Extreme difficulty has somehow grown into a beloved feature in the gaming industry.
Videogames are ultimately fantastical power trips, the protagonist is smarter, stronger, faster or simply more resilient or witty than anyone else in this world, and this applies to even the most dramatically earth-bound experiences. Knowing this, it may seem puzzling how presenting obstacles to an unrestrained rampage is appreciated by player and critics alike.
Fortunately, the answer is unexpectedly simple. (Nearly) everyone becomes accustomed to facing setbacks and issues, on varying scales, while traversing the intricate maze that is daily living. So when we experience a videogame, even if it is completely dislodged from our reality, we maintain a certain expectation of trouble. In a way, the mere existence of snags and roadblocks helps us relate to this new fantastical word, generating a sense of familiarity on a subconscious level. This is why we don’t play as undefeatable gods, and why having a fail-state is a near mandatory feature of any videogame.
But these days, we don’t praise games for being difficult, we praise them for being punishing and demanding to a ridiculous degree. As a (very generalized) whole we adore those that require unrealistic levels of precision (Super Meat Boy), speed of thought (Super Hexagon), reflexes (Counter Strike) or mechanical understanding (Dark Souls). These games require repetition and practice, and they are built with this in mind. The skills they ask of the player are not ones he is expected to master quickly (if ever), much less ones he should have previously acquired. They are unfair, not for forcing failure in an unavoidable way, or for punishing the player for their shortcomings (even if some do those things), but because they ask for an uncanny ability, but do not offer to teach it. They demand you learn of your own accord, through the long pain of repeated failure, until you can beat one challenge, just to be destroyed in the next.
And yet, we praise them. These experiences are highly rated, highly profitable ones, even if they alienate the previous concept of familiarity by creating such heavy handed predicaments that they appear unreal to us, blasting well off our standard for daily difficulty. It seems nonsensical.
But there is, of course, a justification to this predicament. Every game offers us a reward upon the completion of objectives, be it monetary, cosmetic or merely narrative. We may play for the ride, but it’s that pot of gold that keeps us chasing the rainbow. Deep down, we all develop our own mental challenge-reward structure. We do it for the simplest tasks, and mentally shame ourselves for reaching out for the reward without overcoming the challenge. That plate of chips tastes much better after a run, not because you’ve gone and cleared your palate, but because you feel you have completed the task that unlocked that plate of chips for you, instead of typing in a cheat code and grabbing them straight from the pantry. This relationship escalates, the more we fight to reach any given goal, the more we will savor the prize afterwards.
This means the same reward can have distinct psychological effects on someone, depending on what they overcame to achieve it. As many have said before, “the harder the struggle, the sweeter the reward”.
It goes without saying that this has a direct correlation to videogames. Moderate difficulty immerses us in the experience. Extreme difficulty, on the other hand, is not meant to do so. Its objective is to beat down the player to an abusive degree, in a way that will make the completion of their goal feel much greater than it is. In the end, beating an extremely hard videogame will always feel much more rewarding than an easy one, due to the mere exploitation of our basic reaction to distress, the need for success.
Developers must then walk a fine line, where success is achievable but not without setbacks. Difficulty must not be so immense it will lead the gamer to quit before reaching its goal, but must be large enough it will demand investment from the player. And achieving this balance demands practice, training and desire, something sometimes lacking in this day and age, where moderation seems to be too much to ask.