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 Bacchae...you'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.