2016 has been a good year for video games. We finally saw the release of some projects that have been in development hell for years, and they delivered spectacularly on the promise of more time. It seems like studios focused on quality over quantity this year, flexing their narrative muscles and emphasizing unconventional gameplay, seemingly in an effort to show us that video games can be…more. More poetically delivered (Inside, The Last Guardian), more interestingly structured (The Witness, Fire Emblem Fates, Firewatch), and – this is the crux of this post – more difficult.
In The Last Guardian, controlling Trico is akin to controlling a real housecat – sometimes it seems to work, especially when there’s food involved, but it’s all just an illusion because you’re really the one who’s subject to the cat’s whims. The Witness was the first game since Myst to reacquaint me with my good old friends Pen and Paper. Hyper Light Drifter came with warnings that I was completely on my own – no tutorials or hints to help me decipher the game’s unique language and retro style.
I’m no stranger to frustration, having written about it before, but I’m beginning to realize that the amount of frustration I feel directly correlates to how engaged I am with a game. Some reviews will cite frustration as a flaw rather than a feature, and I disagree with that. Difficulty level should definitely be noted for gamers who want to know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, but as long as it’s not game-breaking, overt difficulty shouldn’t be considered a flaw or weakness in game design. Being frustrated by difficult games forces us to pay attention and engage in ways that we don’t when we glide through mindlessly slinging bullets everywhere. It implies a level of concentration that simpler games just don’t offer, and that equates to being completely absorbed by something you love. You put a lot of effort into the things you love, and they’re more worthwhile for your effort.
This isn’t to say all the games I mentioned are perfect, or that I can’t critically look at games I love and point out their flaws. I don’t want to let my adoration for Fumito Ueda’s artistry cloud my judgment of his games’ mechanics, which are often clunky and unpolished, and I hope I’m not doing that here. I’ll also be the first to admit that I’m not a particularly talented gamer. I’ve been playing games since I was four years old and it’s my absolute favorite thing to do, but I rarely rank high in any multiplayer match, and you won’t see me speed-running through anything but a buffet. Still, easy games don’t offer enough for me these days.
One of my strongest early gaming memories is of learning to wall jump in Super Metroid. I remember watching the little Etecoons do it and wondering why I, in my big shiny power suit, couldn’t manage a move that these little green creatures were doing with ease. There was no tutorial telling me how to pull it off. The only reason I knew it’s what I had to do is because the Etecoons were doing it in front of me. So many games this year brought me back to that moment in Super Metroid with the Etecoons. The Last Guardian has a few moments where the controller pops up on the HUD showing you how to communicate with Trico or divert enemies, but it otherwise relies on subtle visual hints, usually in the form of the boy and Trico looking in the direction of your destination. The Witness often requires you to look around your immediate environment, or even to listen to audio cues, to solve its varied puzzles. Hyper Light Drifter tells you nothing, putting faith instead in your fundamental knowledge of how video games work. This all does wonders for immersion. Long, drawn-out tutorial sections or overt HUD directions take me out of a game, breaking my sense of wonder and reminding me that I’m doing something.
There’s this concept that’s been tossed around recently, usually in connection with project management, called flow. Flow is when you find a rhythm or "get in the zone." It’s when you feel entirely focused on what you’re doing, and taking it a step further than that, you break a proverbial barrier and suddenly enjoy the simple act of whatever it is you’re doing. You could be working on the hardest project of your life, but because you’re in this groove of total immersion, you feel really good about it. Playing difficult games, for me, is a lot like flow. Whether I’m trying to figure out a puzzle, attempting to wall jump, or dying over and over again in a boss fight – the feeling of working toward something, honing my skills, and getting a little better each time I try is a different kind of enjoyment. And there’s nothing like the feeling of satisfaction that comes from finally figuring out a puzzle or fight that’s been plaguing me for hours. It keeps me engaged with the game, and it makes me better. It allows me to look back and say, "I did that. I did it good." More than actually doing stuff, humans love the feeling of having done stuff. Flow is when you love both the process and the result. 2016 was my year of flow.
Good narratives and immersive worlds engage us, sure, but not on the same level as gameplay that refuses to hold our hands, letting us loose in unfamiliar and often unforgiving worlds. Difficult gameplay takes hold, and as long as you let it, doesn’t let go until you’re better for it. There’s a fine line separating difficulty and unconventionality, though. Unconventional games take some getting used to. So, maybe it’s not really that I want difficult games. Maybe I just want unconventional games. Maybe I just want developers to give me something new...or something that was lost until it reemerged this year and threw me back to the wolves again, back to that moment with the Etecoons. Give me The Last Guardian, Hyper Light Drifter, and The Witness. Give me Ico, A Link to the Past, and Myst. I don’t need a pretty package. I need heart, and maybe some hard-earned tears.