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H.A.R.D. is a 4-Letter Word

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By Nelson Schneider - 09/27/15 at 03:51 PM CT

Increasingly, I have noticed that when I climb down from my Ivory Tower to walk unseen amongst the unwashed gaming masses that there seems to be a building resentment toward “Easy” games. I don’t understand where these feelings came from, as someone who began gaming in the 8-bit 3rd Generation. I was desperate for some easier games back then, and barely played much of anything until the 4th Gen came along and the SNES provided a lessening of the cheapest, most masochistic elements from its predecessor’s games. I wouldn’t call the SNES’ games “Easy” – instead I would use glorifying terms such as “Balanced” or “Playable” (though there were still exceptions… like the abomination known as “Plok”).

Yet now that we are neck-deep in the 8th Generation, after suffering through a fairly dismal 7th Generation, “Easy” is being used as a slur against games in much the same way the letter “J” has been added to certain RPGs to designate them as inferior. When and how did “Easy” become a Black Mark, a Scarlett Letter to be slapped onto any title that doesn’t illicit frustration, anger, and ultimately try kill the player’s interest?

The guys at Extra Credits made a video about the topic of difficulty in games a few years ago. Their main premise is one that I can wholeheartedly agree with: Difficulty can come in one of two forms – Challenge and Punishment. Challenging games typically have a high skill cap and require dedication to master, whereas Punishing games simply use cheap tactics to screw over the player… and then heap on an additional helping on anti-fun by forcing a significant amount of repetition upon the player before allowing them another shot at the cheap thing that initially caused them to fail. Challenging games allow players to react and adapt, whereas Punishing games force players to memorize. In the Extra Credits video, they called out “Dark Souls” as some paragon of fairness – this despite the fact that “Dark Souls” (indeed, From Software’s entire franchise dating all the way back to “King’s Field”) fails their own Challenge vs. Punishment test by constantly springing surprises and traps on the player, forcing them to retrace significant numbers of steps in order to retrieve their dropped souls and have another chance at the thing that killed them.

What’s even worse than the seemingly endless supply of From Software fanboys hypocritically praising their favorite series for doing things right when it obviously does them exactly wrong is the number of hackers who are willing to indulge the current obsession with HARD games by creating HARD-ified ROM-hacks of classic games. An individual going by the name BTB has created a ROM-hack for “Final Fantasy 6” (my favorite game of all time) entitled “Brave New World,” which serves no other purpose than to mess up the perfection of “Final Fantasy 6” by making it more difficult. Why is this even necessary? What is wrong with “Final Fantasy 6” that makes people think it needs to be HARDer to be fun?

Perhaps this resurging obsession with HARD games is the lingering radioactive fallout from the all-out war between Hardcore and Casual gamers that stands out as one of the key features of the 7th Generation. Perhaps a bunch of socially maladjusted, angsty teenage boys saw that everyone was playing videogames, and thought the only way to differentiate themselves from the Mainstream masses would be to force themselves to acquire a taste for Punishing games. Perhaps, instead, some weird nostalgic cycle is at work. Just a few years ago, hip-hugger jeans were the only thing one would see covering the bottom half of a woman under the age of 30. Now the high-rise jeans I remember from the 1990s are back with a vengeance. Could it be the same way with gaming? That the HARD games we looked at with disgust just a few years ago are now some sort of retro-chic?

I have already expressed my thoughts regarding HARD games – from a time and place when they were simply known as Nintendo-Hard. I was glad to see them and the obsolete Arcade Mentality go; glad to see an appreciation for balanced difficulty, smooth learning curves, and a near-universal adoption of savable progress move in to replace them. Yet just this week I ran across a commenter in a gaming forum who was violently upset about the fact that modern games with RPG elements (read: all of them) allow players to redistribute their skill points and reneg on in-game decisions whenever they want. Is it bad that the modern take on customizable characters allows players to experiment with different skill builds without going through the boring, repetitive, laborious, and VERY time consuming process of re-leveling a completely new character each time? I have yet to see EVERY game allow respeccing, and I have yet to see ANY game allow players to take-back key story-related decisions without reloading a previous save. I’ve been playing a lot of ‘Fallout’ lately, and the new FPS versions have just as many irrevocable decision points and permanent Perk selections as the old isometric RPGs from the 1990s. That’s one series that hasn’t changed the permanence of the player’s choices in the slightest, and I’m sure there are dozens more, which leads me to believe that at least part of the gaming audience demanding HARD games and using “Easy” as a slur are either trolling or have no damned idea what they’re talking about.

Instead, we should be using HARD as the slur. HARD games are inaccessible. HARD games punish the player unnecessarily. HARD games have poor learning curves and difficulty spikes. HARD games aren’t fun, unless you’re on the Autism Spectrum. There is no reason any developer should aim to make a HARD game in this day and age. Balance is the sweet spot all game designers should strive for. Balance is better than both HARD and “Easy.” But when it comes down to it, I will play an “Easy” game if it is fun… but it is next to impossible for a HARD game to even be fun. Let's make it an acronym while we're at it: Horribly Aggravating, Ridiculously Difficult.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on10/10/15 at 05:04 PM CT

Jonzor, if you want to see a game that has Super Meat Boy's general level of platforming difficulty AND stupidly long levels, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams and its expansion both fit that description.

Your assessment is spot on. It gets old quickly.

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Wrote on10/05/15 at 11:17 AM CT

What Super Meat Boy did well was that the levels are generally can be in the 10-15 second range to complete. If you die, the reload is super fast and you're back at it. You only have to be good for 15 seconds before beating the level and then you don't have to do it again. Another example was NES Remix. If you were going for three rainbow stars on everything, those challenges were generally never longer than 30 seconds.

If you're going to force memorization and technical proficiency, that's how I'd like it to be done. If levels of Super Meat Boy were 5-10 minutes long, it would be much less tolerable, and likely much less popular.

Dave's point about the extra challenges/platinum medals/S rankings/3 stars trend is pretty good. Playing Geometry Wars just to beat all the levels is a totally different experience than trying to get 3 stars on everything.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on10/04/15 at 02:17 PM CT

@dbarry_22: At least you have a temperate take on the whole thing. But other people like you who enjoy extreme hand-eye coordination tests don't have any sense of moderation. They want the entirety of every game to be as technically difficult as "Super Meat Boy" and as unreasonably punishing as "Demon's Souls." If they had their way, they would ruin gaming.

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Wrote on10/02/15 at 04:26 PM CT

The difficulty of a game can be so different from person to person. I enjoy difficult challenges that require a great hand-eye coordination. But, that doesn't mean I want to experience it all the time.

I feel that a game shouldn't be so hard that the average person can't "beat" the game. A person should be able to experience the entire story and/or levels of a game without getting a headache or hand cramps from hitting buttons over and over. However, I am okay with....heck, even in favor of additional challenges in a game that are much more difficult. It can take the game to a whole new level and the satisfaction from beating such challenges can be rewarding. Beating a high score, getting 3 stars in a level, or finding all the collectibles in a game should be challenging otherwise it's likely the game is boring you by the end and not worth the pursuit.

It's most definitely quite a delicate balance that game makers have to deal with.

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