Why are we (still) celebrating ridiculously hard games?
Early in September, we hit a minor landmark in the history of Rogue-likes that probably slipped under most gamers’ radars. It popped up during a Giant Bomb video for a title called Neon Abyss — there’s a moment in the clip when Brad Shoemaker, normally one of the more famous supporters of the genre, seems to betray some real fatigue.
“This is a run-based game…uh, it’s got random item sets…persistent upgrades between runs…” he says in an (even more) deadpan voice. “It’s one of those. I think it’s good.”
The gist is that Rogue-likes — once a novel concept for resurrecting an old-school level of difficulty — have become so commonplace that you don’t have to mention the genre by name, and a fan has become a little bored with the idea of playing another one, regardless of whether it’s well-made.
Another recent game launch was Mortal Shell, the latest entry into the world of Dark Souls clones. It has mostly favorable reviews, and two of the things critics have lauded it for is being shorter and easier. That’s telling given that the characteristic most people associate with the Souls genre is “hard.” Similar compliments have been paid to Supergiant’s new Rogue-like Hades, which tries to make death a natural or even welcome part of the experience, since it advances the story.
Neither Rogue-likes nor Souls clones are liable to fade away anytime soon. But we may — thankfully for me, at least — be nearing a turning point in the recent obsession with grinding hard single-player games.
I don’t doubt that there’s a market for games with steep curves and 30-hour-plus completion times. Indeed it would be an industry failure if we just swept away challenge entirely in favor of instant gratification, given that beating a monumental boss, level, or puzzle is a deeper pleasure getting everything on a silver platter.
The trouble is that as things stand, an obsession with punishing difficulty can scare people away from titles they’d otherwise latch onto. I’ve always wanted to play Bloodborne for example, based simply on its aesthetic and universe — yet the idea of dying repeatedly for dozens of hours is a turn off.
For people with partners, full-time jobs, and/or children, tough and lengthy games can potentially be a crippled experience. Busy types may have an hour or less of play time per day. If we’re generous and assume they have 10–12 hours per week, a 30-hour game can consume three weeks. That’s also assuming it holds a person’s undivided attention, which it could easily lose if a player is faced with fighting a boss for the 10th time versus watching a movie.
Falling off the wagon means losing hooks into plot and characters, or even forgetting game mechanics, an especially severe risk with the Souls genre. Not only are mistakes punished, often these titles deliberately obscure elements. Mortal Shell forces players to use items multiple times before it’s clear what they do, so you can imagine what might happen to a player who drifts away for days or weeks.
Beyond encouraging developers to build games people can realistically finish — an idea I’ve touched on before — I say we should do a little less idolization of ultra-tough gameplay. In many cases, the only real bragging rights offered are that a player had enough time and patience to bash their way through.
By that I mean that there’s rarely a (fundamental) skill barrier to completion. Certainly there are puzzles to solve and mechanics to learn, but none that the average adult can’t overcome through sustained effort and maybe an occasional peek at a walkthrough. Exceptions are games like, say, Super Meat Boy or PUBG, where you have to break through to a universally applicable (if sometimes superhuman) level of reflexes or tactics. A veteran Rogue or Souls player will beat titles in their genre faster, but the average gamer should get there eventually — if they have the patience.
It’s also a little perverse to deliberately buy or design a game with harshness in mind. Games need a challenge, but if a player is swearing profusely or throwing their controller, something’s broken. I doubt most developers have that goal in mind, naturally, but achieving “gotchas” does seem to be a win for some of them, and there’s a contingent of players who seem to masochistically chase such experiences — stressing out not just themselves but anyone around them, I might add.
The bottom line is this: games should be a source of fun, yet many prominent ones follow formulas that not only limit their appeal but almost antagonize people who don’t treat beating them as a mark of self-worth. Hades and Mortal Shell are steps in the right direction, yet I wonder if we shouldn’t be putting the Rogue and Souls genres aside for a little while. Or perhaps some titles should be offering radically altered difficulty levels — not just easier enemies, but shorter play times.