so many games, enough that every gamer can find plenty that appeal to their tastes.
When it comes to difficulty, I think that there is a fine line between frustrating and challenging. A challenging task is one that requires you to exercise your skills and strategy in a way that you normally don’t. When you overcome the task, you are filled with excitement and pride. A frustrating task is one where you aren’t forced to change your tactics, but you are simply required to be perfect or have more stamina. These tasks don’t make you exhilarated or proud(except maybe the satisfaction that others don’t have the skill to accomplish the same task), just a mounting sense of unfairness and bitterness.
Many shooter games err on the side of frustrating. On harder difficulties, enemies take more bullets to kill and you take fewer bullets to die so it becomes about staying alive long enough to shoot enough bullets into the enemies. The difficulty relies on taking longer and punishing mistakes. The Last of Us is an interesting case because not only does it make you die almost instantly, it starts to remove or change features. You have no UI(no health bar, no ammo indicator, it removes the ability to listen(see through walls) entirely, and it makes ammo and materials far less common. You really have to conserve ammo, choose which encounters are necessary to engage in rather than sneak past, and which upgrades or skills you want since there are not enough to upgrade everything. The way you play changes drastically. Nier Automata, while not a shooter game, does this poorly. On the hardest difficulty, you die in one hit, so you have to play perfectly. It often forces you to fight enemies by keeping distance and shooting enemies with your pod, which takes forever.
When it comes to Dark Souls, I think that its reputation does it a disservice. The series is challenging, but only until you learn it. Most players struggle through a game for 50 or more hours the first time, then complete a second playthrough in 10 hours. Dark Souls is fairly easy if you’re willing to learn its systems. Each boss will be difficult at first, until you learn their attack patterns and weaknesses. When you kill a boss, you feel proud because, even though you fail over and over again, you learn to progress further each time until you finally succeed. Dark Souls is challenging, but not frustrating (at least not usually…I’m looking at you Bed of Chaos…). Difficult games are good because they make beating them a true accomplishment.
The Dark Souls series also has several bosses that are known for being very easy. Examples of these are The Fool’s Idol from Demons’ Souls, Pinwheel from Dark Souls, The Covetous Demon from Dark Souls 2, Micolash from Bloodborne, and The Deacons of the Deep from Dark Souls 3. These are arguably the least popular bosses from each game because they offer no challenge. Personally, I love them because they usually have a new mechanic or story element that is interesting and unique. The Fool’s Idol has an NPC guardian who lies to you and makes the boss invincible until you kill him. Pinwheel has a heartbreaking backstory and amazing music. The Covetous Demon has an attack where he literally swallows you and spits you out naked after un-equipping all of your gear and armor. How goofy and amazing is that? Micolash is a huge troll. He immediately runs away from you while laughing like maniac until you can corner him. Yakety Sax would be perfect music for it. Deacons of the Deep is a giant crowd of pushover enemies where only one affects the health bar and they keep passing the boss health bar back and forth, like a game of keep away.
Another one of my favorite games is Journey. Journey takes a few hours to complete, there is no fail condition, and the puzzles are simple. The game is a masterpiece of environmental and emotional storytelling. The scenery, music and animations are beautiful and draw the emotion out of you. Journey is not hard, but it is unique and evocative. Life is Strange is another good example of a game that is easy but doesn’t suffer because of it. These illustrate why I think that not every game needs to be difficult. If a game, or part of a game, is interesting, entertaining, and evocative, then it doesn’t need to be challenging to be fun. Not every game is about overcoming challenge, nor do they need to be. Some games give you satisfaction from succeeding challenging tasks, some from an emotional release, and some from intellectual engagement.
The amazing thing about gaming is that the primary purpose is entertainment. If a game is fun or satisfying to play, then it is successful as a game. Not every person is going to like every game and that’s OK. There will be plenty geared towards them. Any time a game tries to appeal to every audience, it usually fails to succeed with any of them. Final Fantasy XV is an example of this.
To return to Cuphead and the controversy surrounding it, the situation all started with Dean Takahashi’s infamous poor gameplay of the demo. The subject of games journalism and the fiasco around Dean Takahashi requires its own post, but the fallout from that event spawned several articles talking about how games should not be hard, or that they should have a “Skip Boss” button. I disagree with this idea on many levels. Hard games are not bad, they just are not for everyone. It’s fine to dislike a game, but it’s not fine to claim it is a bad game simply because it wasn’t for you. As for the skip boss button. My immediate reaction is that it is a ridiculous overreaction. If you are frustrated with a game to a point where you want to skip content (especially in Cuphead, where the entire point of the game is to fight bosses) then you should just stop playing it. If a game is not fun, don’t play it. Simple as that.