The basic element of any video game is challenge. You can omit any other element and still identify something as a “video game.” You require no graphics for text-based adventure games. You require no music in your games. Stories can also be completely done away with. But think about a video game without any challenge? Not in the sense of not posing any challenge, but rather not putting you against any task, no matter how menial? Notice how I don’t say “overcoming a challenge” as being another basic element? Well, if you can’t overcome a challenge in any conceivable way in a game, then it’s a bad game, simple as that, but it’s not a necessary element to make one.
Another element which isn’t necessary, but in a way is expected and derived from the basic one is “reward”. This one is much more difficult to pin-point as rewards can take many forms. They aren’t necessarily trophies or true endings, but sometimes just a “Thanks for playing!” or the thrill of mastering the game’s mechanics. And sometimes you just get a shiny hat for New Game+. Which one is appropriate? All of them can be. Reward is highly relative to the actual game. If a “Thank you” seems fulfilling, then the reward is appropriate. If it’s a gigantic cinematic, you can still feel cheated. And yet, some people are spoiled and will never be happy.
It often boils down to the actual difficulty of the challenges you faced. Did you find a particular section hard? Was the game too easy? Is the CPU a cheating bastard? Achieving proper difficulty is hard. The more elements you include in your game, the harder it gets to stay fair towards the player. Some games are difficult because of bad design, others because they are compensating, or because they’re being retro.
The Inconvenient Difficulty
Inconvenience usually happens on a meta level. You are not being challenged by crazy-prepared ninjas, demons from hell, or Taekwondo practitioners. Oh no, the game hates your guts in this one. Do you see that pitfall, Player? No, you do not, because the camera is too busy focusing on that guy standing in the corner. No, that guy, the one who didn’t just hit you from behind.
Whenever you are not aware of something your character would logically be aware of, you are being a victim of the actual game’s shortcomings. This doesn’t apply to games with swarm tactics, like bullet-hell shooters or zombie genocide simulators, where perception is actually being challenged. It’s more about bad camera angles, enemies spawning directly behind you out of thin air, or general obstruction of vision due to perspective. Yes, even the hidden doors your characters can see, but you can’t in top-down RPGs which are using fake difficulty.
Clunky combat also gets thrown into this bucket, unless it makes sense. Is your character a trained commando-soldier-marine-person? Then why can’t he swing the damn melee weapon half-way decently? I can understand James Sunderland not being able to swing a pipe, since he’s a store clerk, but why can’t people who should know how to fight?
The whole fighting genre is guilty of this… if played alone. The pretzel movements exist regardless of whether you’re playing solo or with other people, but when playing solo, you need to execute very complicated inputs in order for your character to do special moves or basic combos. But when you’re playing with other people, you are not overcoming a challenge set by the game, but by another human being.
One of the rare instances where this kind of difficulty is a viable option are strategy games. Titles in this genre have far too many variables, and making a worthy AI is extremely hard, if not impossible. Hence the need to resort to resource boosts, faster build speed and so on… It was certainly possible for chess, something with a reasonable number of variables, but what about games like Heroes of Might and Magic III? You need to take into account resources mines, buildings, cities, heroes, individual units, spells, skills and skill combos, artifacts, day of the week… And even when a good deal of work goes into making an AI, it will certainly have some brain farts. Giving the AI an edge here isn’t a case of fake difficulty as much as it is a self-imposed handicap.
Of course, other genres also resort to “cheating AI”. Racing games where your opponents always catch up, even if you’re having a perfect run, are a lazy solution to compensate for lackluster challenges.
The Trial and Error Difficulty
A game with proper difficulty should be a game which you could, in theory, finish on your first playthrough. Well, in theory, you could apply this to any game, but we’re talking about humans who lack clairvoyance. Trial and Error mostly appears in old Point-and-Click adventures, but isn’t limited to them. If you have three identical doors, two of which kill you, and you have nothing to help you decide which door is the right one, it is not a challenge, it is a guessing game. It is random and independent of player knowledge, skill or existence. If the only way of overcoming a challenge is knowing of it or its solution beforehand, you are doing it wrong.
