I Like Difficult Video Games

When I’m not writing about video games, or talking about video games, or playing video games my favourite thing to do is go rock climbing.

Rock climbing is the most pointless thing in the world.

I am currently trying to clamber up this one route. It’s a bouldering route inside a cave 20 minutes from my house. Depending on how you do it it’s roughly 10 short, difficult moves from the bottom to the top.

I’ve spent roughly about six hours, over three separate days, trying to do those 10 moves. At an estimate I’ve fallen off maybe 50 times. This is a conservative estimate.

No-one will care if I finally finish this route. Not even my wife, who’s been gritting her teeth for the last month as I train, eat, talk and constantly think about this climb. Not even my climbing friends, who’ve given me advice, or come along to provide support.

It's no big deal. Dozens of people have climbed this route. Maybe hundreds. It’s hard (V8/9 if you are aware of climbing grades) but it’s not that hard.

It is however, for me, close to my limit. For me it is difficult and that’s all that matters.

I’ve been thinking a lot about things that are difficult.

I remember years ago, in the midst of a Trials Evolution addiction, I would come home from climbing and marvel at the incredible similarities between the climbing I had just done and the video game I was currently playing. Trials Evolution was a game about precise movements, precise techniques. It was also about memorising specific movements, about rehearsal — applying those movements in the most efficient way possible.

This is also rock climbing.

But the truth is this: all difficult things are alike. They all provide you with a deeper sense of reward upon completion. They all force you to struggle against your own weakness. They all force you to overcome something. It doesn’t even matter how difficult the task is from an objective perspective, it only matters that you are pushed towards some sort of personal limit. When I passed my driving test I started crying. Literally I shed tears. When my brother passed his driving test he shrugged and went about his day.

The only difference. He passed first time. I failed my driving test five times and passed on my sixth attempt.

As of this moment I am playing Dark Souls III and I’m thinking about video game difficulty. For a while there it was fashionable to enjoy From Software games because of their difficulty. It was fashionable to write about the ways in which Souls games were valuable because they didn’t pander to players, because death and challenge was a constant.

People eventually got tired of talking about that.

Then it became fashionable to say the appeal of Dark Souls wasn’t about difficulty at all. It was about allowing players to grow, it was about lore, core mechanics, the universe building – Dark Souls was a good game for lots of reasons, just don’t mention the difficulty.

But let’s be honest here. If you’re playing Dark Souls, difficulty is important to you.

I know it’s important. I know it's important because fans who bought Dark Souls III early as a result of a region-based error on the Xbox One went into complete meltdown upon finding out that the early, un-updated version of Dark Souls 3 was slightly easier that the 1.01 updated version.

I know it’s important because when I found this out, 10 hours into the game, I – a time poor parent who has to fight for every minute of game time – seriously considered deleted my save file, updating and starting Dark Souls III again from scratch. That was a consideration I made.

For me difficulty is important. For a number of reasons. I like to think I’m self-aware enough to admit that a large part of that is pure ego. Achievement as affirmation: I can do this thing, I am good at this thing.

But mainly it’s about the illusion of value. About replicating the feeling that you have acquired a skill. There is no real world task — crucial to me, my family or the human race — that requires my ability to defeat Ornstein & Smough. That requires my ability to get gold medals on Trials Evolution's extreme tracks. Neither of those achievements are going on my resume any time soon.



These achievements rank with some of my most treasured moments, at least in my gaming life. At least. If I’m being honest they probably rank with some of the coolest things I’ve done in general. These are moments when I pushed against my limits and overcame. That is valuable to me. That is important to me.

And if that sounds silly? If that sounds pathetic? Well, I truly find it difficult to give a shit. We are free to define what’s valuable to us.

No-one will care when I climb that one route I’ve been working on. No-one will care that I beat that boss, or did that track, or finished Super Meat Boy.

But there will be a point in history where no-one will care that Usain Bolt ran 100 metres in 9.58 seconds. That time will come. It's inevitable.

In the end, on some grander scale we can’t comprehend, everything is meaningless. Nothing is important. All we have to cling to are the things that make us happy; our little achievements. All that matters is we encountered something that seemed impossible, but we somehow made it possible.

That’s important, isn’t it?


    That got... existential.

