From controller to the grave...

With From Software’s Bloodborne, the follow-up to the immensely difficult Souls series, creeping onto our consoles this week, it seems like an appropriate time to look at the bizarre correlation in our industry between difficulty and distinction; why is it we inherently prefer games that are so hard? Because it’s such a subjective area, it’s hard to place the difficulty of a game on a spectrum like we would its other aspects; it’s easy, for example, to judge the graphics of one game against current standards in the industry, and thus arrive at a straightforward conclusion as to how good they are.

Difficulty, however, is a very personal matter; simply because there are no strict ‘rules’ on what constitutes a universally hard game. Nevertheless, there’s a distinct trend in the industry between difficulty and ratings; there exists a level of acknowledgement and even respect amongst gamers and critics for titles that are punishingly hard, but there’s never really been a definitive explanation as to why this might be.

Hard Boiled

When I think about the many (many, many) hours I’ve spent in the Souls series, whether that be crawling through a decrepit mine in Boletaria, or tentatively inching through a looming forest in Lordran, there’s only one thing that firmly sticks in my mind. Is it the rich variety of enemies that combine both the grotesque and the spectacular? No. Is it the brilliantly realised, diverse open world? Nope, not that either. Well, then, surely it has to be the expansive character customisation system? Strike three.

Playing titles like these is a strange phenomenon.

It is, of course, the sheer rage-inducing, controller abusing difficulty that has come to define the games. From Software make a point of crafting difficult games that look at the cushy standards us gamers have come to expect with an air of condescension, before quietly packing said expectations back into a box labelled “Nursery stuff” and leaving them to gather dust in the loft. Even as the very tutorial level of Demon’s Souls comes to its close, players are pitted against a boss that they’re supposed to be defeated by, letting them in on the joke that “Prepare to Die” was much more than a marketing slogan.

bloodborne dress

When this guy asks you if the dress makes him look fat, there’s definitely one right answer.

The thing is, for all these moments of self-esteem crushing defeat, and outcries of our inner child coming to realise that life simply isn’t fair, us gamers just can’t get enough of these games. Playing titles like these is a strange phenomenon, because when I pick the controller up I can almost feel the rage-quit brewing, so why do we continue to do so?

Playing Hard To Get

I think that on one level, the allure of hard games is as much about respect as it is anything else; in the same way that we all have that friend who seems slightly too cool to hang around with us (that happens to everyone, right?) we enjoy these games because finishing them always seems slightly out of our reach. There comes a point in the game, probably around about the eleventh attempt at a certain unbeatable boss, that you come to look at it not as a source of frustration, but as a familiar old rival – you come to actively admire just how good a job it’s doing of kicking your ass again and again. For me it was the Capra Demon, who almost cost me a new TV. This sentiment extends well beyond Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls; titles like the Xbox’s Ninja Gaiden or early Castlevania releases have been habitually destroying our hopes for years.

ninja gaiden hard games

Feeling forlorn, Ryu sometimes contemplates the life he could have had tearing up the wild mountain village clubbing scene.

Of course there’s also the obvious point that like pretty much anything in life, the harder the challenge – the greater the reward. We’ve all had that sense of gamer’s guilt before, having spent an inordinate amount of our Sunday controller in-hand, ingesting Dorito’s like they’re going out of fashion. Harder games offer a sense of gratification, even a sense of accomplishment that easier ones simply don’t provide; there’s no achievement in sailing past a boss on the first go weighed down by all those excess medi-kits you’ve got left. Failing to defeat a boss at least four times before going back, developing your character further and ultimately coming out on top, however, feels like a productive, well-spent Sunday afternoon.

School of Hard Knocks

It’s all well and good deliberately making games that are punishingly difficult, that scatter instant death moments here and there like mushrooms on a pizza, but I think there comes a time when enough is enough. In reality, there are whole areas of Dark Souls that I’ve yet to explore, swathes of bosses that I’ve not had the chance to lock horns (or spears) with, and entire species of hellish demons I’ve not been able to shake claws with.

These games have crossed a point wherein the enjoyment of playing them is outweighed by frustration.

And why is this? Maybe it’s because I’m a lazy gamer, maybe it’s because I’m a bad one (it’s probably a combination of the two). But it’s also because these games are just too hard, and they’ve crossed a point wherein the enjoyment of playing them is outweighed by the frustration that goes along with it. It’s at this point we need to ask whether or not these games are good after all, and to acknowledge that there’s still some lingering value in easy titles that actually make us feel good at something.

Die Hard

Going back to the original question of the article, then, it seems like we as gamers appreciate hard games so much more out of a weird combination of respect and gratification. The sense of achievement a game instills us with is, after all, directly proportionate to the amount of blood, sweat and tears (both virtual and physical) that we put into completing them. The thing is, however, for me at least, there’s always going to be a line where the sheer controller-pounding difficulty of a game outweighs the gratification I get from playing it. It’s at these points that the easier games in our collection, the LittleBigPlanets or the Lego Batmans shouldn’t be neglected, they do after all give us back a little bit of that self-confidence thing.