By Cole Altmayer, copy editor
Video game journalists and actual gamers don’t exactly operate on the same wavelength. In fact, the two groups barely operate in the same universe. Gaming websites like Kotaku, Polygon and IGN have become punchlines among much of the gaming crowd.
However, never have I seen gamers more united in their distaste for these websites than right now. After VentureBeat reporter Dean Takahashi’s hilariously incompetent “Cuphead” playthrough went viral, leagues of talking heads from the gaming world leapt at the opportunity to soapbox about it.
Most of the soapboxing was in Takahashi’s defense. Many claim that one doesn’t necessarily need to be good at video games to be a gaming journalist, and that gamers focus too much on skill and the need for games to be a challenge to be properly satisfying. Headlines like “Videogame Culture Needs to Stop Fetishizing Skill” and “Let’s Have a Button to Skip Boss Fights” speak for themselves.
This whole “Cuphead” fiasco perfectly encapsulates a broader issue: gaming as a whole has gone down the road of casualization and leisurely play, rather than creating experiences that really test the player’s skills.
Easier difficulties and more focus on story have become the name of the game, and I can more or less live with that. However, it’s very disappointing to see the narrative of anti-difficulty being pushed by game media, as challenge is perhaps the most important part of creating a truly satisfying gaming experience. Sadly, fulfilling challenges have become few and far between in recent times.
The most obvious example of a fulfilling challenge is the “Dark Souls” series due to its emphasis on timing-intensive and tactical combat. But in this recent gaming climate, it’s almost become a cliche to call a “Souls” game hard. Every time a game introduces a hint of challenge, the gaming media instantly proclaims that it is the “Dark Souls” of whatever genre it’s in. “Cuphead” and “Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy” are some recent titles that have been compared to “Souls” despite both of them being platformers that don’t even play remotely similarly to “Souls.”
These comparisons are drawn because the “Souls” games are one of the only challenging mainstream titles in recent memory. It is not because they deserve the inexplicable “hardcore gamer” pedestal they’re put on.
“Souls” isn’t really that hard. It’s unforgiving and has a pretty steep learning curve, but it very rarely throws anything unfair or unbeatable at the player. The game is extremely competently designed and uses the challenge as a way to keep the player invested in the game rather than a way to keep the casuals out. I don’t consider myself an accomplished gamer, but my first playthrough of “Souls” spinoff “Bloodborne” was easily the most fun I’ve ever had with a game.
Every battle in “Bloodborne” seems like a recreation of David versus Goliath. With each victory, I’m always glad the battle is over, but I’m still hungry for the next challenge the game is going to throw at me. Beyond “Souls” and some competitive multiplayer games, there are very few gaming experiences out on the market that create the same feeling.
Many other games that are advertised as “challenging” aren’t difficult in a fulfilling way. Rather, the developer takes the easy way out and makes the game artificially difficult.
The most common form of artificial difficulty is what I like to call “variable bloat.” This is very common in games that aren’t designed to be challenging but have optional modes that make the game harder.
In a lot of games, the player has the choice of playing the game on easy, normal or hard mode. Usually, the only things that the difficulty levels change are certain variables within the game, most commonly those regarding how damage works. On a hard difficulty, the player would dish out significantly less damage than he would on normal difficulties and take significantly more.
In actuality, this doesn’t make the game more challenging. It just makes it more tedious. The developers don’t design scenarios that test your problem solving skills and reflexes. Instead, they bloat the damage to test your patience and luck.
Often times, developers will artificially inflate difficulty by just making the game needlessly cryptic. Games like “P.T.” and “E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy” are guilty of this, where in-game mechanics are barely explained and are just left for the player to figure out on their own. Most of the time, the player isn’t even given a clue, so it feels more like the developers are yanking your chain and padding out the game’s runtime by inconveniencing you.
I understand why legitimate difficulty is becoming a bygone relic of gaming history because I’ve tried to design my own games as well, using various engines such as RPG Maker and Unity. And I’ve always found that the things that most modern developers focus on, such as story and presentation, are generally some of the easier things to develop. However, balance and difficulty have always proven to be my biggest roadblocks.
My experiences have given me a hint of empathy for other game developers. Making a game that finds the perfect Goldilocks medium between fun and frustrating requires a lot of attention to detail and endless playtesting. The developer needs to consider anything and everything, from the statistics of enemies to the items that the player might have at their disposal. When game journalists are out there parroting the opinion that games don’t need to be challenging to be good, it’s easy to just give up.
Instead of gameplay, the cutscenes and the riveting plotlines have become the frosting of the cake in modern gaming, and the actual gameplay might as well be left in the trash for the raccoons to sift through. Difficulty has simply become antiquated. In the arcade days, games needed to be hard so dumb kids would keep on wasting their quarters on them. Now that the arcade days are over, many people just get frustrated by a good challenge and give up before the game really even begins.
But the arcade days were fun. Challenging games like “Bloodborne” are fun. Multiplayer games where I can test my mettle online against gamers from across the globe are fun, too. That’s my definition of fun.
Getting the consolation prize of a dumb cutscene after I pressed a button to skip a challenging encounter sounds like a boring game journalist’s definition of fun. Do you really think film critic Roger Ebert would’ve written such compelling film reviews if he had access to a remote control at all times, so he could fast forward through all the boring dialogue and leap straight into the action?
Probably not, but what would I know? I’m just someone who actually likes playing engaging video games, not trudging my way through mindless ones. I don’t want to be given the option to skip all the boss fights because I want to be tested by them, and sometimes I’d rather conquer a challenge than be told a neat, little story.
I’d hope that’s not too much to ask, but judging from the direction the game industry is headed, it might be. Here’s to hoping that arcades make a big comeback in the next decade or so.