By now, if you’ve heard about Elden Ring at all, you’ll have heard it’s a difficult game. Of course, difficulty isn’t all that’s interesting about FromSoftware’s latest title, but the challenge is indeed a cornerstone of its design and reputation. The studio’s earlier games packed the tagline “Prepare to Die,” and sections of the game’s community have a stock response ready for anyone who wonders aloud about accessibility or the introduction of an easy mode: “git gud.”
If you’re unfamiliar, you might think that such a game would only appeal to a certain demographic of gamer, yet Elden Ring has sold tens of millions of copies already and is, so far, the best-reviewed game of the year. That doesn’t change the fact that the game is difficult. But challenging games aren’t going anywhere because difficulty is not inherently bad. The toxicity surrounding such games is, as with most toxicity, a problem of culture. Removed from that discourse, difficulty can provide a rewarding, positive, and profound experience.
Difficulty isn’t a straightforward concept either: It doesn’t just refer to fiendish levels of Super Mario Bros. After all, a book can acquire the label because it contains esoteric vocabulary or experimental syntax, is structured in logarithmic spirals, or requires a grasp of Ancient Greek mythology to get all of its allusions. It could also be emotionally difficult, exploring triggering issues like self-harm or suicide.
In his book, Experimental Games, Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification, the academic Patrick Jagoda draws a distinction between three kinds of difficulty. The first is mechanical (that difficult level of Mario). The next is interpretive, which encompasses all meaning-making, from thoughts as simple as “that castle might be dangerous” to the close reading and attention to theme we associate with cultural criticism. (Being a good critic and a good player diverge under this rubric: Good players are closer to people who can read very fast while retaining masses of information.)
The third type of difficulty, he explains over the phone, is affective, which pertains to the way a game can stir up our emotions: “These are games that, at the most reductive level, make us sad or produce complex social or political situations that players have to make their way through,” says Jagoda. “You could explore difficult topics like cancer survival through a game that isn’t necessarily mechanically difficult: I’m thinking of a game like That Dragon, Cancer.”
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Leaving the mechanical to the side for the moment, interpretive and affective difficulty are hard to disentangle. Scholars have long debated how the two relate: Is a labyrinthine book like Ulysses only difficult for difficulty’s sake? Or can seducing an audience into thinking hard about something lead them somewhere deeper, to the kind of profundity that shallower art cannot reach? Games’ increasing sophistication means they have now entered long-standing aesthetic debates. Welcome to the Thunderdome!
Ultimately, this conflict is part of the reason there are different games for different people, just as Marvel films can coexist (to an extent) with the art-house scene (either of which a certain kind of viewer might find inaccessible, boring, and pandering). Yet debates rarely reflect this. “I think we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the same way if we were talking about an older art form, like film,” says Jagoda. “No one would argue against the existence of art films. And yet in video games, there’s sometimes an argument against art games in general, or against games that are more difficult.”
However, you can’t dodge mechanical difficulty, since it remains the most distinctive element of the medium. In his book, Jagoda points out that the idea has had legal implications: In 1942, New York banned pinball, claiming the pastime was akin to gambling. Its eventual legalization, in 1976, rested on the argument that pinball was, in fact, skill-based. In other words, its difficulty distinguished it from games of chance. In video games, high levels of difficulty have often been driven by the pursuit of profit: They kept quarters dumping into arcades and made older, shorter games last longer, justifying their price tag. The first difficulty settings—of easy, normal, and hard modes—appeared in 1977 on the Atari; debates about these settings have fomented ever since.
There are well-trodden and convincing arguments against extremely hard games, or at least the culture built up around them. Extreme difficulty excludes certain groups—those without the hand-eye coordination or the free time, for instance—and some players seem to revel in this exclusion, for Squid Games-like competitive reasons or a fear that an easy mode might dumb down their chosen series. This feeling can manifest as the less serious flaming of casual players by experienced veterans who want their peers to rise to the challenge or as a more serious ableism in an industry that routinely ignores players with disabilities. It’s all macho gatekeeping, basically, and there’s quite enough of it already.
Nevertheless, there’s been improvement in this area, explains Jagoda. Dynamic difficulty is one solution, of the kind employed by the AI director in Left 4 Dead, which changed the number of zombies it unleashed based on the players’ success. Another way relies on human generosity: Just as educators help a student through a difficult passage of Shakespeare, players teach, through guides or Let’s Plays or online co-op. Difficulty is a collective problem, Jagoda says, that can foster collaboration. He designs alternative reality games that attract thousands of players, who can try for weeks to complete certain quests.
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“Some of these quests are immensely difficult, or they require very specialized skill sets,” he says. “So you may need to know a particular language or set of languages in order to solve one puzzle, or you may have to have a certain kind of mathematical knowledge to solve another; you may have to be technologically savvy to solve the third. And we don’t hold back on the difficulty of those puzzles. What we do instead is make the games cooperative, rather than competitive, so that different players can step up and solve particular puzzles en route to the completion of the entire game. That’s another way of managing difficulty: making it a group problem rather than an individual problem.”
And it would be wrong to say that there is no reason to attempt challenging games, because overcoming difficulty is a special kind of pleasure, particularly in collaboration, as Jagoda describes. For reviewers of Elden Ring, its world didn’t feel alive until release day, when it seethed with millions of Tarnished, marking their glowing hints near illusory doors or bowing to each other after slaying a golden knight. (“Hardship is what gives meaning to the experience,” Elden Ring’s director, Hidekta Miyazaki told the New Yorker in a recent interview.) We often use terms like immersion and flow or tension and release to describe these achievements. Nintendo, of course, is famous for making games that are easy to learn and hard to master. In his book, Games: Agency As Art, the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen compares completing a difficult game to what climbers call a “flash”: conquering a problem on the first try. Difficult games provide “a harmony of capacity,” he writes, a blissful and rare sense of “not a retrospective pleasure in the achievement, but a sense of harmony of being engaged with, and fitting to, the task.”
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Ultimately, these distinctions between different kinds of difficulty tend to blend together in great games. For Alex Ocias, a designer who has used games to explore themes like domination and obedience, the concept of difficulty is essentially meaningless—it’s too broad, he explains. Instead, he likes to think of games as resistance machines, in that they are artifacts engineered in ways to resist our will, and our interaction with them as a kind of masochism (he uses the metaphor of trying to snap a twig until it breaks—while someone is beating you).
Within this machine, he explains, all games inevitably involve loss. How artists play with this loss, and how they engineer worlds to resist the player’s will, is for him the fundamental language of the medium. If a game gives no resistance, it becomes “a content-delivery machine.” Resistance is the “ghost in the machine” that brings the medium to life, he says. It’s a kind of intimacy: The player must strive to take great care of something. “Difficulty really creates intimacy in a game. In the suffering and in the trying over, you form a greater and a closer understanding of smaller and smaller things,” he says. “It lets you look small; it gives you intimacy in that space with the things you’re dealing with. And that is really difficult to do if you don’t believe in difficulty and resistance.”
You can see how a game about the civilian experience of war, for instance, might draw on mechanical difficulty. It could make you feel in your bones how challenging life can be. Ocias tells me that has been playing Wizardry, which he considers an early precursor to many role-playing games, including the Dark Souls series. “The game is difficult, and it understands the value of loss and the value of suffering,” he says. “It’s just so human. It’s supposed to feel bad, but it also feels good.” A metaphor, in other words, for life itself.
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