Do Games Owe Us Anything?
I've been thinking of writing some thoughts on Zoe Quinn's excellent book, Crash Override, and how it's made me think really hard about the keyboard-banging subhuman I was in high school. There's also a series I have in the pipeline where I go through all of the Final Fantasy XIII games and do mini-essays on them. That's on top of a new novel idea I have. But today, I saw an article that got me thinking, so I'm delaying all of that to ramble for a bit. That alright?
Now, I want to preface this with I don't enjoy doing "takedowns" of other games writers, unless it's "Breath of the Wild sucks because I don't like it." Fuck that guy, honestly. This isn't that. It's a bad look for me, and as someone who's been on the receiving end of some light harassment for my opinions on both CGM and Game Revolution, I know it doesn't feel great. So I guess I want it to be clear that I'm not trying to attack the writer of this piece, his character, or the site he belongs to (which is one I like quite a lot, in fact.) There are components to this piece I even agree with. This is an engagement and a pondering versus a critique - although I will push back against some of the writer's points here.
The piece, in question, is entitled, "When Is Exclusion A Valid Design Choice?" In it, the author posits that Cuphead's difficulty might be exclusionary. He particularly draws attention to the fact that other forms of art don't make consumers work for their time or money spent. In essence, I feel, he posits that certain games' difficulty levels may cut off access to many players from experiencing the full game, and that perhaps a paying customer should be able to experience everything a game has to offer.
I want to point out that that the writer himself comes to a conclusion I agree with - the answer is complicated, and there isn't a right one. However, I'm not necessarily sure we agree in how it's complicated, and that's what I'd like to discuss.
For starters, I would like to go back to earlier this year, when Outlast 2 (an absolute gem of a game) came out. I rushed through it within a day or two of its release. It was thrilling, chilling, and every other kind of "ing" one might want a horror game to be. To me, it was an immediate standout of the year, and still is. Play it, if you haven't. Unless you're squeamish. Or don't like critiques of Western religion.
In the wake of the release, however, I stumbled across a Waypoint piece. Usually, Waypoint presents enough hot takes that I'd have content for days if I wrote my thoughts on of them. But this one stuck. "What Happens When The World Says Your Game Is Too Difficult," by former Giant Bomb alum, Patrick Klepek aka the Woke Gamer aka Scoops. As usual with a Klepek piece, it utilized some stylish and insightful writing that provided some great insight into Red Barrels' response to the gaming community. Yet the quality of the piece couldn't shake my gut reaction of the headline.
"But Outlast 2 is kind of fucking easy, though?"
So I got flashbacks when the same thing happened to Outlast 2, a game that I kind of thought was easy. All you have to do is hide and go slow. Almost like it's a stealth game or something. Imagine! What a concept!
None of this as an attempt to say I'm particularly great at video games. I'm not. My lack of a chicken dinner in Battlegrounds and fall from Overwatch grace can attest to this - as can the fact that I've never beaten a Souls game that isn't called Bloodborne. I'm not trying to brag about my video game prowess, because I don't really have much to brag of. That's why the Alien: Isolation and Outlast 2 criticism really bothers me. Those games aren't really that hard. They just demand a little bit of patience, especially the first one. You can't just rush to the end, or die a few times and expect to be carried forward a la Uncharted. If you want to see the ending, if you want to see more, you have to, y'know, actually play the game?
What happened with Outlast 2 is kind of saddening, I feel, because in the end Red Barrels cut down the difficulty thanks to streamers and critics alike decrying the game as "too difficult." I don't want to sound like an angry internet man who rants about "feminist conspiracy game journos watering down muh vidya," but... maybe they should have gotten better? Maybe critics forced to play games under a strict deadline might need more time with the game? Maybe streamers whose primary goal is be entertaining aren't a great litmus test for difficulty? Maybe angry internet commenters are babies who don't need to be catered to if their complaints boil down to "this is too hard"?
There is a difference, though, between something being hard and something being poorly-designed. The Evil Within, a game I really enjoyed, ultimately suffered from a design flaw of being imbalanced. It expected you to do things that you often didn't have the tools to do, use weapons or ammo you didn't have, no matter how hard you scoured. That, to me, is a legitimate complaint... because it's my complaint. But seriously, that's where the line is drawn, I feel. If you're properly utilizing all the game's mechanics and can't progress because the game isn't rewarding you for using said mechanics, that's when "too hard" is a complaint that's valid. Red Ninja: End of Honor also comes to mind, a game that requires precision platforming when the controls are not, in fact, precise.
