On Difficulty and Quality in Games

A certain masochistic streak runs through the gaming community, one which judges the quality of a game purely on how hard it is.

Which is not to say that challenge cannot be fun. I’m a huge fan of Etrian Odyssey IV, a game which attempts to brutally shut down the player at every turn. But what makes the game fun is not just that it’s hard, but that overcoming this challenge is a fun experience. The battles are fun, the dungeon exploration is fun, and you get a strong sense of fulfillment from overcoming the challenges in it.

Yet so many view the difficulty in games as the only thing that matters. Hard games are good, easy games are bad. People praise games like Dark Souls for being hard, while ignoring everything else that makes it a good game. The way the world is interconnected and loops in on itself, the way the story is told implicitly as opposed to explicitly, the visuals, everything that makes it a good game is tossed out or ignored. Only the trees matter, not the forest.

The roundabout effect of this is that criticisms of games being too hard are met with “it’s just that you’re not good enough.” If a game is difficult, it must be good. If someone says it’s too hard, they must be bad. It’s a binary viewpoint which ignores the concept that bad design can make something overly-difficult.

If hard games are good, then easy games are clearly bad. Games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, which encourage you to play with non-gamers by making it impossible to die, are chastised as being “for babies.” The average gamer considers themselves above that. The idea that the game may still be well-designed and have some challenge unrelated to dying is totally foreign to them.

Any attempt to make a game more accessible or less difficult is met with cries and dissent from gamers. Pokemon Sun/Moon showed you which moves were effective against other Pokemon, and the “hardcore” wailed in anguish. Mass Effect introduced an incredibly easy difficulty for those just there for the story, and teeth were gnashed in anger.

A challenging game can be good. But it’s important to not conflate challenge with quality, or view ease as a negative.

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