History of Frustration – are games getting easier?

History of Frustration

For generations there has been a cry from somewhere within the crowd of veteran gamers that ‘games are getting easier’ or that ‘they don’t make them as hard as they used to!’ It set me to thinking recently about the validity of these claims – or at least the reasons behind this perception. Particularly as it is a perception I used to hold.

There are very strong arguments for this claim – I remember reading one specific such argument when I was first about to play the ‘reboot’ of Prince of Persia on the PS3 and being told by a friend: “It’s rubbish, no challenge at all – you actually can’t even die!”

Already disheartened by this, I fired up the game anyway and discovered that what he’d said, while true, wasn’t the whole story – and in fact is one of the more extreme examples of this changed perception of difficulty in games. More on this later.

To gain a true perspective on the changing face of difficulty in games, I decided to revisit my own gaming history by going right back to the start and finding the game that first made me tear my short-back-and-sides out in frustration. So join me, if you will, as we travel back to 1988 and the Codemasters classic Treasure Island Dizzy.

Don't let the pretty colours fool you. This game wants to hurt you.
Don’t let the pretty colours fool you. This game wants to hurt you.

Treasure Island Dizzy, for the uninitiated, was an adventure puzzle game starring ‘Dizzy’ – an egg (of the yolk folk) who wore boxing gloves – and had landed himself on a hostile island from which he needed to escape. I know what you’re thinking, sounds just like the latest Tomb Raider! It was actually the second of Dizzy’s adventures, but the first one I’d played (I was 6 at the time,which was young for a gamer in 1988). It was available across a number of platforms including Commodore 64, Spectrum, Amiga and NES. However it was on my brothers Atari ST that I first cut my teeth on Dizzy’s island adventure.

Let’s get this straight, Treasure Island Dizzy was brutal, unforgiving and painful. Even in an era of games widely acknowledges as punishing, it stood out as downright unfair (especially to a 6 year old). You had ONE life. One. No matter how far you got, how much time and effort you poured into it, lose that life and BOOM. Game over. Restart from the beginning of the game. Sounds harsh? I’m barely getting started. Though future Dizzy adventures would introduce an ‘energy bar’ which would be depleted as you occasionally made mistakes, Treasure Island had no such thing. This meant even the tiniest misstep would result in immediate, permanent death. This wouldn’t have been such a bad thing were it not for one additional fact: the game wanted to kill you at every opportunity.

This was the nature of such games in 1988. The whole point was being able to see further and further into the game each time you played as you learned the layout of each screen, where you could walk, where you needed to jump to avoid traps. Eventually, you would learn enough of the game to reach the end of the story. To my utter dismay, I learned just how easy it was to take one ill timed jump on the second to last screen of the game and land in the sea without my rubber snorkel, killing me instantly (as everything does in Dizzy) and immediately unraveling what felt like YEARS of work.

Technically, Dizzy was quite a small game, only just over a hundred ‘screens’ of game, some of which contained very little that you would actually interact with. The replay value came from having to slowly and painstakingly learn the game. This type of game wouldn’t really stand up in today’s gaming climate. Gamers no longer want this kind of experience. Even back in 1988, gamers were ready to move on. By the 16-bit console era (Super Nintndo, SEGA Megadrive) things had moved on. But were the games actually any easier?

The next step on this tour through my personal gaming frustration takes us to 1993 and the Super Nintendo game UN Squadron (actually released December 1992 in Europe, but came into my possession later the following year). This was another game widely acknowledged as being damn hard from start to finish.

UN Squadron is a side scrolling 2D plane based shooter from Capcom. Unlike other side scrolling shooters of the time and poles apart from Dizzy’s cruel nature, UN Squadron DID have energy bars and (though very few) it did have lives – you could die a few times before the game was truly over and acquire extra lives by performing well. It was also painfully difficult. Hundreds of baddies thrown at you from all angles, they traveled along a set path at a set speed, there bullets / lasers traveled a different  path at a different speed and you had to deal with all of it, all the time. The one thing it DID share with Dizzy was the fact that you could essentially learn the levels. The baddies, the flight paths, the best weapons to use against the different baddies, etc. The big difference was that the game was so fast paced and frantic, it required Herculean dexterity just to survive the first mission. Thus, the lives and energy bars didn’t actually make the game any easier, it just traded one set of difficulties for another. If you set the Dizzy rules of one life and one hit death to a game like UN Squadron, the game would have been just too hard. Most gamers would likely have never seen the second mission. Instead, the dexterity and skill required in UN Squadron is off-set by the chances that are extended to you. You can take a couple of hits before the plane goes down. If you DO die, you don’t always have to go straight back to the very start. It was still pretty punishing, almost impossible to complete, but it was at least trying to be fair.