      As the famous philosopher / prophet L. Park once said

      "In the end, it doesn't even mattee-ee-eer-er-er"

      "Video Games"

      Seriously though, it's a great article. Despite my tendency to disagree about Dark Souls, I think as I've gotten older and my appreciation of games has changed, it has often come down to, "why do I choose to spend my time - my LIFE - with these things? Why do I find them valuable?"

      And that's about as subjective and existential as it gets.

      Dang.. that last paragraph hurt my soul.

    Mark, just about every article you write I find myself subconsciously nodding my head all the way through. Like I understand, on a deeper level.

    Difficult games are my jam.

    I want to climb a hill and see a bigger one in the distance. There's something innately rewarding about that.

    For a long, long time, I played Spelunky. First I had to learn to get out of the Mines, then the Jungle, Ice Caves and Temple. Now I can consistently beat Hell, get no gold runs in under 6 minutes and do score runs with more than $400,000 after leaving the Mines. Each step along the way was awesome. After a while, it just became something to do with my hands. I wasn't engaging with the game in any way, just going through the motions and occasionally achieving some arbitrary goal.

    So I moved on to Invisible Inc. There's always another hill.

      "After a while, it just became something to do with my hands."

      Holy shit. That is such an amazing way to describe that feeling.

        Are we sure we're talking about the same feeling Mark? *wink wink* *nudge nudge*

        The worst part is that I still want that eggplant run. I just don't have the drive to do it.

          Yes, even though I don't play spelunky much anymore I still try protect myself from its secrets just in case I need another challenge in it. I accidentally found the eggplant one day and I have been resisting googling what it is for... 'an eggplant run', sounds interesting. I cant even remember how we got it but I think it involved the shrine.

            Knowing all of the secrets definitely doesn't stop new challenges from popping up.

            For the longest time, people didn't know what eggplants did. Then the mystery got cracked and people tried desperately to be the first one to pull off an eggplant run. Now people speedrun it.

    I'm glad to find the Super Meat Boy image here, that was brutal deluxe and amazing, but what made it amazing was how quick the stage reset, ready to go for your next attempt. You could chew through 100 lives (deaths?) in less than a minute. You don't even have time to scream out some expletive, your mind was already back in for your next attempt. The game didnt slap you with a "you suck!" screen with a forced 10 second delay, there was no loading screens or respawn delays, you were right back ready to go again. So rewarding when I managed to beat Dark Cotton Alley, and no-one but me will care.

    I'm about to start Dark Souls (backwards compatibility!) for the first time and I fear this will be a little of the latter, but I welcome the challenge.

      Completely agree. The no loading screens were a major plus. Kept the pace fast!

    Something something Battletoads.

      20 years and I'm still yet to pass the vertical tunnel bit...

        What? You mean the second level??

        The Turbo Tunnel following it was supposed to be the sticking point :P

          Nah, after the speeder bikes there's a level where you descend a tunnel on a rope.

            I think the 20 years is playing tricks with your memory, the descent on ropes is the second level :P

            Surface -> Impact Crater -> Turbo Tunnel -> Arctic Cavern -> Surf City -> Karnath's Lair -> the rest.

    Games teach, they do not tell. That's been my overall mantra ever since played my first one.

    Now, I love me some stories in my games. However, they are just as much *my* stories as well once I play the game. That's the secret.

    Difficult games are great when you are young, it's like Mark says, it's your own personal Everest.

    When you are just that little bit older though, it's like what people pulling on the football boots for a casual work-related event or something. You might not be able to call on your skills as fast as you once did so you feel a bit daft and disappointed with yourself even though everybody else isn't treating it as competitively.

    That's on me, not the game(s).

    I'll get Dark Souls 3 day one, but I'll savour it unlike Dark Souls 2, which I found myself just wanting to _get through_

    You've also touched on why I wasn't such a fan of Dark Souls on my first play - got stuck somewhere in the Demon Ruins on the launch version of the game, took a break for a month or two, then came back and everything I was stuck at had been nerfed so I just waltzed through the last part of the game in one big unmemorable blur.

    I guess that's also a personal issue that once The Challenge is set, it's no fun if you go and move the barrier for the player stuck at it.
    I think the same thing happened with the elevator sequence in Half Life 2 Ep 1, I know someone that lost interest in the witcher 2 when that end of chapter 1 boss got nerfed while they were stuck... It does raise a problem with rebalancing after the game is released. Dark Souls 2 had some early patch rebalancing as well?
    Sounds like DS3 is already doing that too.

