The Difficulty Debate

I enjoy tough games. I have a limit to that enjoyment, but I enjoy the challenge and the feeling that comes with it. We often associate the idea of overcoming obstacles – particularly when we overcome them through our own power – with a sense of accomplishment and euphoria. And it is undoubtedly the case that plenty of video games attempt to tap into this phenomenon.

But there are some problems surrounding the nature of difficulty in video games. One centers around the issue of what it means for a game to be “difficult” or “tough” without just being absurdly so. We don’t exactly have a good way of analyzing difficulty, partially because there is some degree of subjectivity that comes into it.

But despite that, it is possible to lay down some basic ideas for what makes a game “tough” while still being fair. I’ve mentioned this idea of “fairness” a couple times before, and I wanted to explore it in more detail, because I think it’s useful to think about these two concepts as linked. A game can be tough and fair, and we can appreciate the toughness because of that fairness. But a game that is tough and unfair does not draw that same level of appreciation. In reality, it is the fairness we should be focused on, rather than the toughness. Mere difficulty for difficulty’s sake can appeal to some, but will alienate the vast majority of players. And at the end of the day, it is still bad design.

Now one thing we might do when talking about difficult games is lead with examples. Examples are good, but they tend to obscure the discussion. So for example, I could bring up one of my favorite game series, Dark Souls, and say “this is a good example of a game that is tough but fair.”

But using that example would pose a problem for two reasons.

Firstly, because it wouldn’t really explain anything. If you have played Dark Souls, then you likely have your own idea of whether you enjoyed it or not. And if you didn’t like it, you might disagree with the statement. Nothing about presenting the example would serve to convince you that the statement is true. And just as importantly, if you haven’t played the game, then presenting the example would not help you understand why it is fair in its toughness.

Secondly, because presenting a whole game as an example tends to overlook issues. Even when difficult games are – overall – fair in their difficulty, it is still possible for them to mess up and be unfair at particular points. This ends up being the case because trying to make a game tough is like walking a tightrope, and it is fairly easy to fail, either by making things too easy to avoid making them too hard, or by making them absurdly hard. As much as I love Dark Souls, it does have some challenges that aren’t well-designed, and we should not ignore them.

So instead, it is better to approach the topic by way of some basic principles. And in particular, we are looking to analyze what it is that makes a game difficult, and then within the concept of difficulty, what it is that makes a particular challenge fair.

Types of Difficulty

One problem we run into when talking about difficulty is that we don’t have a very good conceptual language. We end up using singular terms to describe an incredibly varied experience. Games can be “tough” or “difficult” or “hard” or “challenging,” but in such different ways that the thing that makes Game A “tough” may be unrelated to the elements that make Game B tough.

Broadly speaking, let us define “difficulty” as any form of challenge which the player must use some kind of skill to overcome. This definition would exclude a barrier that required random chance or some other non-player method of progressing. And the idea of “skill” means that the barrier must involve doing more than merely pressing buttons, although how much more will not be clear.

But even then, there are quite a few different skills we could point to.

One type of skill we commonly associate with gaming is reaction timing. You are about to be attacked, and the only way to avoid getting hit is to move or press a button to dodge or block or reflect the attack. Generally what makes a game “difficult” is that the window for dodging/blocking/reflecting is small, and/or the punishment for failure is severe. A game where you can dodge, but can simply absorb attacks without worry, would not be a difficult game, because it would lack an obstacle.

Another type of skill we generally look for is memory. Memory can come in many different forms. Think of memorizing combos in a fighting game, or memorizing the attack pattern of a boss, or even just remembering an obscure part of the game you were told or shown to answer a question in a quiz. Even things like remembering the layout of the game’s map and where to find items could fall under this skillset. Failing to remember things can serve as an important barrier, whether it means being defeated by an opponent or boss, or not being able to progress.

Linked to the above two skills is the ability for the player to execute complex commands. Think again of combos in fighting games: players must press buttons in a specific order at specific times in order to land every hit, and pressing the wrong button may result in the combo being lost and the opposing player getting an opening to attack. Even if you know what buttons to press and when to press them, if you cannot actually control your own muscles to properly execute the sequence, the knowledge essentially goes to waste.

We also sometimes find games challenging a player’s stamina and patience. Perhaps you are fighting a boss and you understand that boss’s attack pattern, but you need to be able to continue dodging and attacking several more times without dying. Perhaps a game might demand that you take things slowly to prepare for what’s coming up next, rather than rushing in from encounter to encounter. Or perhaps a game just literally tells you to wait. Whatever it is, being able to stop for a moment can test our patience in the most literal sense of the term.

Games also select for puzzle-solving and critical thinking skills. This one may be the most obvious in its application. Whether we play them or not, there are plenty of puzzle games, or games that require the player to otherwise solve some kind of problem that can only be addressed by clever thinking, rather than with brute force.

Most interestingly, one thing we don’t often think about is how games prize knowledge and experimentation. The better a player understands a game’s systems – how to move around, how to fight, how levels are laid out, how objects are placed, etc. – the easier it becomes to overcome the game’s obstacles. Which also means that the better a player is at learning these things, the better they will be able to address challenges. So the ability to experiment, to mess with the controls and figure out what works and doesn’t work and how to push the game to its limits, gives players a leg up on those who find themselves unable to essentially think outside the box.

I must note that this list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty of other skills that games can demand of players. Sometimes those skills are specific to certain obstacles, sometimes they are even specific to certain types of games.

I should also note that these forms of difficulty are not mutually exclusive. Games can mix and match these different challenges in different ways. And in fact, sometimes proficiency in one skill can eliminate the need for another: sometimes knowledge of the game can allow us to overcome the need for patience, for example.

