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Where Difficulty Matters

I’ve always found it upsetting when people describe games as “unforgiving” and then just leave it at that. That sets up such a small facet of the game that you might as well start over with the plastic wrap around the box. A game can be unforgiving but fair or unforgiving and an unrepentant piece of satanic horse hockey. It can ply and test the tensile strength of your gaming resolve or it can make you feel cheated over and over again like a blackjack dealer with glaucoma.

Difficulty, as it turns out, is a difficult thing to tame. It’s a bucking, wild colt that must be reined in properly, otherwise you’ll find yourself in the air and on the ground more than you are riding those majestically powerful chestnut haunches. Difficulty, above all, must be fair. The Golden Rule doesn’t just apply to face-to-face communication but also asynchronously virtual interactions.

And that defines video games pretty well. Designers and developers spend months and years building up one side of the conversation, and then you get to work on your response following that. It’s a paradigm that, at its foundation, represents a digital conversation, and as with all conversations, you don’t want the person you’re chatting with to every once in a while slap you across the cheek and call you Amy Whiny-house as you attempt to hold back the tears.

Super Meat Boy, for instance, is a hard game for all the right reasons. It’s a side-scrolling platformer with the number of ways to die outnumbering the number of hits you can take somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 to one. At certain points, it feels like you can die just from existing too long or for cursing the game too loudly (oh god, can it hear me? DOES IT KNOW?!). Your replays start out innocuous enough, numbering somewhere in the five to 10 range, but by the end of the Dark Worlds, it’ll look more like the product of a gyroscope formed from crystallized DMT that also is probably on a fairly severe acid trip.

You never, however, feel overwhelmed. You are always equipped with everything you need to successfully overcome each challenge and level. The controls are fine enough to where you can break a block on crumbling wall as you jump against a fan so it pushes you back over a swinging saw. The nuance afforded to you is so great that you can wall jump between undulating platforms of spikes over a rising pit of lava. But will you? Probably not.

At least for the first few (hundred) times, but eventually you’ll get it. Some of the obstacles require a bit of consideration and a little pause for personal reflection and introspection, but none of it necessitates rote memorization and a subsequent physical manifestation. The solution is always right in front of you, goading you to try your best (if that’s even good enough), but never will it force you to poke and pry at the cover to see what’s underneath.

Contrast that with Pid, the inaugural release from Might and Delight. It is also a side-scrolling platformer, but you get to throw around light beams that will float you along in whatever direction they’re pointing. Since you, as a character, are limited in your ability to jump and climb, these light beams become necessary for you to explore this strange, sleepy world and escape from its hostile robot inhabitants.

Pid is also, however, difficult in a…less agreeable way. Given that Might and Delight is mostly comprised of the same team that brought us the equally difficult Bionic Commando: Rearmed, it’s no surprise to find Pid also on that end of the challenge spectrum. Just like Super Meat Boy, though, Rearmed felt more or less appropriate in the ways it punished you. Pid just feels punishing for the sake of being a dick.

Don’t get me wrong; Pid has its moments. In fact, it’s an all-around good game. It looks great and is charming as hell, but it can be difficult with absolutely no recourse. The entire game looks like a dream with everything being somewhat soft and bloomy, but that dream-like nature extends to how everything moves as well. Enemy animations are buffoonish and exaggerated and, more importantly, slow. The speed at which everything moves feels just a hair too slow for reality, making it a perfect match for the ethereal nature of the game’s milieu.

But you as a character also move slowly. Not only that, but you move insufficiently. As slow as everything else is, you always seem to move a bit slower. Death far outpaces you, making every checkpoint an exercise is rote memorization. Remember how I said Super Meat Boy avoids the need for that? Pid didn’t get the memo. Those glowing death boxes that hound you seem to require prescient input on your part, and don’t even get me started on that butler boss. Or the one after that.

They all require trial and error and precise parroting but also introduce elements that will also need in-the-moment acts of rapid response time. All of those combined feed into a feeling of being inadequate. Understandably, this fits in rather well with the theme of the game, but the actual playing of it needs to be handled much more adeptly. You can be outmatched for any given situation, but for a game to not be frustrating, you have to feel capable. In this case, you feel outmatched and woefully incapable of much more than dying a lot.

Another good contrasting comparison would be Dark Souls. Dark Souls (and its predecessor Demon’s Souls) is notoriously brutal. Enemies cause just as much (if not more) damage than you with more health and usually are much larger than you. By and large, it’s safe to assume you are in danger of dying at any given moment. You aren’t, however, any more likely to die than anything else in the world. This may sound like a contradiction, but it’s true. You are more than able of defending yourself and taking down every bad guy around you, but you have to be capable of doing so.

You must understand the systems at play: how your attacks work, the timing of defense and counters, where geography will be an advantage or disadvantage, etc. If you manage that, you then are on equal footing with the game. The tools are there for you to learn, not memorize. Your ability to intuit and understand the things happening around you is your advantage, not some abstract sense of overbearing power. You feel commensurate, an equal in the eyes the game. Neither of you look down on one another, and that is why Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls and the like have difficulties that feel manageable, that feel right.

In Pid, you feel like you’re constantly fighting uphill against frightful gales and smashing debris. Not only that, but you’re fighting against yourself, too, as if your feet were a separate entity that communicated with you via semaphore and furtive winks. Its difficulty is not fair and tends to overwhelm. It does not serve to enrich the gameplay or work on some metaphysical narrative level but instead frustrates and punishes to do just that: frustrate and punish. We want to learn how to play, not memorize when to press buttons. Worse yet, those memorized sequences are often subverted by things that would similarly require a strict commitment to memory if they were not random. It is the Golden Rule torn asunder.

It’s a shame that I really do like just about everything else about that game.

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