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Difficulty in Video Games, What's Up With That?


Airline food, what's up with that?!

This blog's going to go all over the place, so bear with me. I'm going to be discussing a little bit of this and a little bit of that in regards to difficulty in video games. This stuff's been swimming around in my head for a bit, especially due to Virtue's Last Reward, which I've been playing a little bit. If anyone has played it (and you should if you haven't), you probably know what I'm talking about. Yeah. That. I know you're thinking it. No? Well, we'll get to it later.

Let's start out with two short little paragraphs about the difficulty of games back then, and the difficulty of games now. I originally made this section like 5 paragraphs long, but I was starting to sound really preachy and arrogant and I think I disgusted myself a little, so I erased it all. We're going to try not to do that this time! (I feel like this would be an even more appropriate moment to draw your attention to that Jerry Seinfeld picture up there and his expression. Just saying.)

Community Blogs: Now with 90% more blurry pictures!


So we've got games from, oh, I don't know. Let's say the NES to the Dreamcast or something like that. All the way up till that first generation of 3D consoles. How about that? But it only really gets juicy towards the NES and Sega Genesis end of the spectrum. Back then, games were hard as heck. That's the blunt of it. You try going through Sonic the Hedgehog without getting a game over. Yeah, maybe you can if you've got some experience with it, but I guarantee you won't be laughing if you hadn't spent all those hours playing it as a kid (if you can't guess, I was that kid). This isn't really even debatable. It feels like a well known fact at this point, honestly. From around 1983-2000 games were kicking ass left and right.

Look, it's that Zelda game people hate for some reason!


I don't know where you would find someone who would disagree with the statement that more recently, games have generally become much less difficult than the games of the past, but if you're that mystical person, I don't know what to say. Take Zelda: Twilight Princess. Compare it to the first two Zelda games. Chances are, you find someone who's skilled at games and make them play these games and they'll die a whole lot more playing the first two Zelda games than Twilight Princess. Same goes for Mario games, Metroid games, Final Fantasy games, Sonic games, and so on. You want to dispute my claim? Go right ahead. This is an assumption, after all that I believe to be true. But try testing it and I guarantee the results will point in my direction (and by test it, I don't mean test it yourself, because you might be some sort of superhuman person with the rare ability to suck at current-gen games while blowing away games of the past for all I know).

Now, you might say, "Oh, well games might not seem as difficult because games hold your hand more than they used to". True, games hold your hand a lot more than they used to-I mean, you don't see a super guide in the original Super Mario Bros.-but your point is invalid. You may think that in holding your hand, the true difficulty of a game is masked, like an illusion of sorts. But when you play the game you're experiencing the hand-holding, not the imaginary difficulty behind it. The true difficulty is in the top layer of the onion, not the layers underneath (oh man, I'm starting to sound like Shrek). Now, what I just said might be arbitrary nonsense. I don't know. I wrote it, so it makes sense to me, but I might just be rambling like a Wendy Oldbag, if you will.

Oh, one last thing that I forgot to mention. Yes, there are difficulty settings in many games nowadays, but regardless, there are still many games where the harddest setting poses no challenge. Conversely, there are those where the hard difficulty is intense. But generally, most won't touch the hard difficulty with a ten foot pole anyways because it's almost menacing. Especially with some of those creative names. 'Dante Must Die'? That's a one way ticket to failure just by the name of it. Anyways, my point here is I don't count difficulty settings in this article-blog thing. That just complicates things when most people just stick to the default difficulty, anyways.

Where did I want to go from here? Hm...oh, yes.

Sir Robert's expression just creeps the heck out of me.


Man, that is an entertaining image that only barely has anything to do with what I'm about to say. I'm going back to the whole nonsense thing and how you might disagree with everything I just said. I don't know. But the truth of the matter is that difficulty is in the eye of the beholder. We all perceive difficulty differently. I might find Sonic the Hedgehog to be the most difficult game ever made while you play through it twenty times in an hour without breaking a sweat (just for the record, that's impossible, but work with me here). In fact, one could say it's pointless discussing it or debating it in the first place, since you'll never come to a consensus unless you're going by majority opinion. So, yes, you may disagree with everything I just said and everything I'm going to say. Just hear me out. I probably should have said this in the beginning, but it's more dramatic putting it here, so...ONWARD! (Oh, by the way, that's a beholder up there in that picture.)

You all saw it coming, admit it.


Now, we come to the center of this whole article-blog thing. This is kind-of where all of this thought branched out of. Yes, I just went there. Dark Souls. It's the prime example of what we've seen lately. A resurgence of difficulty in games. Games are getting harder, there's no doubt about it. There are still plenty of easy games out there, but I think it's agreeable that we've seen more of a focus on kicking it up a notch, lately. Take Super Mario Galaxy 2 of just a few years ago. Much more action-focused and more of a challenge than its predecessor. I'd say that was one of the first signs of this resurgence from my memory. Then you have Demon's Souls and later Dark Souls, which took the whole 'make games accessible to everyone' ideal and turned it on its head, boasting about its difficulty and flaunting it like some sort of difficult-to-catch Peacock. With feathers made of difficulty. These analogies are getting ridiculous, aren't they?

We're going to kick it up another notch. BAM!

