The revenge of the hard video game

Chris Morris
Plugged In

If you've spent any time with recent release Dark Souls II, you've doubtlessly asked why, exactly, you’re putting yourself through the game’s particular brand of torture.

It's big, it's beautiful, and it's controller-throwingly difficult. To call it challenging is akin to calling this past winter “a bit nippy.” If someone new to gaming were to spend five minutes with it, they'd walk away and never look back.

And that’s exactly how it was designed.

Dark Souls II is an undeniably hard game, and it isn’t alone. Games are getting harder. From Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze to downloadable motorbike nightmare Trials to, yes, that pesky Flappy Bird, video games are going back to their roots, when a good challenge was greatly appreciated.

It's quite a change from just five years ago, when Nintendo decided that games were too hard and began including the "Super Guide" to help players get past tricky sections. After a player lost eight lives in New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii, for instance, a green exclamation block would appear. If Mario hit the block, the computer would control the game through the stage that was troubling the player.

Those days are long gone. Nostalgia for grueling gaming is raging, and while the audience for these sorts of experiences might never reach critical mass, developers who are making more challenging titles say there's a certain segment of the gaming world that really appreciates them.

"There are people who want to buy a game specifically because of its difficulty," notes Shinji Mikami, creator of Bethesda's upcoming horror game, The Evil Within. "One of the appeals of playing challenging games is the sense of accomplishment not possible to achieve with an easier game."

"Hardcore games take more energy than casual games and the more energy you spend on a game the more you identify with it and the more you get out of it," he continues. "Those are the ones that stick in your memory. Those are the ones you tell your friends about and get into heated discussions 'that part was so tough, I didn't think I was going to make it!' Casual games don’t offer that same level of satisfaction."

Mikami knows a bit about hard games. During his early days at Capcom, he worked under Tokuro Fujiwara, creator of the legendarily difficult Ghosts 'n Goblins series. The Evil Within has been described several times as a game that will not only scare you, but challenge you.

The game features the usual Casual, Normal and Hard difficulty levels, but for gamers who really want to challenge themselves, The Evil Within will offer Akumu mode ("Worst dream" in Japanese).

"People who can clear Akumu mode will definitely want to brag about it as it requires a high level of mental ability as well as technical ability," says Mikami. "To me, survival horror requires both."

Early on, games were difficult not so much out of intention as the limitations of the medium. Coin-op games were governed by far more basics rules than contemporary games, so developers would quickly ramp up the difficulty to challenge players (and keep the quarters coming in). Arcade standards like Defender and Joust were certainly fun, but most players wouldn’t last more than a few minutes before crapping out. That sort of accidentally challenging game design has fallen by the wayside, replaced by game makers who intentionally design games that require high skills to master.

Take the upcoming Wolfenstein: The New Order. At its E3 debut last year, players were uniformly surprised by how hard it was to take down Nazis. While we won't know if that degree of difficulty will be carried forward to the retail copy until it ships in May, the team behind the game notes there are some advantages in making players work to finish a level.

"Above all we want to honor player agency," says Jens Matthies, creative director at MachineGames, developer of Wolfenstein. "We want you as a player to author your own accomplishments. If a battle is won, a puzzle solved or a secret discovered it should be because you as a player have succeeded. However, freedom to succeed also means freedom to fail, so in some sense more player freedom inevitably leads to higher difficulty. ... The sense of mastering a game is still immensely important, and ignoring this aspect of the experience by making the game overly easy is a mistake in our view."

While Dark Souls II and Wolfenstein are carrying the torch for big, triple-A releases, the real hard game renaissance is largely happening in the independent game world. And some developers are having a lot of fun with the idea of the impossibly difficult title.

Try performing an operation in Surgeon Simulator. Iniitially designed in just a couple of hours, the game has intentionally bad controls, turning relatively simple procedures into life-threatening scrambles. Super Meat Boy, I Wanna Be the Guy, Cloudberry Kingdom, and the appropriately-titled The World’s Hardest Game have driven gamers equally happy/mad.

For mainstream publishers, hard games come with a risk: no one wants to alienate potential customers. That's why you're seeing more and more titles automatically adjust to your abilities, says Mikami.

"For me, it's generally better to have a difficulty setting that automatically adjusts to the individual player's level," he says. "This is because the average player clears a game and doesn't play it again."

He’s only partially right. A recent talk at the Game Developer’s Conference indicates that most players don’t actually beat games anymore, but not because they’re too hard. More likely it’s due to other reasons, including increasingly limited gaming time and the fact that many games are simply too long or involved for the average attention span.

On the other hand, Dark Souls II (which comes to the PC on April 25) is long, involved and hard as nails, but legions of fans will suffer through its impossible bosses to see the final screen. And they'll love -- and loathe -- every minute of it.

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