    Dammit Serrels make with your Dark Souls 3 review already!!

    I'm playing Street Fighter V at the moment, a Zangief player currently putting some time into learning Alex. I'm stuck in Bronze league, because I lose. A lot.

    I've beaten Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy, but playing SFV online can be brutal.
    I find myself watching character guides, looking up framedata, reading books, practicing the normals over and over again until I know every punch and kick by heart, and I lose.

    Why? Because I'm not training hard enough, because I'm not playing smart enough, because I care too much or not enough about winning, because I'm too new to the game or I've been playing fighting games badly for too long. I am full of bad habits and poor decisions that my opponent sees, changes their tactics to exploit, and punishes me for them, and I lose.

    What makes SFV so difficult, what why I can't stop playing despite my many losses, is that the mountain isn't the game or my opponent, the mountain is me.

    Last edited 08/04/16 1:01 pm

    One caveat. Hard games that are fair are rewarding. Hard games with some arbitrary difficulty like HP bloat are not worth bothering with.
    All of those games you have listed have one other thing that is common to them: the theme of the game, the mechanics and design philosophy are all internally consistent. These games are more "solid" for want of a better word, I think that this gives a more satisfying feedback to the player when they achieve progression.

      I agree, but feel I should point out that fairness is subjective. I gave up on the DS2 DLC because the enemies in the first area hit harder than any of the last few bosses in the base game. Scholar of the First Sin lost me when I got to the third or fourth bonfire in a row with one weapon completely broken and another at half durability because the added enemies exacerbated the framerate-durability-link bug feature.

      I'd also say it's only rewarding if you know why you were victorious - it comes from a feeling of mastering mechanics and learning attack patterns, of validating the time you spent learning. I remember spending six hours straight on Sif in the original, and eventually beating him by dumb luck. I think it must have been a case of just not being able to differentiate between a couple of his move tells, and guessing correctly more often on that run - it immediately invalidated the time I'd invested into beating him. Got to O&S's door, and just... stopped - couldn't handle risking that kind of hollow victory again.

      HP bloat.. You need to have a word with the Ark devs. I had 750 hours in, ruled a public server in a 4 man tribe, then the next update landed and it just scaled the grind up and made the rich get richer. We all just called it a day, built some extra layers of defence and logged out with our army of OP godlike creatures left on guard packed into the base. First one to break a wall down would unleash hell on the server and it wouldnt stop until they starved or were led into the ocean to drown.

      Last edited 08/04/16 7:02 pm

    I tend to agree but I have to add that I no longer like hard games.
    If I am lucky these days I will be able to sit down for an hour and play a game. If in that time there has been no achievement or progression from the last time I find myself unable to retain interest in the game long term or until completion. Because of that these days I seek out games which are more geared towards story that I can immerse myself in without going to bed that night in fits of rage because I couldn't beat that boss for the umpteenth time.

      Same here. I feel a bit casual now, but time is an issue.

    I generally avoid higher difficulties in games, and avoid difficult games like Dark Souls all together.

    I don't really enjoy being challenged. I much prefer a smooth ride, enjoy a game's story, feel like a powerful badass. If I'm forced to repeat a difficult section over and over I just get frustrated and give up. I'm like that in n a lot of things. I play guitar, but mainly stick to rhythm. Never really learned to play lead.

    I guess what I'm saying is I'm average, and I'm okay with that.

    It's just occurred to me hard games have another advantage. Value for money. I've just found out I'm up for $1000 to have the car fixed. This after getting the rates and electricity this week and knowing the rego and insurance are due next month.

    It'll be months before I can enjoy my other hobbies. But fear not. DS3 turns up next week. It's paid for... I'll probably be still trying to master it in 3 months....

    Fun crisis averted ... it's a cheap hobby once you're set up.

      I'm with you on that. We are undergoing a renovation at the moment which has wiped us out. The only games I've been able to afford in the last year are MGSV, Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. It's good because I'm am so going with all of them.

        MGSV, Witcher 3 AND Fallout 4?

        That's like a trifecta of time sink right there... Even better that all three are just straight up fantastic games.

        heh .. agreed, if you were only able to play 3 games in a year they're not bad choices to get 'stuck' with!