Death is imminent. All the time.
Death is imminent. All the time.

During this era, we did start to see the more common introduction of things that made games more possible to complete. Story driven RPG games would use save points throughout the quest so, as long as you could make it to an inn in Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy 3 for instance, you could pick up from where you left off (arguably, RPGs have always been a different beast. Steep difficulty curves that can always be overcome with relentless grinding). Other games that were boasting 100s of levels (‘Super Mario World’, ‘Zombies ate my Neighbours’) would use instant saves or level codes so you didn’t always have to start from the beginning. But these were, by the day’s standards, enormous games. 100 levels is quite a different experience compared to the 100 screens of Treasure Island Dizzy after all. Again, the difficulty increasing in the sheer size of a game being off-set by the opportunity to save your game or start from a later level that you had already reached the last time you played.

And it’s this change, this constant balance and trade off between the elements of difficulty that has inadvertently warped the perception of modern games and have people believing them to be so much easier when compared to the retro-classics.

Another big difference comes in the form of how developers want us to spend time with their games. Over the years, a lot of games have become more focused on story telling and becoming more cinematic in their delivery. This, in turn, has become the expectation of the gamer. We’re not always just looking for a challenge, we want to be told a story (preferably one that we can influence dramatically along the way).

Fast forward a generation or two, through challenges such as Castlevania – Symphony of the Night, Vagrant Story and Shadowman – all of which brought tears to my eyes at times and we land somewhere in the last generation of consoles. The battle still rages, the Playstation 2 is emerging as a similarly dominant force as its predecessor and Microsoft throws it’s hat into the console hardware ring with the original Xbox. There were many games played and feelings ranged from ‘walk in the park’ to ‘I want to cry.’ It was also around this time that I noticed other peoples perceptions of difficulty in games. Two particular titles jump out at me from this era. Two very different games, one on the Xbox, the other on PS2.

The first had gamers up and down the country, probably across the world, hurling pads at the wall in frustration. The console is the Xbox, the year is 2004, the game…

Ninja Gaiden.

Developed by Team Ninja and published by Tecmo, Ninja Gaiden was a third person action adventure like no other. It was described at the time as ‘one of the best [and] most challenging action adventure games ever made’ (Gamespot, 2004). Most felt this was something of an understatement. Indeed, Edge magazine criticised the game for being too hard and inaccessible for most players. Initially I approached it with an open mind – thinking it was perhaps a nod back to ‘the old days of gaming’ and what was required was the patience to learn the game. This is probably true, to an extent, unfortunately – not only are you required to learn the game, you also need to be able to acquire the kind of physical dexterity and skill rarely seen outside of elite athletes and musicians (or elite gamers I suppose). The point is, I found (and retrospectively, STILL find) I agreed with Edge. It was too hard, to the point of not really being that much fun for a mainstream audience (read: me). The balance was wrong. They hadn’t off set one kind of difficulty for another, they’d thrown it all in one pot and then wished you luck. There was an easier mode that was unlocked if you died often enough – but it really felt like the game was making fun of you for not being good enough right away (this was pretty much confirmed by a statement made by the game’s designers, you could play on easy mode but that meant you were ‘not a real ninja’).

A true challenge? Or just plain unfair?
A true challenge? Or just plain unfair?

For me this was, on the one hand, evidence that modern games COULD actually be harder than old school classics, but it also felt like modern games were cheating. This wasn’t a mainstream game – designed for all – that was very challenging. This was a game designed to be elitist, deliberately difficult and actually supposed to alienate a mainstream audience. Of course, it had a hell of a cult following and sold pretty well – but this was all built around the ‘badge of honour’ type of thinking.

The other game was something of an oddity at the time, though it is still thought by critics to be of one of the PS2’s finest moments, I only know a handful of people who actually finished it, despite the fact that the game has never been thought of as particularly difficult. In fact, by some, quite the opposite.

In 2006, to relatively little fanfare, a little gem slipped off the shelf and into my possession. A game from developer Team Ico and director Fumito Ueda called: Shadow of the Colossus.

A game of breathtaking scope and imagination – and one of the most engaging I have ever played. Shadow of the Colossus received critical acclaim upon its release. Critics seemed to love it initially. Yet, the feeling among the majority of gamers I encountered at the time (working for a popular high street game store as I was in 2006), was very much split. A large number of people did not seem to understand the nature of the game. To be fair, it was doing something very unusual at the time. An action adventure / puzzle game – that was particularly light on action and puzzle and somewhat heavy on adventure, of sorts.

