The Challenge of Difficulty: ‘Too Hard’ and ‘Too Easy’ are BS

The most challenging thing about the difficulty levels of video games is critiquing them. It’s not uncommon for reviewers to spend paragraphs detailing the challenge of a particular game as part of their overall assessment of said game’s quality… and that’s fine. However, I can’t help but ponder the importance or thoughtfulness of such arguments under particular circumstances, namely penalizing a game for being “too easy” or “too difficult.”

Let me preface my standpoint with a disclaimer: At some point in my gaming career, I have probably said that such-and-such game was “too easy,” and therefore thought less of it, but that was then (maybe), this is now, and I have learned from my experiences with literally hundreds of games since any alleged remarks.

I have come to accept that there are three primary critical perspectives on individual games’ difficulty levels. These are A) praise for a significantly challenging title; B) disapproval of a game’s severe difficulty; and C) deridement for a lack of challenge. While the first of these, I agree, is a valid critique, I think the latter two can never be true when considering a game’s objective quality. This may only matter if one considers the game review process to be something other than the publication of an individual’s subjective opinion, but still, the distinction between these standpoints is important to understand.

To laud a game for its high level of difficulty is rarely as simple as that; praise for satisfying challenge in a video game most often hinges upon the fact that exceptional game design challenges a player to interact with the game world in a way that requires him or her to think, learn, and/or adapt to that specific virtual environment. It is not sufficient for a game to be difficult for difficulty’s sake; that’s just frustrating. But I think we all learned that during the 8-bit era, no?

Similarly, faulting a game for its difficulty should only occur when explicitly tied to a negative assessment of flawed game design. When a game fails to captivate a player because of prohibitive difficulty, it is not that it is “too hard,” it’s that the difficulty level in question is almost completely valueless. In these cases, there is no reason for the game to be difficult, and more importantly, its challenge provides no benefit to the player and in no way enhances the gameplay experience. Aside from these occasions, claiming a game’s difficulty is too high is simply an admission of one’s own lack of skill in manipulating that particular world or character(s), or failing to fully understand the rules under which the game world and mechanics operate. It is an entirely subjective statement. What’s utterly impossible for me to succeed at may be effortless for someone else, and vice-versa.

A recent example of difficulty level being at the center of discussion about a video game was the response to From Software’s Demon’s Souls. Although the game was received with overwhelming positivity, some came to the “it’s too hard” conclusion early on and never gave the game’s underlying mechanics a well-deserved chance to reveal themselves. In actuality, it was these individuals’ failure to ever understand how the game works that made their final assessments for them, and it was the critics who discovered that by learning and playing by the rules of the game world, ultimate success drew ever closer to their grasp. Demon’s Souls — and others — are difficult by design; the process of exploring those designs is an essential component of the enjoyment derived from them.

But what about a game that is “too easy”? Is there such a thing, or are we simply too susceptible to confusing the term “easy” when we really just mean “boring”? Both easy and difficult games can be boring, but the common denominator between the two is poor design. Repetition, lack of novelty, or unrefined gameplay mechanics can all lead either an easy or difficult game into the same dreaded territory, but it is the easy games whose shortcomings in these areas are most often falsely attributed to difficulty, rather than the true root of the problem. There’s a reason that when an easy game is captivating, harsh criticism of its difficulty level is hard to find. This is that reason. Ask yourself how many discussions you’ve heard about how Assassin’s Creed II and Mass Effect 2 are “too easy.” I’d wager not many, because they are easy, good games.

Good games are good regardless of how easy or difficult they are, and bad games are bad. Flaws in the core game design may be exacerbated by a less-than-optimal challenge, but usually it is those flaws that have created that challenge issue to begin with, making it impossible to make an objective qualitative statement about the game’s difficulty level. So don’t say a game is “too hard” or “too easy”… just say it is crap.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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