The artistic significance of difficulty in video games – Reader’s Feature

A reader discusses how some games use their difficultly to define their experience and why games like Dark Souls would never be the same if they were easy.

Challenge is one of the most imperative design choices in developing a video game. From the days of arcade machines devised to coldly vacuum the spare change from eight-year-old children’s pockets to the newly founded genre of rage-inducing titles that thrive on difficulty, how hard a game is has always been an essential steppingstone in its creation. Games were, after all, originally conceived as colourful trials that tested your skill, endurance, and how adept at kicking your mate’s behind at Street Fighter you were.

However, while difficulty was evidently one of the main components of what made gaming into a culturally significant force, its presence has altered and evolved over time. In turn, difficulty has changed drastically since its days as a pure roadblock to success, becoming an artistic decision that changes how games feel, play and how much they embolden the player. What was once a litmus test of player skill has become a means of conveying tone and subtle storytelling, immersing players in a world that either empowers them, victimises them or picks a sweet spot somewhere in between.

You need only look at the now-iconic Dark Souls series to see exactly how this works, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s infamously punishing world filling its hallways with grotesque monsters and frightening demons that could snap you like a toothpick in two seconds flat. But, that’s exactly where the franchise gets its haunting atmosphere.

From the second your adventure begins to the gratifying moment it concludes, the challenging nature of this perilous world oppresses you, making you feel like a very small fish in an incredibly deadly pond. It’s what makes Dark Souls so uniquely thrilling, its intimidating world full to the brim with risk versus reward scenarios and an ever-present feeling of pure hopelessness.

But, there’s also the opposite side. Games can alternatively opt to play down challenges to make for a vastly different experience. Take, for example, Doom’s 2016 reboot. While a game like Dark Souls thrives off making the player feel small, Doom boldly empowers them, casting a hulking, faceless space marine with an arsenal of huge weapons and the ability to crush demons’ skulls at the press of a button.

In comparison, Doom is a game that strays towards the easier side (on normal difficulty anyway), but, in turn, it finds a tone that’s faster in pace and more explosive than anything you’ll find within Dark Souls. Running through demons and blowing them to smithereens has all the charm and kinetic energy of a charming ‘80s action romp, and that’s mostly down to the game’s difficulty enabling players to think more about their offensive capabilities than their defensive ones.

At the end of the day, these are just two examples of games that use difficulty to carve an experience that’s unique in pacing, style and tone. Every game you play will use it either subtly or overtly to empower, frighten or immerse you into engaging with an experience or perhaps even a certain sequence in varying ways.

God Of War used its tough as nails Valkyrie bosses to cement their fearful status in the world; Devil May Cry 5 made Dante’s Sin Devil Trigger deal insane damage to reinforce just how powerful his new form is, and Untitled Goose Game makes it easy to wind people up because, well, it wants you to embrace being unbelievably annoying. Regardless, challenge is crucial to what makes your favourite games tick, and that’s no longer purely for the sake of padding.

By reader Callum Williams

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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