It’s common opinion that games are becoming easier as time goes on. If we compare games to how the world’s changing, it’s easy to understand why. We’re no longer in the age where a cheap death meant another quarter leeched from the funds of an unsuspecting child, and appealing only to a hardcore audience is limiting to your sales. But is that all there is to it? Are games getting easier across the board just so everybody can enjoy them?
For example, in Super Mario Galaxy 2, there’s a level that’s an exact copy of one featured in Super Mario 64. Aside from game-specific mechanics, everything’s in the same place as fourteen years ago. The catch is, having played both, I can confirm that the the SMG version is easier to get through. How could the difficulty change inthe same level? Simple; The newer version isn’t easier, it’s just fairer and easier to control, and I perceive it as being easier. Now, I know that games becoming easier is a real thing, so let’s look at two recent games that set out with the specific goal in mind to be controller-bitingly hard. In one corner, From Software’s Dark Souls. In the other, Subset Games’ Faster Than Light.
Dark Souls: Hard isn’t challenging
Ah, Dark Souls. There are so many things right and wrong with this game I could do an entire series on this game alone, but that’s not our purpose right now. Anybody you ask will gladly tell you that Dark Souls is indeed really really hard. The question is why. Unfortunately, that’s not really one of the game’s strong points, because its difficulty is completely artificial. If you’ve played the game yourself, think back. How many of your deaths were due to traps that you could only see once they’d already insta-killed you? How often did you get one-shotted by untelegraphed boss attacks, or the game not processing your input properly?
With unfair design and glitchy mechanics working against you, most times its purely the game’s fault you die, or at least you perceive it that way. Not only that, but the agonising runs back to your corpse and the extreme punishment you’re given if you do fail only work to make the experience more and more frustrating. You’ll get annoyed and try to do everything as fast as possible, which leads to you forgetting a trap, dying instantly, and losing all your stuff. Look me in the eye and say that never happened to you. Oh Sen’s Funhouse, never shall you be forgiven. Anyhow. That’s not true difficulty, that’s just lazy design to stretch playtime.
Sure, all games have a learning curve, but Dark Souls leaves you completely alone to actually learn. Many descriptions are vague at best and leave you to guess what something actually does. Does Pyromancy scale with Intelligence? What the hell does Poise do? Are upgrades really that important, and where do I get the materials required for it? Not only does the game not explain anything to you, it relies on you not knowing it.
Imagine playing Magic the Gathering with a friend who will only explain things like Reach and Deathtouch to you once your Serra Angel has already blocked his Deadly Recluse. That is not good design. If you know what you’re doing, the game becomes trivial without any further input on your part. Hell, some people even beat the game naked. When I went into it, I had a basic idea of what stats I wanted to have and which upgrades were important, nothing else. I breezed through without any problems whatsoever. Well, except for Sen’s Fucking Fortress, but that’s a point of lazily replacing good level design with instadeath traps. Is the game difficult? Certainly. Is it challenging? Well, compare to the dictionary definition of (to) challenge and find the answer for yourself.
FTL: Fair isn’t easy
Like Dark Souls, FTL has a reputation of being really, really hard. Unlike Dark Souls, I find it deserving of the description. The devs said that they were aiming for a 90% probability of failure, which they definitely managed to implement. However, you never get mad about it. You’ll have had fun despite making a pretty explosion being the only notable thing about your run. It’s the same principle as Dark Souls, yet one will leave you annoyed at best while the other makes your force yourself to quit. How can there be such a difference?
I know you could raise the argument that Dark Souls and FTL are mechanically different, and that’s technically true. However, what makes them difficult is exactly the same. The difference is that FTL is completely open with the player. You are here, you want to get there before those guys find and kill you, they will probably manage to destroy you. Godspeed. Not only that, but the learning curve is over very quickly. By the second run, you’ll already be familiar with all the game’s concepts and how to use them. Unlike Dark Souls, the game isn’t trying to hide anything from you. This gun costs this much energy, charges for that long and wrecks thus much face.
This doesn’t mean that the game lacks any challenge or exploration, it simply removes the artificial difficulty of not knowing the game and allows your true skill to shine. Even when (not if) things go southward, death is often a long process and the game never makes any illusions. In Dark Souls, you set out to succeed and feel like the game punishes you if you fail. In FTL however, you know from the start that you’ll only be able to do your best and that there is no guarantee of success no matter your skill. Once you’ve climbed the brief learning curve, a lot depends solely on the game’s RNG. While it may seem odd to mention the game limiting your success as a flaw of Dark Souls, keep in mind that there is a difference in mechanics here. Dark Souls seems to make success purely dependent on skill, while FTL embraces its RNG. In effect, I think this works to disarm its infuriating potential. Sure you died, but the RNG didn’t really give you a choice, so whatever. Nobody could influence that, so you can just blame it on bad luck and walk away satisfied.
Compare to Sen’s Fortress in Dark Souls… yeah. Fuck Sen, whoever he is.