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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.

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28 comments

  • 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.

    tl;dr
  • 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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