Anyone who has played King’s Quest or Space Quest knows what I’m talking about. This also applies to games where failure isn’t penalized. Spending time combining various items in your inventory until they make sense is also a “trial and error” method.
The Old-school Difficulty
New games aren’t casual, old games were cheap. They were cheap beyond cheapness. Because they all came from the arcades, the old money pits, now replaced with DLC. It was the place where you monetized gaming to the fullest. They weren’t hard because they were developed well (usually), they were hard because they were hungry. Hungry for your coins and quarters (and tears).
Most console games in the 8-bit era were either arcade ports or heavily influenced by arcade games. Possibly out of fear that the game wouldn’t warrant the insane price tag slapped on the cartridge and you wouldn’t spend a long enough time with it. Don’t believe me? Fire up an emulator, play a game that keeps track of your “clear time” and see what it says when you abuse the quick save option? Pretty short, huh? Games like the Revenge of Shinobi thrived on off-screen enemies which Musashi could see, but the player couldn’t. While the 16-bit era was a bit more forgiving, it was still guided by the previous generation.
Difficulty in games took a dive when developers introduced regular saves and slowly walked away from the concept of limited lives. As this was a counter to previous design philosophy, the essence of Old-school difficulty was lost.
The “Teach You Through Tears” Difficulty
Super Meat Boy. It did things right, many many things. Was it hard? It was bloody insane, but it took all the good and did away with all the bad of the previous category. While games like this could be finished without losing once (again, in theory), they went with the assumption that you would die a lot. The dying is usually a part of your training to be a better player. Any person who has played Super Meat Boy will know what I’m talking about. The Light World is your training for the Dark World. All the later challenges are based on maneuvers you were expected to master in the previous ones.
What makes this a separate category from Old-school? It isn’t hungry for your money, you don’t have to start from square one when you exit the game and it lacks all other silly technical limitations. It’s the “We fixed Old-school” category. A lot of good indie games fall under this one: the previously mentioned Super Meat Boy, VVVVV, Dungeons of Dredmor and a few more.
Some commercial games have also recently delved into this category. Demon’s Souls is extremely brutal, probably too much, but most mistakes you make are your own fault. It’s kinda tricky though, when the multiplayer aspect comes into play, with players invading your world at the worst possible moment, but it does more things right than wrong.
The pinnacle of video game challenges. The goal all should strive to work towards. The most perfect and most rewarding difficulty in any game ever. It is the previous category, done flawlessly.
God Hand is a game that loves you. It loves you until you make a mistake, and then it punishes you. But it only does so because it cares for you and wants you to be a better person. Your vision is not obstructed, you are rewarded for playing smart and the difficulty scales based on how well (or bad) you are doing. It is fair. Let me bold that: it is fair. If you fail, you know it is your own fault. It’s not because the game is cruel, it is because you are awful at it. Nobody in their right mind would blame God Hand for their shortcomings.
The dodge mechanic is so precise and simple that you can avoid any threat as long as your reaction time is good enough. The enemies are often visible early enough for you to get prepared and pick them up one by one. In case you are getting sneaked up on from behind, the radar is very accurate. Heck, even enemies hiding behind corners, waiting to beat you up, give you enough reaction time.
Some may say that the random demon spawns from defeated enemies are unfair, but like mentioned before, the dodge mechanic is done so well that they’re merely a difficulty spike.
The game dropped a lot of elements we seem to deem necessary for a good game. Awesome graphics, detailed story… The developers themselves said that all the zaniness was added slowly as the game progressed. The goal was clear in the beginning: make the core polished.
And it shows.
If you do not like God Hand, you have never played it. Either that, or you don’t know a damn thing about video games. It is simple as that. Not all games need to be as hard as God Hand, but they need to take a good look at it and see what rewarding difficulty means. If Silent Hill 2 is the greatest achievement in video game storytelling (it is) and Crysis is the greatest achievement in video game graphics (it is), then God Hand holds the throne as the greatest achievement in video game challenges.