Pain & Gain: Challenge, Rewards and Fairness in Video Games

When I was a kid, it was common that games were so hard that sometimes you would just fold and admit defeat, giving up trying to beat the game. Since the early 90’s, however, video games have become overwhelmingly easier by average, and the trend has continued until recently.

As a child, me and my friends often discussed video games that we all had played, constantly comparing which parts of any given game had given us trouble, and which one of us would be the first one to beat it. This kind of discussion slowly faded away as we became older, but the reason wasn’t in us: it was the fact that such comparison would be utterly pointless. If one of had asked, “Did you beat that part?”, anyone would simply reply, “Of course I did, why wouldn’t I have?”

Since around the fifth generation of consoles, and in my case since the introduction of PlayStation, games have become significantly easier, little by little. It had gone widely unnoticed, but games no longer provided the relentless opposition to the player that they once did, now only holding their hands while guiding them through the increasingly detailed and visually impressing worlds. It wasn’t until some years ago there were rumblings in the opposite direction – small pulses in the worldwide gaming community that revived something in the backs of older-generation games’ heads. Games like Meat Boy and other similar titles, mostly independent ones, reminded us that games weren’t always something you just sail through – they used to force you to fight tooth and nail to make progress and eventually triumph over it, or perish in the process.

While the prospect of more punishing, more difficult games only appeals to a certain fraction of all gamers worldwide (after all, there are a lot more people playing games today than there were in 1994), it is no longer just indie developers that seek to cater to the needs of those who wish to be challenged further. 2009 saw the release of Demon’s Souls, a title that would start a lineage of games that continue to push players to the limits of their skill and patience. But more on that later.

Besides the aforementioned line of notorious games by From Software, there have recently been various other titles that are gruelingly difficult without making a point of it: Don’t Starve is entirely devoid of sympathy for the player, for example.

This all can be directly linked to what IGN‘s Colin Moriarty called the “invisible pendulum” of the gaming industry (in his review of the spectacular Shovel Knight), now swinging towards what games were back in the day. One of the reasons for this may be not only the natural “cycles” that any industry has in terms of repeating trends, but the fact that the people that played old 8-bit games and endured their difficulty are now in the age and position that enable them to make games themselves. And as with any other context, people do what they love, or once loved and haven’t found a replacement for since; in this case, retro games, a subtype of which are infuriatingly difficult games.

The Roots of the Evil

When I think about the old games that were difficult, my mind immediately goes to Castlevania, which was and still remains one of my most cherished titles (as well as the origin of a favorite contender for the greatest video game soundtrack title, Vampire Killer). It is a prime example of an averagely hard video game of its era, although whether the game was challenging in a legitimate way or just unfair in some parts in today’s definitions is up for debate.

The game’s mechanics were harsh in that you could only attack directly in front of you, either shoulder-height or knee-height, and you couldn’t change the momentum of your jump once your feet left the ground. You had to be really careful with your timing and positioning in order to survive at all. Once you mastered this, however, a lot of the game becomes much more playable.

But that wasn’t the end of it: The further the game progresses, the more ridiculous the levels become in terms of challenge. There are parts where, considering the speed and (lack of) flexibility of your actions, the volume of mobile enemies and their projectiles in combination with pitfalls and other environmental hazards exceeds all definitions of moderation and even fairness. Sometimes, you’re forced to scramble through and hope that on the other side, you still have enough health left to have a chance to proceed.

Nonetheless, through countless deaths and retries, you eventually learn the levels well enough to make it further than you did last time, and after repeating many, many times, those with enough patience may actually get to face Dracula himself. I never did, myself – and I have to admit that to this day, I’ve only seen Dracula in gameplay videos by other people. I didn’t even beat the “Origin” level in Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, where you could tackle it with any character of your choosing – the only time Julius Belmont ever let me down.

Remember this jerk? The bosses weren't generally the hardest part of the game, but they became increasingly irritating as you progressed. [Castlevania, 1986]

Remember this jerk? The bosses weren’t generally the hardest part of the game, but they became increasingly irritating as you progressed. [Castlevania, 1986]

There were loads of games of similar or more unforgiving levels of challenge on the NES, and as time progressed, SNES introduced a number of such titles as well. However, since a save feature became more common, a lot of the difficulty that glazed the older games could be overridden. The games were also designed to be less punishing, possibly to allow more players to actually see most of the game.

