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Why do we love the games that hate us?

Eight hours of progress. Gone. I had been so careful, too. Every move during my Ironman game in XCOM: Enemy Unknown had been a calculated one. My shotgun-wielding Assault unit had been leading my slow, inch-by-inch approach to the alien ship while my Sniper hung back on Overwatch, ready to introduce a molten slug to the face of any enemy dumb enough to cross my path. My Support dude stood by with medkits at the ready, and my Heavy--Mr. Abraham "Werewolf" Lincoln (I couldn't have chosen a better nickname if I tried)--was prepped with rocket launcher in-hand.  

And one misstep ruined everything.

I moved one tile too far. Aliens surrounded me, and my entire squad was dead within two turns. So was my entire game. Eight hours in, and I lost. "Is that even possible?" I wondered to myself. "What year is this, again?" But it was possible. And after double checking my calendar, I discovered the year was, in fact, 2012. 

I knew I'd be risking this exact scenario when I started an Ironman game--but instead of rage quitting XCOM forever, I began another. When I was met with failure once more, I questioned why I was so obsessed with continuing.

The answer, I realized, was because I had been starving for something very particular: games that gave me the freedom to experiment but weren't afraid to let me fail because of my own mistakes.

"Games, at their core, are about solving problems," says Enemy Unknown's producer Garth DeAngelis. "The magic ingredient of games is interactivity, and as game designers, we want that interaction to be compelling and meaningful. The problem should be yours to resolve, and failure should be a real option. But if there isn’t an actual problem to solve, or a challenge to overcome, then what’s the point?"

I've been thinking a lot lately about the games adorning the shelves of my personal collection. There's a lot in there. But whenever I recall my most vivid gaming memories, I have flashbacks of MMO raids; of triumph in Faster Than Light and XCOM; of overcoming the seemingly impossible challenge of Demon's and Dark Souls. But why these? Why is it that out of every gaming memory I can conjure, so few of them include the setpiece-driven big-budget titles that frequently infiltrate our day-to-day discussions of the amazing things games can accomplish?

In part, I think it's got a lot to do with experimentation. My favorite games tend to be ones that give me the tools to accomplish a task while providing me the opportunity to decide how to use them. "I believe [experimentation] is paramount to the experience," says Derek Yu, creator of the roguelike Spelunky. "That's one of the reasons I get so fed up with excessive hand-holding in games. It takes away so much of the enjoyment of experimenting with new mechanics. To me, it's like treating the player like a kid in the worst possible way--with all of the condescension but none of the playfulness."

Yu makes a strong point, and I can't help but think about the sheer volume of games that spoon feed players the solution to every single problem. We become right-trigger mass murderers because that's what a game tells us to do--not because doing so is a choice we've made for ourselves. That's an important distinction.

"I think there’s an ebb and flow to a lot of trends and designs, and for the past five-plus years we’ve been in a sort of hand-holding mode," DeAngelis says. "Many games would have Normal modes that were cakewalks, and there were even some games that literally played the game for the player. I think there was this mentality of extreme accessibility: 'let’s appeal to any and everyone, even if it’s a person not interested in our genre traditionally.' And there was this mindset that everyone should win the game, and losing is bad. So it made the game easier for everyone, even hardcore fans of the genre, you know?" 

Oh, we know. Dig through any gaming message board long enough, and you'll find droves of "hardcore gamers" pining for the "old days," reminiscing about tough games (even though some of those were tough only because of bad design). But challenging games definitely exist, and failure plays an important role in the best of them.

"Obviously the core function of failure is consequence--your decisions are only meaningful and interesting if they have a cost, whether that be opportunity cost or the risk of failure," says Jamie Cheng, founder of Klei Entertainment (Mark of the Ninja, Shank). "In the context of Mark of the Ninja, we used failure to define the parameters of what a ninja can do--they are sneaky bastards, but are vulnerable if detected."

28 comments

  • Nocturne989 - November 12, 2012 8:34 a.m.

    I love games that offer that kind of difficult yet rewarding gameplay, especially RPGS. Loved Dark Souls when I played it. Spent so much time reading opponents moves and plotting my moves to beat the bonus bosses in KH: BBS and it was so rewarding when I finally did. And SMT: Nocturne on Hard difficulty was easily the most difficult turn based rpg I've played, and I have extremely fond memories of it. Finally beating that game after 80+ hours was the culmination of an amazing experience.
  • talleyXIV - November 11, 2012 4:15 p.m.

    X-Com is so good.
  • Broddeb - November 11, 2012 8:03 a.m.

