Why do we love the games that hate us?

Mark of the Ninja strikes an impressive balance between challenge and reward, but it's certainly not the only game in recent memory to do so. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Super Meat Boy, Dark Souls (and Demon's Souls before it)--these are all commonly used as examples of games that are difficult but fair. We often joke that they're made for masochists as a result of their extreme challenge. But difficulty in and of itself isn't all that appealing, and will yield only frustration if handled poorly.

In a recent interview with Dark Souls producer Daisuke Uchiyama, he describes difficulty as a vehicle through which players obtain a sense of achievement. "We often ask ourselves: Why do people continue to play, continue to torture themselves, when playing this difficult game? The underlying concept when we were first developing [Dark Souls] was not to make a difficult game, but to provide a sense of achievement, a sense of accomplishment." 

The time I spent playing Dark Souls for review in 2011 remains one of the greatest experiences I've ever had with a video game. I had no guides to rely on, no form of assistance. I was forced to explore that intimidating world, to experiment, to employ the skills I'd developed to succeed--and I was punished when I failed to play smart. That punishment was always fair, and it made me appreciate my triumphs even more. 

"Jane McGonigal talks about the concept of 'fiero' in her book Reality is Broken," DeAngelis says. "Fiero is an immense sense of pride a player feels when triumphing over adversity, and it’s one of the most powerful emotions an interactive experience can provide. But fiero is absent if there aren’t real odds to overcome. I can’t remember her exact words in the book, but there have been actual neuroscientific studies analyzing the brain concluding that fiero is one of the most intense rushes human beings can experience; you know, those moments where you throw your hands over your head in exultation because you just won a championship, or solved a seemingly impossible problem. So scientifically, challenging games are rewarding because they trigger some of the most powerful, genuine emotions in a player."

Now we're heading into dangerous territory. Publishers fear challenging games won't sell, so they don't make them. Thus we end up facing a barrage of "safe" games--so many of them that they end up opening our eyes to their very safeness, and we become unimpressed. Look at the reception of Medal of Honor: Warfighter. In 2006, people would've gone crazy over that game. Now? Many shrugged so hard they damn near fell off the plateau of apathy. What does that say about the gaming market? Are "hard" games making a comeback? Or are we simply less inclined to blindly fall in love with pretty pictures and fancy lighting effects? 

Yu argues that challenging games aren't making a resurgence--they've just been drowned out by the explosion of "casual" games in recent years. "I don't just mean mobile and social games, but big budget games as well. There's a huge mainstream audience now and developers are afraid of scaring them off by making games that are too hard. Now that it's plateaued a little bit, players are rediscovering the joys of tough games."

I desire games with more substance. I crave interactive experiences with consequences. I get excited at the thought of justified failure--I don't care if I lose a game of XCOM eight hours in. If I do, it's because I messed up. That's not to say I don't pick up my Mass Effects, Halos, or Uncharteds from time to time. I still enjoy my shelf lined with Call of Dutys. But there's a special place now for those few games that linger in my mind long after my consoles are powered down. Those are the ones that always surface whenever I think about my most potent gaming memories. And that's pretty damn refreshing.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.


  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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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