Did you miss this masterpiece?
Did you miss this masterpiece?

The game was made up of 16 ‘boss’ battles. With very little to do in between, other than ride your horse to the location of the next colossus. The puzzle elements and action combined into working out how to take out the colossi once you’d located them. Gamers thought it was bizarre that there was nothing other than the boss battles. No minions, no sub-bosses, no fetching and carrying of mystical keys to unlock the next area. Just: ride horse, find boss, kill boss, repeat. Immediately, gamers viewed Colossus as easier than other games because of a lack of other antagonists. Combined with the fact that the  average play through was a little over 8 hours from start to finish, it had a number of people feel that there was little challenge to be had. Which was a shame really, because this caused a lot of people to never actually allow themselves to get into one of the most remarkable gaming experience of the PS2 / Xbox generation.

And it WAS challenging. Essentially, what Team Ico had done was remove the droves of  ‘easy to kill’ generic, faceless baddies that could have extended the play through time of colossus to 14 – 16 hours or beyond. This wouldn’t have actually made the game any harder and would have detracted somewhat from the impact of each colossus battle and completely changed the story they were trying to tell.

Though personally I disagree with the perception – it was clear that the gaming public also felt the balance was wrong here. Team Ico hadn’t streamlined the experience to tell an amazing story with the correct pacing; they hadn’t balanced the game so well that, by the end of the game, you actually started to feel sorrow for the colossi you were killing, yet understood the desperation of the games silent protagonist; they certainly hadn’t crafted a relationship between the main character and his horse that was so beautiful that you would actually shed a tear when the horse fell from a cliff… No. What they’d done was made a game that was too easy.

All of which brings us to here. Today. The modern era of current generation gaming and standing on the precipice of the next generation of consoles. The case of difficulty in gaming is in it’s strangest state ever. For starters, there is more choice in modern games than ever before. The Nintendo Wii helped give birth to a HUGE untapped market of the ‘casual gamer’. Games often tied into movie or TV licenses or aimed at younger and’ part-time gamers’. These games are designed to entertain for short periods – and often with the added bonus of being able to play with groups of friends, all crowded round one console. By and large, these games are not at all difficult. That isn’t their appeal. You are usually competing in some way with the person next to you in the room, so the challenge comes from their skill level versus your own.

But what of the rest of us? I don’t like the term ‘hardcore’ gamer – certainly not to describe myself – and I’m certainly not a casual gamer either. So, for want of a better phrase, I shall use the term ‘regular’ or ‘veteran’ gamer. Well, we stand somewhere in the middle, as always, slightly bemused by the variety of gaming experiences and the wealth of opinions of what makes games too difficult or too easy. I finally return to the unusual, yet archetypal, case of Ubisoft Montreal’s Prince of Persia on PS3 (version played) and Xbox 360.

In 2008, Prince of Persia was given its second reboot in 5 years. It was a 3D action adventure, using heavily stylised, cell-shaded graphics and was described as having ‘wonderfully designed boss battles’ and viewed as showing a ‘stunning visual style’ with ‘great platforming gameplay’ (videogamer.com). It was also criticised by some magazines and the public for being ‘too easy’. Or, as in the scathing review offered by my friend:  “It’s rubbish, no challenge at all – you actually can’t even die!”

At this time, most modern games provide you with virtually infinite opportunities to try and get past a section of the game. Lather, rinse, repeat…as needed. It is also customary for you to be set back a ways as punishment for getting your character killed. If you get 7/8 of the way through a showdown in Uncharted on PS3, then get protagonist Nathan Drake killed – you are immediately resurrected, but have to begin the skirmish again. This means that you HAVE to be able to complete all sections of the game, however hard, in order to progress. Die as often as you like, but there are no short cuts.

Wherever you go, she's there to save your ass from dying!
Wherever you go, she’s there to save your ass from dying!

