[Alternate title: The follow-up to the blog with the unfortunate title]
There was an article recently about Panga's newest Mario Maker level. The responses were... surprising to me to say the least. For those who don't know, Panga is a speedrunner who makes ridiculously difficult levels in Mario Maker, only beatable by the finest of the Mario Maker community after hours of failed runs. The only way you would play these levels in the game is by being particularly unlucky while playing 100 Mario Challenge on Expert (a random mix of low clear rate levels) or by looking up Panga's creations yourself. Yet, a shared feeling echoed in the comment section.
"These levels make me want to avoid this game". "Do Mario Maker creators know how to create fun levels?", "These levels are so bad, I don't get how they could be popular".
Well, I'm here to defend poor old Difficulty from the masses that wishes her harm. In my opinion, difficulty is beneficial to a game, especially so when optional like in Mario Maker's case. And why's that?
Difficulty adds length to your games, giving you more bang for your buck.
I'm going to go on a limb and assume a good portion of people here played video games without having enough disposable income to afford new games at one point in their lives, be it because of age or life putting you in a tight spot. What happens then? You really get into them. You actually play more of your games to completion. Might even replay a couple.
Except, if a game's easy, then you won't be able to extract as much juice from the fruit. Deaths force you to do sections again with more knowledge of the obstacles until you can conquer them. It's the same reason why people play Fire Emblem on Classic instead of Casual, even if they "just reset" like people say. It's precisely because of the reset itself, and the fear of having to start over due to a mistake, that leads to more strategic and satisfying play!
A more difficult game is also more rewarding when played through multiple times. You'll be able to breeze through sections that felt difficult once, proving your improved mastery over the game. That's really rewarding! The Mega Man series is a fine example of that. When you play these games the first time around, they feel super hard. But then something truly magical happens and you get the patterns, and the game just becomes a part of your life you can go back to every now and then.
In Mario Maker's case, while the research system isn't perfect, it's still entirely possible for you to play Normal mode (since Easy's infested by automatic snooze fests) until you feel like you've perfected your skills enough to conquer Expert... Don't be afraid of using skips!
Difficulty adds variety to your games.
There's a well-known idiom that goes "if it ain't broke don't fix it", and it certainly feels like it applies to video games. Until you're punished for playing a certain way, unless you're a naturally curious player you'll see no reason to play differently. This common behavior not only prevents you from seeing all the game has to offer, but can also make you feel like a game is more repetitive than it could be. This is the reason why, in competitive gaming, counter-picks rise to challenge the current trends, shifting them in the process.
It's also the reason why a game benefits from offering enough challenge to force the player to consider different approaches... Though ideally a player with the right strategy should be able to get through with minimal frustration. Again, in Mario Maker, some obstacles are rendered trivial by rushing through (like Piranha Plants, those take a while to pop out of pipes)... But making dense levels with more elevation variety forces the player to consider how to approach the obstacles beyond running and damage boosting, and play differently after every failure.
Difficulty makes content feel more special and unique.
Have you ever played You Have To Burn The Rope? Pretty funny right? But the act of burning that rope didn't feel satisfying. The boss can't hurt you, and the game explicitly tells you how to beat it both in the title and in-game. Now, that's a bit of an extreme example, but imagine a boss like that at the end of an RPG that took you dozens of hours. Or maybe a final boss that gives you infinite revives (shoutout to my bro Final Fantasy X), doesn't that sound like an underwhelming ending to you? There's a minimal amount of challenge that has to met in order for any kind of achievement to have meaning. And the more insurmountable the challenge seems at first, the sweeter the reward feels.
Compare a piece of concept art you can access from the get-go to a piece of concept art you access from a hard to reach optional area. In which case are you going to appreciate the concept art more? You might not even have given a look at it in the former scenario.
In fact, content doesn't actually -have- to be difficult to make achievements feel satisfying, as long as the illusion of difficulty remains. Undertale went for smoke and mirrors rather than difficulty for Normal and Pacifist paths by making the main character take less damage when lower on HP. This makes you stay low on HP more often, which makes battles feel more tense, all without actually putting you in much danger. It's very difficult to maintain the illusion of difficulty, though... As soon as you realize that the game's on your side, it shatters. Some felt like Undertale's HP scaling was patronizing, and some felt like it made the Neutral final boss disappointing. I still really enjoyed the game's approach despite "figuring it out", and Genocide definitely gave me the more difficult battles I was craving.
By the way, this is related to one of my main problems with mobile gaming. If you get through any barrier with microtransactions, the feeling of an achievement being worth the challenge disappears.
Difficulty allows you to see a game at its most impressive technical level thanks to dedicated players
Allow me to make a strange parallel for a bit. Have you ever watched the Summer Olympics? Difficulty is the equivalent of higher platforms next to an Olympic pool. Sure, they're scarier, and you'll hurt yourself much more if you fall flat on your belly. Have you seen the amazing tricks people can do at higher elevations though? You can still jump from the 1m springboard if you want, but to show off the best diving has to offer you're going to need a little more height.
Someone going through Super Mario Brothers' 1-1 fast without getting hit isn't really an impressive feat, but someone going through one of I Wanna Be The Guy's bosses is hype. It's the same reason why I think glitched speedruns are perfectly valid: They give you a taste of just how much mankind has dominated a game, so you don't have to put in that work yourself to see it. Why not give respect for those who spend hours bending the limits of what can be done in our silly video games?
This is where stuff like Panga's level shine. Isn't it crazy to see how people can overcome these kinds of obstacles, no matter the odds? Absolutely fascinating.
Difficulty's a sweet little thing, so please don't get angry at her. She's only trying to help you get better, give you stories to tell. The Souls series' success has recently proven that there's still a market for those who can accept the taste of defeat and victory alike. Of course, not everyone might be able to surpass difficult obstacles and might just get discouraged, so accessibility is definitely still an important focus for game developers. Allow anyone to beat the game, but throw Difficulty appreciating people like me a bone, won't you?