Friday, June 5, 2009

Difficult Games, part 1: Gaming Tony Kushner

What does it mean to say a game is "difficult?" It is one of those terms many of us use routinely, without ever qualifying it in anything but relative terms. For example, most of us agree that Ninja Gaiden is more difficult than the new Prince of Persia. How should we define difficulty in games, and how do we evaluate the efficacy of a game's difficulty?

In searching for a useful model for mapping difficulty, I remembered a thought provoking article by renowned playwright and cultural critic, Tony Kushner. The "The Art of the Difficult," focuses largely on defending the existence of challenging plays, but his arguments can also serve as useful lenses for exploring challenging video games.

Kushner's article is a stinging critique of mainstream theater. Claiming that "some really awful stuff has been successful" on Broadway, Kushner laments that it is "particularly degrading...for the human race when an audience stands up and cheers for something it cannot possibly have enjoyed." Kushner juxtaposes mainstream hits with plays like Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks, and God's Heart, by Craig Lucas, two plays that "ask us to do the impossible." Through a combination of complex staging, writing, and themes, these plays push people to grapple with complicated social, historical, and artistic issues. Plays such as these are rewarding, but their rewards are not served up readily. By existing as Difficult, Kushner argues "these plays are demands for a better world, a world that can understand them...A world of audiences hungry for the Difficult is the sort of world I want."

Standing in the way of producing Difficult plays are deeply entrenched societal and historical expectations. Video games, like theater, are largely the domain of the economically privileged. Kushner imagines that a cheering Broadway audience applauds in order to say "Hooray for us! We aren't poor! We can squander hundreds of dollars on joyless claptrap and tripe and feel only a moment's rage, nausea and regret! And we can still afford dinner afterward, which we know will be good!"

Could this be a reason behind our gaming fixation? Before dismissing this, we must at least admit the correlation between blockbuster games and the money we spend for them. How does the fact that I paid hundreds of dollars to play LittleBigPlanet affect my reaction to it? While I may be more critical of something I spent money on, no one wants to feel they spent money unwisely. Seeking to conspicuously enjoy games while defending the economic investment is likely a major source of fanboyism. Quick and easy satisfaction immediately validates our investments and tastes.

Do smaller, inexpensive games with little hype and simplistic graphics like Passage and World of Goo get passed by because folks are not willing to put in the work required to both discover and understand them? Could high profile titles be focused on reassuring us that we made a safe purchase, as opposed to challenging us to explicate their meaning? It is difficult to be certain, but I have a hard time believing that Disney's Lion King musical and Gears of War would enjoy as much success if they required an abundance of analytical work.

Economic pressure and audience expectation work in unison to form a climate conducive to "taking care" of the audience. Kushner maintains that theater as a medium continually struggles with the handicap of being viewed as relaxed, mindless entertainment. In Kushner's view, the theater "has always been meretricious, gregarious, eager to please, even at its most exalted something of a cheap date...Even when you're producing King Lear or The're puttin' on a show." Video games share this challenge: games are continually pressed to exhibit flashy graphics, instantly-intuitive controls, and banal stories of good and evil. Whether you are creating a game investigating the merits of objectivism (Bioshock) or contemplating the privatization of war (Metal Gear) you're still makin' gamez.

Of course, there is another kind of Difficulty I have neglected, one unique to games: physical aptitude. The physical skill required to "get" games is more intense than in other mediums. If someone who knows English reads Shakespeare for the first time, they will probably be confused. However, improvement will be made through sharpening their mental acuity and becoming familiar with the style.

If someone who has never played God of War has problems, the issue most likely is not a lack of conceptual understanding: beat 'em ups generally lack complex rules and stories. The inability to press the circle button fast enough to survive a quick time event is definitely a problem. It compounds Kushner's notion of Difficulty by adding hand-eye coordination to something that already requires skilled design and nuanced thinking.

In my next few posts, I will analyze specific titles in order to explore the various forms of Difficulty found in video games. Using Kushner as a reference point, I hope to synthesize a comprehensive, yet flexible understanding of how games challenge us.

It is only fitting that this will probably not be easy, but I hope you all will stick with me and share your thoughts as we continue.


  1. I'm looking forward to this.

    Also, I linked to this in the weekly roundup at VGHVI, in case you missed it. I'd link it here, but I'd feel like I look like a shill, linking myself without making any real contribution in the comment!

  2. This article is exceptional work. As a gamer myself, i find it strange how the market is adapting to torrents. Personally, i feel like torrents have killed video games, but in a postitive way. Gamers will no longer simply purchase a game because of hype, gamers are now in a position to examine the game freely and be as critical as they want. For me, i am even more critical of games now. I refuse to buy a game if it has even one hint of not being finished, or has "bugs" or "glitches". Why should i pay for a product that is unfinished or imperfect if i can just get it for free? Anyways, what you are doing here is outstanding work and even if I don't agree, thats a good thing as it gets my mind working in a direction to actually think and debate coherently. Please don't ever stop.

  3. I'm looking forward to it! Funny enough, I just recently designed a couple of levels for a Puzzle game and discovered some fascinating nuances. Generally, as a level designer for Puzzle games, you have a couple of way of how to make a level difficult. However, different kinds of difficulties result in very different experiences. And some kinds of difficulties are clearly preferred over others. I touched upon that in my Braid review but the rabbit hole seems to go even deeper. I'm glad seeing other people pick up the topic!

  4. @wordsmythe

    Hey thinks for the link. You're weekly roundups deserve links: trying to wrangle all those posts is a herculean task.

    Everyone should check it out.


    Yeah, difficulty seems to be one of those points where logic, art, and personal taste combine to create a very odd stew. Kushner deals with difficulty in terms of themes, so I'll be interested to see how his analysis can help us understand difficulty of the "platforming" variety (if at all).

  5. @Krystian
    The poetic world has also struggled with defining "difficulty" as either ethically demanding or difficult to understand.

    Thanks. I'll admit that I take a sick pleasure out of bringing all those links together. It also provides a thin excuse to keep up with my RSS feeds. :)

    A few notions to keep in mind as to different definitions of "difficult":
    - Technical/dexterity challenge
    - Obscurity -- difficult to comprehend (lack of readability)
    - Endurance
    - Responsive/dynamic difficulty, both hidden and explicit

  6. @Worldsmythe Nice list you got there. I like it! Although I would put "dynamic difficulty" in another category as the other three.

    Also, how about the following:
    - Precieved vs. Experienced difficulty. Sometimes certain tasks just look difficult, even if they aren't. Somewhat related to "Obscurity".
    - Forgiveness vs. Lack thereof. A certain task can be more difficult if there is a high punishment involved with failure. I believe Jesper Juul focused on that recently.
    - Lateral thinking. When there is a great deal of mental flexibility and "outside of the box"-thinking required.
    - Challenges of Knowledge. When you just need to know something on order to succeed. Think gameshow.
    - Chance. Sometimes you just need to be lucky.

  7. Yours is a better list Krystian, It really is an unbelieveably large topic. I know the XP guys here will do an admirable job what what they're able to cover.

    I fully expect a Critical Distance entry on difficulty and types of difficulty. Of one of you guys (or someone else) doesn't submit it, I suppose I'll write it myself.