What’s important is stepping back to ask how a game is difficult. It’s not enough to say that I am being challenged. How am I being challenged? Sure, I can recognize that a particular event in the game is challenging me, and that I was able to overcome it, but what is the skill that the challenge is trying test? What skill is it that I presumably possess more of than a player that would otherwise be unable to complete the challenge?


So now that we know what (some of) the skills are that a game can be looking for, how do we know when a challenge is fair?

Allow me to propose the following principle to help guide us:

A given challenge in a game is fair when the player is theoretically capable of overcoming it using all of the information that a normal player would have received at that point, with at most only minimal trial and error.

I will note that the “information a player would have received” means a couple important things. Firstly, there are processes for learning laid out by a game, and a player should have a sense of what those processes are. For example, Dark Souls: bosses have patterns that you need to learn, but players are at least made aware that they need to dodge attacks and told how to do so (Dark Souls, after all, mostly tests reaction timing); a player could theoretically figure out the boss’s pattern and defeat the boss on the first attempt. Even though that generally does not happen, as long as we can reasonably imagine a player being able to do so, that gives the challenge a flavor of fairness.

Secondly, the “would have received” means that a player’s actual knowledge isn’t relevant. If, for example, you were not paying attention and skipped a piece of information on how to play, that does not make future challenges unfair. In addition, this statement means that if a given challenge is unfair, players with extra knowledge beyond what a normal player might get or be expected to get do not make that challenge suddenly fair. Even if that extra knowledge is theoretically available to any player, if it falls outside what a normal player would do, then the challenge is still unfair.

The key we are looking for is information. What information does a game give you, directly and indirectly, to help you address present and future obstacles? How well does it convey that information? What is being expected of a player, and are those expectations reasonable?

Importantly, our focus on information means we aren’t necessarily concerned with execution. A player could know what they need to do, but be unable to do it. You could know that you need to dodge an attack, but not have the reaction speed to do so. You could know the sequence of buttons you need to press, but not have the dexterity do actually press them. These physical limitations do not on their own make the challenge unfair. Individuals ultimately have different skillsets that mean some will be able to overcome obstacles that others cannot. That difference does not make a challenge unfair.

Now allow me a brief digression to note that this principle does not cover challenges which might require such a massive degree of skill that only the tiniest of percentages of players will be able to overcome them. These challenges can be absurdly difficult to the point of being unfair, but they would be unfair for a different reason. Usually, developers put such tests in knowing that the challenges are absurdly difficult. But there is a different flavor to this kind of unfairness that can allow (a very small portion of) players to forgive the design more easily.

When we’re thinking about informational problems, perhaps the most obvious example is surprises. I don’t necessarily mean any kind of surprise or shock. Rather, anything which is meant to catch a player off-guard in a way that they could not possibly expect. Imagine running down a hallway and then suddenly the floor falls away to reveal a pit that instantly kills you: turns out you were supposed to jump over that bit of floor. If the player could not possibly know about the trap until after it has been sprung, then the obstacle becomes unfair. Even little things like enemies or attacks hitting you from out of seemingly nowhere, or a mistranslation in a puzzle can make for unfair design.

Informational problems can also come in the form of poor communication, or even just a complete lack of communication. Perhaps a trap exists, and you could notice it, but the game does nothing to try to help you spot these traps. In this case, even though the game has information available to the player, that information is not actually in the player’s hands. It is no different from the information not existing in the first place, and the player is going to end up being surprised or frustrated.

One thing to note is that I said “minimal trial and error,” and we need to emphasize the term “minimal” here. Theoretically, after enough time banging their head against a wall, a player can gather the information they need to overcome an obstacle. But that fact doesn’t make a challenge fair. Instead, what denotes a minimal amount of trial and error is that the trial and error is quite literally absolutely necessary. If a player needs to fail to learn information, then it should also be the case that there was no better method for conveying that information.

The final issue to get into the subjectivity problem. Even when a given player can complete a challenge, they may feel that the challenge is too hard: it took too much time or effort, or demanded too much skill. Does this matter?

The short answer is no. However, even then, this does not mean that the player is wrong. A player can dislike a fair challenge, just as much as they can like an unfair challenge. The player’s feelings are in this sense separate from the project of examining the game from a critical perspective.

Even fair challenges may not appeal to us, for a variety of reasons. We may not like the type of challenge – perhaps we don’t like puzzles, or we don’t care for difficult based on quick reactions, or we can be patient but don’t want to be. How we want to approach a game is important for our own preferences. Those preferences are valid insofar as we cannot fault a player for disliking the challenge.

Concluding Remarks

Hopefully this analysis provides some insight into what it means for a game to be difficult and what a “fair” challenge is. And in turn, hopefully it can help us to talk about difficulty in a slightly better way. There is a great deal more discussion to be had on the subject, but we need to have some kind of starting point.

It is important for us to differentiate these ideas of difficulty and fairness, because we often get bogged down in discussions of difficulty by invoking both preference and pride. Preference, in the sense that we tend to favor challenges that we were successful at and liked, regardless of whether those challenges were fair. Pride, because we tend to think that being able to overcome challenges, including unfair challenges, makes us better than others and thus gives us significant bragging rights.

But these factors can mean that we end up having a warped discussion. We are unable to step back and examine difficulty in any genuinely critical sense, because our sense of who we are is wrapped up in the game’s difficulty. If we believe that being a “true” gamer involves enjoying and being successful at difficult games, then we lose sight of the topic because we cannot separate the discussion from a discussion of our identity.

But this identity is ultimately of little value. And in fact, it creates more problems than it could ever hope to solve. Which is why in next week’s essay I will look deeper into the topic of difficulty and the ability – or inability – to complete challenges, and what it says about players. In particular, I will be looking at the mentality that players unable to overcome particular challenges are lesser, and show that these claims not only miss the point of difficulty, but are destructive.

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