post header screenshot from game

The Difficulty With Difficult Games

Warren Lee

August 05, 2020

4 minute read

If your idea of fun is being frustrated, count me out. I believe that games are supposed to be about escapism and relaxation: so you can imagine my dismay at getting sliced to death so many times in Bloodborne and having my little Sackboy commit suicide by missing a jump in Little Big Planet. I love the fleshed out worlds and the meaty set dressings that these worlds inhabit, but I can’t abide by the skeleton of difficult gameplay that forms the backbone of these games.

I realize that this is meant to be an article dedicated to independent games, and “indie” games are no exception: I exited as quickly as I Enter[ed] the Gungeon and had a good time tearing my hair out as I killed my adventure party over and over in The Darkest Dungeon. I liked the throwback chic of Enter the Gungeon and the Hellboy or Mike Mignola esthetic of the Darkest Dungeon, respectively. But surely, in the diverse catalogue of games both studio-made and independent, there must exist games that someone such as I would enjoy—and there are. What follows are games made with an abundance of escapism and relaxation that elevate rather than crush the soul.

Facing multiple enemies at once in the Gungeon

A player surrounded in the difficult game of Enter the Gungeon! Pew pew!

Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed and Tim Schafer’s Broken Age are great examples of games that tell a great story and draw a player into their worlds without resorting to punishing difficulty.

Thimbleweed draws players into its bizarre world and is reminiscent of an episode of television’s Twin Peaks or the The X-files and in which you will even find yourself playing as a restless spirit. The only difficulty you’ll find in its gameplay is in the overwhelming “what do I next?” variety.

Similarly, Broken Age has wonderful characters including a wood and/or metal-crafting hipster. The challenge of this game consists of using an item on another item: that is to say, not a challenge at all. The games do have a bit of moon logic—in point and click adventure parlance that means items being combined do not work as one might expect—but they do not punish you for lack of skill. Usually the solution is only a hint away and is certainly not near to being on the level of getting eviscerated by enemies until one becomes a meld of human/gamepad or mouse/keyboard.

Boy sits at table and screen in front says "MISSION: DINNER"

Only mission in Broken Age: dinner. Just kidding, it gets much more interesting from here (but not too much more difficult).

Granted, there is a cathartic enjoyment to be had from playing a punishingly difficult game and overcoming it through iteration or innovation. There is a zen-like progression when dying over and over causes you to hone your personal skill to meet the requirement of Super Meat Boy or when you finally figure out the length and breadth of invincibility frames in souls-like games like Salt and Sanctuary.

But that cathartic enjoyment wears out its welcome considering that our lives are already fraught enough with stressful encounters without having to inject extra stress via a bullet hell or roguelike progression. There’s enough pressure from having to deal with angry customers, uncooperative managers or pandemic woes in real life without having to navigate a screen full of billions of death pixels.

A dark, gory image of a monster

Like I said, billions of death pixels in Salt and Sanctuary.

Instead, let’s seek out experiences in games that tend toward casual games but are not of the match 3 or hidden object type. May I suggest Ben Esposito’s Donut County? In that game, the player drags an ever-expanding hole to swallow all manner of cute creatures and conveyances. The behavior of causing playful mischief is soothing, intriguing, and stress-reducing without having to conjure death by a thousand mistakes.

Or, what about Old Man’s Journey? The game is an adorable romp through the world it inhabits via a terraforming mechanic that allows the titular old man to navigate the terrain. It is breezy enough to play on a tablet and what’s more, it doesn’t have the old man running through mazes (ahem) that have progressively more and more difficult jumps like some other tablet/phone games.

Blissful, relaxing image of the seaside from Old Man's Journey

A blissful scene from Old Man's Journey.

If fun is defined by exploration, storytelling and a laid-back game mechanic, count me in, in: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1. That countdown is the duration of a deep breath and should be the rhythm of more game offerings. And it looks like both the big studios and independent developers are ready to deliver.

We can look forward to the remainder of 2020 and beyond for titles that will bring relaxing and rewarding titles that emphasize story and soothing gameplay over frustration. So let’s head on over to the Nintendo eShop, Steam Store, PlayStation Store, XBox Store, Epic Games Store, Good Old Games Store and find the next amazing game experience.

adventure

rpg

simulation

point-and-click

mystery

opinion

story

Bloodborne

Little Big Planet

Thimbleweed

Broken Age

Super Meat Boy

Salt and Sanctuary

stress

Donut County

Old Man's Journey

difficult games

relaxing games