    Respect for mentioning the Soul’s series. For me, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were and are a breath of fresh air in the current climate. I actually brought a PS3 just for Demon’s Souls and even though I did, I still didn’t expect the type of challenge and the punishment that awaited me. I had read that it was a difficult game in loads of reviews, but in my mind at that time “hard” meant that the enemies would have harder hit points than me and several other factors, small life bar, lack of health pick ups in an area, loads of enemies would spawn etc….. Now, I’m not sure if it is because for the past 4-5 years I have been spoon fed hand holding games or if I have been picking the wrong games but the challenge that awaited me on Demon’s Souls was such a welcome smack in the face that is something I have never forgot and it awakened a part of my gaming soul that had been dormant for years - and in a good way!!! Looking at my game collection now, all the games I have are great and are games that I will go back to and will forever keep in my collection. Yet two stand out….. They are the contorted and twisted offspring that dwells in the attic awaiting its bucket of fish heads at Xmas while the rest of the family sit down for a Christmas turkey with all the trimmings on December the 25th. They are the medieval monks that see punishment as a better way of proving ones faith rather than praying in a church; whipping their own backs to a bloody pulp instead of kneeling down to porcelain idols. I may be going a bit over board here but you hopefully get my meaning? Hopefully? A game that had such strict rules and was as unforgiving as the Soul’s series will always be something that I will go back to because they challenged me, and in this day and age that is something that stands out. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the gaming industry as much as the next gamer but I have to agree with the OP; games that punish me are the ones I love the best.
  • rxb - November 11, 2012 8 a.m.

    Good article, I do agree with you but I think sometimes games are made a bit easier just so people actually finish them.
  • jasoncarter - November 10, 2012 11:22 p.m.

    I would be more then happy with xcom, if it wasn't a bug ridden mess. Hell I'd be more then happy to do ironman in xcom overall its a fun game, but when enemies teleport in randomly right in the middle of my troops, shoot me through multiple walls, and my soldiers get stuck under floors, incorrect flanking on troops, and I suddenly get tossed an extra abduction mission even though I just finished one, there is a problem. Hard and fun is one thing, cheap glitches is another. Why does no game website talk about this kinda stuff with xcom? Just curious. Also, FTL is a damn fun game.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - November 11, 2012 11:50 a.m.

    Hmmm, I played a LOT of XCOM, and I rarely encountered these types of problems. If I had, I probably wouldn't place it among the games I find challenging and fair.
  • jasoncarter - November 12, 2012 10:52 p.m.

    Sadly, I've had too many to count. In fact just today on my play I had not 1 enemy squad but 2 instantly teleport right in the middle of my squad. I have it on video. This is what is stopping me from doing ironman. Sigh, I wish they would fix these issues its really a good game.
  • jasoncarter - November 12, 2012 11:39 p.m.

    I uploaded it, here's the link in case anyone wants to see. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOGw62EJrRk&feature=youtu.be
  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - November 10, 2012 1:39 a.m.

    no mention of devil cry 1... and yet faster than light is mentioned oh boy. people just jumped on that bandwagon after totalbiscuit showed a video of it.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - November 10, 2012 10:45 a.m.

    Different games for different people. There's not a definitive list - those are just the ones that do it for me.
  • GR HollanderCooper - November 10, 2012 10:37 p.m.

    Also he's sort of talking about new games with it, not old ones.
  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - November 11, 2012 1:28 a.m.

    oh right i shouldve read it through a bit more properly. thanks.
  • KA87 - November 9, 2012 7:30 p.m.

    I look at it this way, someone paid $733,000 for an unused copy of Killswitch just so that they could be possibly the only person to have completed Ghast's (AKA an avatar that is invisble to all of the enemies and you) champign. That said, the youtube video of said buyer crying at his computer is a likely reason why games are normally not that tough.
  • ChaosEternal - November 10, 2012 10:18 a.m.

    I'd say the reason the buyer was crying at his computer was because the entire story was a hoax, including his buying it. There was never a game called Killswitch. (Though there was an unrelated game titled Kill.Switch. :P)
  • taokaka - November 9, 2012 6:37 p.m.

    I'm kind of mixed when it comes to gaming difficulty, I don't play games for a challenge but when I find a game that challenges me in a way I like then I'm all for it. I hate when games stimulate difficulty by limiting the number of lives or attempts you have at the challenge, making the only way to win through memorization of attack patterns, etc or when there's a severe punishment like permadeath, losing 8 hours of gameplay sounds like utter hell to me. I like difficult action games like ninja gaiden sigma 2 and bayonetta on a high difficulty because they challenge your ability to correctly time your attacks, dodges, etc and test your spacial awareness all while providing a fast, fluid combat system that's still fun even on easier difficulties. I enjoy having games that are difficult and fast because of how they test your decision making skills, an example of this is burnout 3, when you get in the formula 1 car you go so ridiculously fast in incoming traffic that you need god like decision making skills and reflexes to avoid constantly crashing and get a good position. Another way I enjoy being challenged is in bullet hell games like touhou, they test your spacial awareness and your ability to judge based off of where you think will be a safe spot in ten seconds time. However my utmost favourite form of challenge is the challenge you create yourself, an example is deliberately choosing the worst fighter in a fighting game when versing other people because the sensation of winning a round of blazblue with Rachel, a round of tekken with Julia or a game of smash bros with mr game and watch is great. I always try and make games difficult my way, in dishonored I only took people out by choking them, in skyrim I fought dragons with my fists, in uncharted 3 I took out all the regular enemies by rolling around, jumping from atop cover to the next set of cover and being a total jackass then punching them to death. Sorry for the long wall of text.
  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - November 10, 2012 1:38 a.m.

    tl;dr
  • codystovall - November 9, 2012 6:23 p.m.

    Dark souls was all the more harder with its stunted controls.
  • BladedFalcon - November 10, 2012 1:36 a.m.

    Aside from the sometimes wonky auto lock-on, I never really had any problems with the controls. They responded and reacted accordingly to your own movements, unless of course, you made the mistake of over encumbering yourself, that is...

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