Compare this with the Prince of Persia approach. The Prince can leap across huge gaps, sword fight with huge beasts and use magic to obtain access to previously unreachable areas…oh, and he can’t die. However, this isn’t the whole story at all. The Prince is accompanied on his travels by a mystical princess named Elika, who is actually the magical element of the story. The Prince uses her magic to help attack, defend and progress. As she is always with him and is in possession of astounding magical ability, whenever the Prince finds himself in a sticky situation – occasionally overpowered in a physical dual or, more commonly, mistiming that crucial jump – Elika leaps in to pull him out of the fire and drag him back to the edge of the previous frying pan he was in. Essentially, for failing to complete a challenge, he is bumped back to the start of that section. This is almost EXACTLY the same as 90% of the other action adventures out there. The only thing they have done (much like Team Ico with Shadow of the Colossus) is streamlined the experience. They have removed the death animation and ‘press any button to continue’ screens from the game. That’s it. Apart from that, Prince of Persia does everything else in a hugely similar way to the rest of the industry, but the perception of the difference is MASSIVE. The platforming sections were not always the most inventive – and definitely not up to the standards of 2003s reboot, Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time (also Ubisoft Montreal), but the perception on the street was almost exclusively that the  Prince’s inability to die, meant the game was easy.

The sheer variety and inventiveness of modern games only serves to muddy the waters further. Games like From Software’s Dark Souls are built on a reputation of being supremely difficult and punishing – but even more mainstream games, such as BioWare’s Mass Effect series, are offering a variety of skill levels within a single game varying from one extreme (walk through the game having a lovely story told to you along the way) to the other (walk inches into the opening level before you are mercilessly destroyed by what will actually be the easiest encounter you will experience in the whole game). What seems certain to me is that it’s actually becoming a harder discussion as to whether gaming today is actually easier than it was in yesteryear. Things are not as clear with modern games, as one person’s experience of a game can be totally different to someone else’s – depending on what difficulty they choose at the start, how they equip their character, even what physical path they take through the game. Each aspect has ramifications for the difficulty a player will experience. No game more so than the final game I want to examine.

The final step on my tour through my history of frustration is the unforgettable, roller-coaster journey through David Cage and Quantic Dream’s, utterly perplexing, Heavy Rain.

Heavy Rain: One of the most completed games in Playstation history, but is it easy?
Heavy Rain: One of the most completed games in Playstation history, but is it easy?

Released exclusively on PS3 in 2010, Heavy Rain held a remarkable title of being one of the most completed games in Playstation history. The fact that it was so heavily story based would have helped this to some extent, however it was the game’s fundamental design that was most responsible. With so many people actually playing the game to completion, you’d be forgiven for thinking it an easy game. In some respects, I suppose it was?
What Heavy Rain did that sets it apart from all the other games discussed – in fact all the other games full stop – was the fact that it didn’t punish you explicitly for messing up. If you ‘failed’ a section of the game (e.g. lost that fight, didn’t catch up with that thief or couldn’t find that piece of evidence in time), the game didn’t stop you and tell you to try again. It just carried on with that failure becoming part of your story – and the consequences of the failure were not often immediately apparent! You could play the game from start to finish, losing whole characters, missing out on plots and sub-plots on the way, and yet the game would have an ending for you. Even very skilled, veteran gamers were getting to the end with only 3 of the 4 characters even surviving the story – let alone being present for one of the games many and richly varied final showdowns and ending sequences.
So, easy to complete? Yes. Easy to navigate each character through to the surprising conclusion and so-called-perfect ending on your first attempt? Certainly not! A stunning and convoluted game design that really set the bar high for video games as well as throwing an enormous spanner in the seemingly simple quest to discover if modern games are getting easier.

At the end of the day (and coincidentally our journey), answering the question actually comes down to the experience of each of us as gamers. Game developers are presenting challenges on a sliding scale so that each gamer can challenge him or herself according to their needs. Personally, I tend to start games on ‘normal’ difficulty and try to beat them like that. I will revisit my favourite games on higher difficulty settings, but rarely dally in the realms of ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ settings. I know other people who never play above easy and some who never drop below ‘hard’, even on the first play through.

There will always be games like Ninja Gaiden or Dark Souls that set the bar very high by default and those games that are misunderstood and thought of being ‘too easy’. In some cases, there will be games that ARE just ‘too easy’ for veteran gamers, but then they’re perhaps not the target audience?

We are fortunate that games are giving us such freedom to set our own challenges. I’m sitting at the moment contemplating my second playthrough of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us – but can’t decide between playing  ‘New Game Plus’ which, on normal difficulty, may render it too easy – or stepping it up to ‘Hard’ which I know may result in further hair loss and frustration?

One thing I’m certain of is that if Treasure Island Dizzy had offered me an easier time – save points or extra lives – 6 year old me would have taken them gladly! But would 8 year old me have felt the euphoria at finally completing the game that had been the source of such anxiety and frustration?

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