Despite this, a lot of games even in this period still required some serious skill for players to beat the game. For example, another beloved title of mine, Donkey Kong Country, wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as Castlevania, since extra lives were always plentiful and each level had checkpoint barrels in them, but especially in the later levels, some serious reflexes and situational awareness was required.

This was even more prominent in the sequel, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest, where there were levels that had a million things flying all over the screen in every direction, simultaneously, and even a single mistake in timing or coordination would be costly. Even if these parts weren’t the majority of the game, they were still full of challenge the like of which all but vanished from games some time later.

A lot of the games of the 8-bit and 16-bit era were very difficult, and there were various reasons. Of course, some games were hard for no other reason than to be hard – even as far as back then, developers knew there were players of different skill levels, and some longed for a greater challenge.

However, the game industry was still relatively young, and hadn’t yet settled on any “general” level of difficulty as a standard. They were still balancing things out, and the gamers of that time were the test audience. Furthermore, many older games were shorter and could be beaten in a matter of a few hours, assuming no retries were required, so the high difficulty catered to a higher content value.

Resurrected Challenge

Later on, game developers seemed to assume an attitude to “not upset” players, and to make sure everyone had a chance to finish their game, regardless of their commitment or skill level. This led up to the majority of games requiring less refined input from the player, while improving on the visual quality of the games, as well as storytelling and the overall length of games, to a certain extent. There were exceptions, as there always are, but the general trend was this: games shouldn’t be able to beat the player, if the player wishes to win.

The return of more difficult games was heralded by throngs of indie developers, who created games by relaying on the experiences they themselves had once had with video games of old. Mostly platformers (such as Meat Boy which I mentioned in the introduction), these games required more reflexes and more thought than the vast majority of games today, and weren’t intended for everyone to begin with, rather for those who had grown up with games of similar challenge levels.

This re-emergence of difficult games was at least partly a sub-phenomenon of the retro game trend, as a large number of recent indie games have featured pixelated graphics, platformer gameplay or other elements that were most prominent during the 8-bit and 16-bit era of video games. One game that stands somewhere between the two extremes of said retro games is Yacht Club Games‘s Shovel Knight.

While not exceedingly difficult for the most part, Shovel Knight re-introduces a variety of features that haven’t been seen a lot in the past 20-or-so years, until just a few years ago. Its graphics are on par with those that were seen on various SNES games, its level selection is in the form of an interactive, gradually unlocking overworld map, and the gameplay itself is pure old-school platforming action. For the most part, this is a game that could’ve existed in the early 90’s, but didn’t.

While Shovel Knight doesn’t feature limited lives or continues, it still deviates from the current average by penalizing death, not only by sending the player to the last checkpoint but also by having them drop some currency that they have a chance to retrieve if they make it back to the spot where they died without dying again. The amount of currency isn’t overwhelming, but enough to make it feel significant.

Hard Games as a New Phenomenon

Not all games that are unusually challenging are retro games, however. For example, Paradox Interactive‘s Europa Universalis series (as well as a number of other fantastic titles by the same developer) require great devotion just to learn the ropes, and to understand the complex mechanics that run the multi-layered in-game world. With such an immense amount of things to consider, the game becomes hard through simply being forced to pay attention to so many things at once, even if the game isn’t a fast-paced one. Similarly to the Civilization series, loss isn’t a result from slow reflexes, but a mistake in the thinking process behind decisions. There’s a reason these games are often compared to chess, and the reason isn’t the turn-based nature alone.

Somewhere between retro games and new games lies XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the re-imagination of the classic 1994 game UFO: Enemy Unknown. It is, in fact, retro in the sense that it re-uses a lot of the things that made the original game popular, and a harsh system of risk and reward is one of them.

This game, too, is chess-like in the sense that although the player has all the time in the world to make each move, smart playing is required and encouraged in order to make the most efficient progress. The fact that the game involves permadeath sets it apart from the majority of contemporary games – it is still relatively unusual that a dead soldier will remain dead forever. But the fact that the consequences of bad decisions or failed actions are so dire only means that the rewards for success feel even greater: Even if there is no actual “reward” to be claimed, the victory feels all the more significant in itself because the threat was real.

In XCOM, percentage values get some fun twists. 99% means you can still miss.