Then we have the whole indie game scene, which kicks it up another notch. I'm talking Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, Super Hexagon, Braid, the list goes on. They all are difficult in their own respects and I think have brought a lot of attention to the importance of challenging the player to the whole industry scene. I mean, that's the whole appeal of some of them. Like, take Super Hexagon. Its whole appeal is in trying to make it to that 60 second mark in each difficulty and in improving and adapting to the changes in difficulty that occur very rapidly.


What was I supposed to be writing about? Virtue's Last Reward? Oh, uh, sure. Let's move on to that. But first I have to go back to its predecessor, 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, to set the scene. So, all this came out of the difficulty of two games and my experience with them: 999 and Virtue's Last Reward. If you don't know, they're visual novels-you know, a lot of text and story and characters and reading involved-with puzzle sections in between. Let's take the first one into account here.

I miss Snake so much.


The first game came out, oh, let's say two years ago, give or take a few months, and it was amazing. But that's beside the point. Obviously, the difficulty of a game such as this isn't in the reading, unless you're reading impaired, in which case I'm amazed that you know what I'm typing in the first place. You should probably go get that checked out. Anyways, the difficulty is in the puzzles. That difficulty was virtually nonexistent in 999. Yes, there were points where you would get stuck, but it would only be for a few minutes before you'd be back on your feet. I'll grant you that the puzzles near the end of the game were a challenge (barring the last puzzle; I mean-a Sudoku puzzle, that's kind of insultingly easy). Still, 99% of the game was easy as pie.

Sigma is such a cool name. So is Phi. I'd totally name my kids after them.


Now we go over to Virtue's Last Reward. I picked this up expecting the same level of difficulty puzzle-wise as the first one. In fact, I expected it to be very similar to the first in every way. I was dead wrong. The basic premise is the same, but it's got like 4 times the number of endings the first one had, an absolutely massive flowchart, a new twist (ally or betray), and above all, the puzzles are some of the hardest puzzles I've ever encountered in a game. This game throws some truly difficult puzzles at you, and just when you think you've solved it and finished the puzzle section-NOPE-there are another 5 difficult puzzles in store, and they're all here to brutally beat you and then kick you when you're down.

OK, I'm being a little over dramatic, but I'm not kidding when I say the puzzles are hard. I haven't even gotten one ending, yet, and I've had to look up the solutions to a few puzzles because I've been completely in the dark. There's even puzzles outside of the traditional puzzle sections! Like "Memento Mori: If The Nineth Lion Ate The Sun" (by the way, small spoiler ahead concerning this phrase for those of you still playing it). I'm not talking about the username/password combo for those of you who've played it. I'm talking anagrams. This is an anagram for "The man on the moon rules the Infinite Time". I don't know if you even have to solve that anagram, but solving that puzzle just raises even more questions!

My point is, Virtue's Last Reward is a part of the resurgence of difficulty. That's good. That resurgence is important, because I think there have been far too many years where there was a distinct lack of games with a true challenge. But that's not the whole point-the important point-if you will.

The puzzles are just so h..h...haaaarrrddd!!! *sob*


Here we go, finally. This is where I was initially going to go with this article. I kind of got sidetracked for about 20 paragraphs. If you stuck with me this far, congratulations! I'd give you a cookie, but they're my cookies and it would be impossible for me to transmit cookie DNA across the Internet.

My point in all this is that Virtue's Last Reward doesn't just take the difficulty level up a notch, which is good. It goes above and beyond into some dangerous waters. It's almost to the point where I would say it's too difficult. I look online and what do I see? People struggling with the puzzles in the game. People who have no clue of what they're doing. People who, like me, have spent hours on the puzzles and have not made any progress. And I'm fairly intelligent, and I like to think that most people who play games like Virtue's Last Reward are, too, so it's not that we're not smart enough to handle it. It's that the possibility exists that it's too difficult-that the answers are too obscure.

Yeah, that's right. You read it, now you're obligated to write something in return.


So, I pose a few questions to you, if you're still reading, just so that this article might generate a bit of discussion:

First of all, do you agree with me? Do you think that games of the past were generally more difficult than they are now and that there's a resurgence of difficulty?

Secondly, do you believe there's a point where a game becomes too difficult, or do you think that's an impossibility? I'm not talking about unfair, like where it's intentionally near-impossible to solve a puzzle. I'm talking legitimate difficulty.

And finally, if you said yes to the second question (or if you said no, I don't care), what games have you played that you find too difficult?

And just for the heck of it, we'll go conversely. If you feel like it, try answering the second and third questions in terms of a game being too easy, rather than too difficult.

Ocelot thanks you for reading the longest blog ever made.


That's it. This ridiculously over-long blog is over. I'm tired of talking about difficulty, regardless of the fact that right after I'm done with this I'm going to go play some more Virtue's Last Reward and likely curse the names of the developers for creating such difficult puzzles. Thanks for reading, especially if you stuck with it the whole way through. I know it's long. Please don't put 'tl;dr', though. That's kind of disrespectful, especially when I put so much time into this. But I know you, Destructoid community. You're a good group of people. You wouldn't do that.

Thanks again for reading, and I implore you to leave a comment and to answer one (or all) of the questions I posed. I hope this spurs some genuine thought on difficulty in games, how far we've come, where we're headed, and the possible limits difficulty can reach before a game becomes too hard. Good night.
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About Marche100one of us since 6:01 AM on 12.15.2011


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