Failure, Difficulty Presented in Video Games

Toby Alden

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Illustration by Luke Hampton.

What does it mean for a creative work to be difficult? When we talk about a book or a movie being “difficult,” we usually mean it requires close scrutiny and multiple viewings in order to be fully understood and enjoyed. When we call a video game difficult, however, we usually mean it requires a greater degree of failure and repetition to complete it than an ordinary title.

This usage is similar, but more tangible. After all, failing to grasp the allegorical significance of a gatekeeper in “The Faerie Queene” doesn’t stop the reader from moving on to the description of the castle he guards, but if you can’t get past the gatekeeper in Dark Souls––well, you’re just not seeing the castle. Period.

But the comparison is valid in other respects: if we consider a book as a collection of effects produced by words in certain combinations, and understanding a book as being able to identify and synthesize these effects, then we could call a video game a collection of effects induced by code, and mastery of a game a similar synthesis of effect. The only difference is that the successful synthesis of a game by a player requires not only that they comprehend it, but that they manipulate certain elements of it as well, an act we could call performance, or play.

Another way to think about difficulty in video games is in terms of the consequences of failure, in conjunction with its frequency.

For example, in a game like Super Meat Boy, the consequence of failure––which in Super Meat Boy is defined as getting sliced to ribbons by a giant circular saw or being dissolved in a vat of salt––is being sent back to the beginning of the level. The levels are small, meaning this isn’t a very big penalty, but because the levels are also very hard it happens frequently.

The difficulty in Super Meat Boy, then, comes from repeating the same level over and over, slowly working out a pattern of movement through trial and error and ingraining it into your muscle memory. Failure has limited consequences, but occurs frequently. In a game like Spelunky or Brogue the opposite is true: failure only happens once a game, but comes at the ultimate price––permanent death, and starting back at the beginning of the game.

Difficult books are usually thought to be worth reading in spite of, or because of, their difficulty. We assume complexity reflects a depth of meaning, and in many texts, this is true. In others, however, difficulty in reading comes as a result of obfuscation, rather than genuine complexity. The same is true of games: while a game can be difficult in a meaningful way, its difficulty can also be absolute shlock. What distinguishes the two is a proper balance between consequence and frequency.