Sure, your sniper died, but that doesn’t mean XCOM is difficult

So, Critical Distance are running a Blogs of the Round Table this month with the theme of Challenge:

“The past few years have seen a resurgence of challenging games: Dark Souls, Spelunky, FTL: Faster Than Light, XCOM: Enemy Unknown to name but a few. Do you think videogames have more value in providing a stern challenge for the player to overcome, or does difficulty serve to alienate and deter potential players, impeding their potential for inclusiveness?”

Woah, wait just a second. Dark Souls? FTL? XCOM? Those aren’t difficult games.

Okay, so I’ve lost a few squaddies at the rubbery grey hands of mind-controlling alien overlords. And sure, my plucky Federation ship completes its critical mission considerably less often than it burns to ash in the corona of an inconveniently-located star. And I’ve dropped too many blood-smeared souls at the feet of one Capra Demon in particular to be able to legitimately call Dark Souls easy, as such.

But none of these games stand out as particularly more difficult than similar games in their respective genres. An XCOM campaign is probably no harder to win than one in Civilization 5, for instance, and I probably took about the same number of tries to beat the Joker in Arkham Asylum as I did to best Dark Souls’ Lord Gwyn.

Okay, so it would have been a fair sight easier like this.

The unusual feature that XCOM, Dark Souls and FTL all have in common, however, is a mechanic that demands that you live with the consequences of your mistakes as well as rewarding your successes. Dark Souls will keep the castle gate open if you die, but it’ll rob you of your hard-won souls and humanity. FTL will give you a shiny new laser cannon as loot, but if the fight went badly, you’ll have to sell it to fix the holes in your hull. XCOM will hand you a clueless, panicky chimp in the place of the master assault trooper you got a little too cocky with.

Of the three, only XCOM will let you reload an earlier save to avoid the effects of a mistake, and even then, it has an optional “Ironman” mode that disables that ability. This design philosophy that renders the player’s mistakes indelible has been part of roguelikes for years, but is just now being incorporated more widely into games in more mainstream genres.

Most games simply ignore your mistakes, stopping the game the moment you sidestep off a bridge or into a rocket and sending you back in time a little way to retry a section of the game again and again. A clean slate is only ever a quickload away. It’s a kind of denial, a constant pretence that the player-controlled protagonist is somehow infallible. This faintly frantic revisionism is memorably lampshaded by Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – “Wait, that’s not how it happened…” – but it remains the industry-standard approach to challenge.

Against that backdrop, the effort made by Dark Souls et al to incorporate player failure in their mechanics instead of simply denying it for the sake of a linear plot is hugely laudable. But, although it may appear cruel to players accustomed to having their errors erased at the touch of a button, it doesn’t make those games difficult, necessarily.

You know what is a difficult game? Braid is a difficult game. SpaceChem is a difficult game. And – lest you think I’m only talking about cerebral difficulty – Super Meat Boy and Dustforce are difficult games.

That’s despite the fact that, unlike the new wave of roguelike-likes, these games make no attempt to assimilate failure into their mechanics, and rely entirely upon blocking progress or making the player retry over and over until they succeed to enforce challenge. The difference is in the nature and the degree of the challenge they pose.

Meat Boy is never weighed down by his prior mistakes, but each level he jumps and bleeds his way through is trickier and more sadistic than the last. Each requires the player to master some new technique or combination of previous techniques. To beat a level is to have achieved a sliver of mastery over the game’s mechanics. That mastery grows over the course of the game, and you – you, the player – grow with it. By the end of SMB, you are a subtly different person; you only need to return to the early levels and breeze through what once frustrated you to see that.

Braid and SpaceChem demand a similar transformation. To defeat their puzzles, you will need to contort your brain into unfamiliar shapes, to accomodate new algebras and deploy them. To steal a phrase from another, less difficult game, you will need to learn to “Think With Portals”. Or, you know, time-bending powers and atom-assembling automata, respectively.

That raises an important point, though: given that Portal makes similar demands of its players, asking them to learn to look differently at the space in a level, does it also qualify as “difficult”? And what about Dark Souls? Like SMB, it imposes a brutal sort of pedagogy upon the player, such that advanced players can brush aside early enemies that were once a tremendous obstacle to them.

The answer is that these games fail to grow with the player. While the originality of Portal’s premise is initially surprising and its meticulously smoothed learning curve makes solving early levels exhilarating, Valve stopped short of truly exploring the depths of the puzzle system they had constructed (a task that has subsequently been taken on with some success by the modding community). Similarly, while the early parts of Dark Souls enforce a rapid education as the player grasps the basics of movement and timing in combat, the later stages of the game don’t offer any particular variation on prior challenges, leaving the final act of the game feeling oddly anaemic as you repeat old tactics to dispatch slightly stronger copies of old enemies.

In fact, if you want to really explore every nook of the Dark Souls combat system, your best option is to engage in online PvP combat. In facing the unpredictable builds and tactics of other humans, you will be forced to deal with threats far more deadly than those the rest of the game chooses to throw at you.

That principle applies universally, too. Adversarial multiplayer will by its very nature always force players to become intimately familiar with every depth, quirk and consequence of a game’s systems in order to succeed, if only because their opponents will have. Counterstrike and DotA and Starcraft and Street Fighter are all difficult games. In fact, by the definition of difficulty I have described here, they may be the perfect difficult games: not only do they each have robust systems of mechanics that each player must master in order to be successful, but – like FTL and XCOM – every mistake a player makes has an affect on the outcome of the game, rather than being erased with a quickload.

That’s not necessarily to say that those games are perfectly balanced or flawlessly built or even particularly enjoyable, but in terms of pure challenge, they can’t be bettered. And, for all that we’re seeing a “resurgence of challenging games” at the moment that use smart puzzles and deep systems and punishing mechanics to stump and frustrate us, the difficulty of adversarial games isn’t a new phenomenon. Any sufficently deep adversarial game that pitches you against the variability and resourcefulness of other human beings will be a greater challenge than simply setting a static high bar and asking people to clear it in their own time. A Rubik’s Cube is tough, but Chess is tougher.

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