In XCOM, percentage values get some fun twists. They should fire their statistical analyst. [XCOM: Enemy Within, 2013]

Of course, it is impossible to write an entry about punishing games without a dedicated mention to the infamous series of “Souls” games by From Software. Started in 2009 with Demon’s Souls, this line of games has become known for providing a challenge unlike any other game of its time.

This game, as well as its “successor” Dark Souls (and in turn its sequel Dark Souls II), utilize various ways of opposing the player. “Opposing” is the operative word – most games of today are there to guide the player through the story or the gameplay, but this game doesn’t do that. Instead, it stands firm, conveying the feeling that it will do anything within its power to take the player down. And it does so without apologizing, but without taunting, as well – it’s just there, waiting for you to attempt to beat it, and then it gives you all it’s got.

The most obvious part of the difficulty in these games is the combat. It features an unusual type of realism, in that even if your enemies are just simple bandits or the like, you probably won’t win if you’re fighting four or five of them at once, alone. Also, for each enemy you face, you will need to study their behavior (often through a number of deaths), until you can anticipate their attacks and eventually win.

But aside from the combat, these games don’t exactly tell you where to go. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself dashing headfirst into a confrontation that you can’t even hope to win. Trial-and-error is the key – there is no shortcut, you must simply learn from your mistakes, and next time, remember to avoid what killed you last time. This is the way it was in a lot of games back in the day – you didn’t know in advance, and you just had to learn it the hard way.

In contrast to most games of the 80’s and the early 90’s, whenever games today are made difficult, it’s done deliberately. Sometimes this may be simply to cater to the needs of a marginal audience, but like in the case of the “Souls” games, it is actually a gimmick – something that makes that game special, worth noticing. But that doesn’t degrade the fact that such games have enormous value for those who have the skill and the patience to enjoy them.

Challenging but Fair?

Making a hard game that is fun to play isn’t as easy as one might think. It’s easy to make a game unbeatable or unplayable through overwhelming challenge, but to make the experience enjoyable and balanced in some way, that’s an entirely different question.

Games that are hard through unfair balance or mechanics quickly become unpleasant and utterly frustrating. Since games are meant for entertainment, such an experience can be translated into a failed attempt at a video game. There should always be a way to win in a game, one that’s up to the player to discover and utilize, and not for the game to dictate.

Being constantly defeated by the game doesn’t necessarily mean the game is unfair. A game where the player repeatedly loses and through every failure learns something and gradually gets better, eventually emerging victorious, is what I consider fair. On the contrary, games where the player needs to rely on luck are invariably unfair. Luck can have a factor in games without ruining them, but it should never be something that the player needs to proceed.

The Reward

In games that incorporate the type of challenge explained in these examples, there is always a relevant chance to lose, which is much greater than in a lot of contemporary games. The loss isn’t just the motions of running out of health and then trying again from where you died, as many times as you want – it is often something much more punishing, such as losing currency or equipment, having to start a level from the beginning, or even losing the game altogether. In these games, the threat of losing is what makes it worthwhile: it rewards you simply by allowing you to make progress as you beat the challenges the game produces for you.

These days, many games (especially RPGs) involve some variation of a “loot system” as well as an “experience system”, designed to override the organic rewards of progressing, which tend to be absent due to these games’ low difficulty. Actual in-game rewards are there to compensate for the lack of fulfillment one gets from beating a part in such a game that doesn’t exactly prevent players from succeeding, unless they try really hard.

In older games, you didn’t necessarily even think about that. In Castlevania, all you get from beating a boss is an orb that refills your health, and you get bonuses on your score depending on your time and hearts remaining. That’s not exactly a fulfilling reward. But it’s not supposed to be, either: the reward is to get to see the next stage. This may seem dumb to someone who is used to simple loot-based reward system, but back in the day, it wasn’t so obvious that you would eventually get to see every level in the game. A lot of people got stuck somewhere along the way and never made it through, while someone may have seen a level further down the road, describing it like a legendary treasure they may have seen on their travels.

While most people probably don’t think about it that much, making games easy and overly aiding the player is actually underestimating the audience. People don’t like to be talked down to, and gamers are no exception – they’re possibly even less open for condescending behavior. That is one of the reasons why video game enthusiasts like games with little instructions and a harsh difficulty: no one likes to be treated like they’re dumb. These games give players the opportunity to figure things out for themselves, and express their ability to handle a game that doesn’t hold their hand all the time.


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