Difficulty is not DeathS

I'm really enjoying Alien Rage right now, and I guess that’s kind of weird, because it was a poorly rated game. When I was chatting with a friend about it on launch, he went “ew, Giant Bomb did a Quicklook of that game, and it was horrible.” But, well, much to my surprise, Alien Rage is not actually horrible. It’s fun; I love rocketing through levels, shooting alien monsters in the face for killing all the other humans in the game. I’m quick. My guns feel really nice. Explosions are liberal and glorious. The game looks and sounds fantastic. The script is amusing, if trite.

Which brings me to the one and only complaint I have about this game: I die. A lot. My character is made of tissue paper. For all his speed and damage output, he seems to take less continuous fire than his enemies do, and dies almost instantly, which robs the game of its pace, even on the easiest difficulty. Sitting here, I found myself thinking “sure, you could give the player more health, but if they didn’t die, where would the challenge come from?”

And then a thought struck me that I hadn’t really explored in quite some time, which is the idea of challenge. People seem to love challenging games. I know I do. A cult of people has been built around games like I Wanna Be The Guy, Super Meat Boy, and other, similar games. We value difficulty.

It makes sense, of course: when there’s no effort involved, you’re not engaged. Dark Souls works by requiring you, the player, to be wholly engrossed in the experience if you wish to survive. Thief is at its best when you overcome the biggest challenges.

But death seems to be the primary way we determine difficulty. I think back to Bulletstorm, a game about getting as many points as possible. Here, the goal wasn’t to not die, it was to be as varied and interesting as possible. Bulletstorm was fun when you killed people inventively. It wasn’t fun when you just pointed and clicked on people until they died. A lot of people, however, said “it’s easy!” Because all that mattered to them was whether or not they died.

And you know what? Dying’s easy. Dying’s cheap. Dying happens. Your mind starts degenerating and then you’re lying in bed moaning in pain and begging for people to ease your suffering and then you fall into a coma and you don’t wake up. You get hit by a drunk driver and your skull caves in and everything that was you gets snuffed out in an instant. Living happens too: no matter how bad life is, I can roll out of bed in the morning. Even when they told me parts of my body was failing, I still got out of bed and I still went to their appointments. I can go to school. I can cook food for my sibling. I can keep my appointments. I can function. I can live.

That stuff’s easy.

It’s living well that’s hard. It’s finding a good job with a healthy environment that means you don’t have to take scissors to your clothes to make them look presentable, or worry about putting food on the table. It’s having a good schedule that means you’re able to get proper sleep. It’s having good people around you that means you’ve got the proper support group. What’s hard is standing up in front of a group of people and fighting your way through crippling social anxiety. What’s hard is finding people who will respect your physical limits and treat you right. What’s hard is being there for the people you love when you just fight to make it through the day. What’s hard is discovering that someone you love, with the same illness you have, is beginning to show signs of dementia. Even harder is getting her to the hospital when she starts acting up, and being told that she’ll hate you for it. Harder still is listening to her cries in the hospital, clashing against the melancholic drone of machinery. Hardest of all is telling her goodbye before they shut the lid on her casket.

Difficulty doesn’t need to be tied to a fail state. They can be tied to emotions. And fail states? They'd work better if they required you to try something new, rather than simply start over. We humans don't get that luxury.

So, y’know, let’s rethink difficulty. I think we do life an injustice when the only thing that matters to us is whether we live or die. I think we should want more than that, do more than that. We should have goals, wants, needs, disappointments, failures, opportunities to do better. Sure, I can get up in the morning, but it’s a different thing entirely to return to school years later and end up on the Honor Roll, then transfer to the next school and nail a 4.0 right out of the gate. Sure, I can say “I have social anxiety disorder as a result of my illness” and stick with that, or I can force myself past it and start talking and making new friends and doing my best to function and gaining valuable experience.

I can go through hardship without dying.

So I think we need to rethink what makes games hard. In Thief, getting caught was what made the game hard. In Defense Technica, it was creating the best, most damage-dealing path I could. In Tropico, it’s having the best tourism industry despite frequent earthquakes, or maybe trying to farm in the shadow of an active volcano that sets your crops on fire. In Hitman, it’s killing someone without even touching him.

Living life well is hard.

So maybe our digital entertainment could be a little less binary.

I'm Doc. You can find me on Twitter, Tumblr, or the DocTalk tag. Games can be better than they are. Don't forget that.