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."


  • JMarsella09 - November 9, 2012 4:58 p.m.

    Impossible Jrpgs are my montra, including the Souls games. I just love them so much.
  • ObliqueZombie - November 9, 2012 5:06 p.m.

    Great article, Ryan! I, too, have been more fond of the "hard games." Not intentionally, mind, but I simply remember and cherish those moments when I've overcome a seemingly impossible obstacle--like just recently, with Tales of Vesperia's Gattuso boss. That was a BITCH to beat, but when I finally did, it felt so damn good. Like you said, I still enjoy my "streamlined" games quite a lot. I'm a huge fan of Halo, and Black Ops II is around the corner and you bet your ass I'll be there at midnight with my friends.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - November 9, 2012 5:08 p.m.

    Definitely! It's not really a "this type of game" vs. "another type of game" thing, right? It's just that certain ones are inherently more memorable because they force you to rely on your skills--and, more importantly, they let you fail when you mess up.
  • jivecom - November 9, 2012 5:49 p.m.

    This might not seem like it really applies to this, but a lot of what you said is kind of rolled up in my love of proper racing sims. Bear with me, because it's all there: 1. Failure is in nearly all cases because of your poor judgement 2. Success requires the player to learn and apply a specific skill set, a skill set which in most cases is never given by the game, and sometimes isn't even mentioned. You basically have to teach yourself (though in fairness, once you've got it down in a good sim, you've more or less got the hang of it in the rest of the good sims) 3. When you finally do succeed, you feel like you've accomplished something. "Yes! I finally mastered this specific track with this car and I didn't even have nanny aids on" And finally, the most important one 4. All of the nanny aids with the exception of the recent influx of "driving line" diagrams are cribbed directly from nanny aids that real cars really sometimes have, therefore providing you with a legitimate context for them, should you choose to use them Most of this applies as well to well-made arcade racers, i.e. sega rally. In some more recent arcade racers, losing is difficult, but sometimes even then, there's a line between simply succeeding and being truly good at it (I'm sure justin knows exactly what I'm talking about here)
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - November 9, 2012 6:03 p.m.

    Yeah! These kind of experiences aren't exclusive to one genre of game, which is one of the awesome things about games in general :D
  • Sinosaur - November 9, 2012 5:56 p.m.

    I think that for a lot of people, this experience has been somewhat replaced by multiplayer content. Until you get into the realm of outright cheating, you can never be absolutely certain that you'll achieve victory, whether it be against a team of players or swarms of AI enemies with a small squad of allies. That amazing victory where you take out your enemy with a mere sliver of health left, or finish a brutal wave as the last one standing, those are the sorts of memories you hear most people talking about the most now. They also have the advantage of being brief around 10-40 minutes so that even if you don't come out victorious, you usually don't feel like you've wasted your time.
  • 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...
  • winner2 - November 10, 2012 11:59 a.m.

    Completely agreed. I love the controls for Dark and Demons. They're, to me, how fighting in a game like that should be. You'd better move and react perfectly or you're going to get hurt. Badly. And in that game, you can die just as easily with heavy armor as you can with light armor. Being able to roll and move at top speed is practically a necessity. Prime example: accidentally discovering that miralda the executioner lady in the first area of demons as a complete noob with no good equipment. Scared the hell out of me walking into the dark and hearing "WOOSH". Rolled the %*#@ out the doorway in a heartbeat.
  • SDHoneymonster - November 10, 2012 1:24 p.m.

    Dark Souls has occasional input lag too, which is annoying, but it happens so rarely that it's barely worth mentioning when the controls tend to be so spot on.
  • 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.

  • 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)
  • 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.
  • 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.

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