        Last edited 08/04/16 2:41 pm


    But seriously, pretty good summation of why difficulty in everything is important. Just read an argument about films that are made without any problems and why they aren't worth making.

    When I was younger, I used to look forward to the challenge. It was a real achievement to get past Goal X a lot of the time, depending on the game. Similarly, some of my best memories of gaming are from Everquest, which handed you no favors at all. Stuff up, there were repercussions.

    That was then.

    Today, not so much. These days, I play to be entertained. If I go into a game knowing full well theres a difficulty spike (Dark Souls, etc) then thats part of the entertainment, but I probably get more enjoyment spending 20 minutes in something like Starbound these days, or loading up a golf game, or something like that.

    The entertainment is no longer in the challenge.

    And thats just me as I've gotten older. Its the entertainment that drives me now, not the challenge.

    I think there are almost as many different versions of the meaning of life as there are humans.

    I think there's something to be said for both avenues. There's room for challenging, rewarding Dark Souls-style games as well as power fantasies. Sometimes you're in the mood to be challenged and pushed, to feel relief and accomplishment when you finally pass a particular difficult section. Other times you want to mow down plebs and feel like a badass.

    However, I personally don't enjoy "cheap" hard games. For example, I love Bloodborne. I don't like how some games up the difficulty by, instead of giving the enemies better tactics or smarter AI, just use "NPC level = player character level +5".

    What drew me to DS was the lore; what hooked me was the storytelling. The combat was superb, but I was too enthralled by exploring the forest to put much thought into the mountain I was wandering up... every so often I'd stumble across a clearing and see just how high I'd climbed, but then I'd go back to looking around the next corner.

    When it comes down to it, I'm actually not that good at video games. Which means that I get the same sense of "Everest" style achievement out of a game, but I'm playing them on the easiest setting. If they're too hard, I get frustrated because I'm not getting anywhere. I don't really want to play a hard game like Dark Souls because I'd get nowhere at all with it.

    I do understand the sense of achivement from overcoming your limits. For me IRL it's learning to play roller derby. It's the most challenging sport I've ever played - you have to be able to roller skate as well as be able to play a team sport. But when I pull off a new skating skill, or a blocking drill with my teammates, it's the best feeling in the world.

    Did mark just write 900+ words to basically say "YOLO"?

    ....coz if so, I'm totally onboard with that.

    I feel as though despite the intented message (which was a good one), comparing you defeating a few pixels on a video game to an olympic world record is a little far-fetched.

      What's the worth of that Olympic record though? It's only because humanity decided that that particular ability was worth rewarding that it means anything to the general populace and that's the point Mark is making. The things that people feel are achievements are ultimately something we personally ascribe value to, regardless of whether anyone shares that same set of values or not.

      If everyone decided tomorrow that running 100m fast wasn't particularly noteworthy then that Olympic record suddenly becomes meaningless, even if Usain feels like he's achieved something. Or to use an alternate example, there are people out there to whom being able to just walk a few steps is an achievement of epic proportions while most of us treat it as something so simple and trivial that we can (sometimes literally) do it in our sleep.

        I think being the pinnacle of 100m sprints (or whatever the example may be) is always going to trump defeating a few pixels on a monitor. Being the best in the world at almost anything, especially something physical which takes a ridiculous amount of discipline and training to achieve, is always going to be impressive to a good percentage of people.

        As I said, I understand the point he was ultimately trying to portray, but I think the comparison was just plain silly and far-fetched.

    I was thinking the exact same thing the other day while climbing. I came to the opposite conclusion though.

    I climb and train for hard climbs so I have a larger range of climbs (and more importantly, quality of climbs) available for me to do.

    If I could continually climb different three star climbs for the rest of my life which were all grade 19 and below, I'd be happy with it. But that world isn't going to show up anytime soon, so I climb and try on hard stuff so I can access more climbs that are starred.

    I finally got nba 2k16 this week and as a huge Boston fan I want more than anything to take them through a season and get to the finals, on the normal difficulty at least.
    But my god, playing defense is so ridiculously hard since the last version I played. I can't do it, I would love to scale this personal mountain, but after endlessly jinking all over the place and watching team mates standing idly by as their man scores easily 5 feet from them for the hundredth god damn fucking time...I had to call it.
    In 2k11 or 12 I took Boston all the freaking way...but this...
    You can rot in your plastic prison for eternity 2k, if only I could imprison you in hell itself.

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