However, I feel the critique there is not that the game is "too hard." The critique is that the product is poorly designed, which The Evil Within and Red Ninja: End of Honor very much are. But Outlast 2, Alien: Isolation, and Cuphead? Those games are impeccable, from start to finish, in terms of their mechanics. They teach you everything you need to know, then gradually ramp up the challenge to push that knowledge to its very limit. Outlast 2 forces you to utilize leaning and cover constantly, and if you do, you'll barely die. Alien: Isolation forces resource management and not directly engaging enemies; when you do engage enemies, the game always provides you with a means to do so if you actually look. Cuphead gives you the buttons to press, tells you what each weapon does, then lets you go nuts as you learn boss patterns and memorize stage layouts.
The test, then, becomes not the game. It becomes yourself. How much patience do you have? How much capacity do you have to see something through to the end? Sometimes the answer is none. The Dark Souls (again, excluding Bloodborne) games are high-quality, but nothing ever really motivates me to continue. They're all great, they're all well-designed, but not enough to push me forward. Same goes for Super Meat Boy, Fallout: New Vegas, and some others. They're not bad games, and they're balanced fine. I just didn't want to learn the mechanics behind them to keep going.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Catherine. That game is tough as fucking nails. As it progresses, it punishes even the slightest mistake, and by the last set of puzzles, I was ready to snap my controller over my knee. But I didn't. Because I cared. Because I wanted to get better and see the end of Vincent's story. Because he and I had been through hell together, and I felt like I owed it to him to complete his journey. That goes for Bayonetta, the Serious Sam titles, all the DS Castlevania games, most of the TouHou games, the original Contra, and other "hard" games I've beaten. I wanted to see what was beyond enough to get good at the game and keep playing.
Oh, fuck, I'm that angry guy screaming "get good," cancel everything, don't send Tweet-
On a more serious note, however, I do understand wanting to see a game through to completion but not wanting to work with the mechanics. Enter Persona 5. I was curious about the rest of the story, but goddamn, did I ever not want to sit through the most watered-down RPG mechanics this side of Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and its RNG. So I didn't. I watched it. Watched my friend play it, read full spoilers, watched the ending. Now, granted, I still contend that it's a very badly designed game, but I've already talked about that at length. I feel like I sufficiently experienced the gameplay enough to review it. I wanted to know how the story panned out without playing it, and lo and behold, there were tools there to experience that.
The same goes for Cuphead, Outlast 2, Alien: Isolation, and any other game that is "too hard." If you don't want to bang your head against a wall until you finish something, then... don't? Watch a friend play it, or better yet, play it with a friend. If you can't, watch it with or without commentary on YouTube or Twitch or something. Those options are out there. If you want to see the rest of a game but don't want to get good enough at playing it to finish it, well, there are things for that now. They're no more or less valid than experiencing it yourself, despite what the internet may tell you. My girlfriend's never finished Deadly Premonition, but she watched Jeff Gerstmann and Vinny Caravella play it to completion, so she can talk about it at length with me. It's one of my favorite games, top ten easy, but I don't judge her for not playing it herself. Because she's experienced the whole thing in some way, shape, or form. She was invested sufficiently but knew she probably wouldn't want to work with the shooting and driving mechanics, and also just liked watching Jeff and Vinny be the lovable goofballs they are.
This, I think, ties into my big pushback. The idea that players are owed something for playing a game. This notion that if you play enough, you should be able to progress just by being there. That discourse, entertaining that idea, treads into what I consider really treacherous territory. Like saying The Stand should be shorter because you don't want to read that much. Like saying The Lord of the Rings should be a shorter runtime because you don't want to watch that much. Both of those opinions that either thing is "too long" is fine, sure. Go experience it some different way if you want. But positing the idea that the creators should cater to that opinion is caustic, in my opinion, and as an author myself, it sets an uncomfortable precedent.
And as a fan of video games (sometimes,) I'm also taken back by the idea that game designers in general should cater to the audience in this way. Now, I want to make it clear that the writer of the Polygon piece wasn't taking a hardline stance on this, but definitely entertained it. Furthermore, I've seen some people arguing this before, and want to set the record straight that this is a downright asinine idea. Gaming has become an increasingly diverse medium, in the mechanical sense. Still not doing so great in the queerness or gender or racial diversity department, but I digress. There are a lot of different types of games out there. Easy games, hard games, in-between games, whatever. There should not, under any circumstances, be a universal standard difficulty. There should not be universal standard difficulty levels. Screaming at developers until they make one further perpetuates the toxic cesspool that is the gaming community at large. Furthermore, developers bending over backwards to make everyone happy is what results in homogenized, boring games. You know how people have complained about Ubisoft games running together? You know why that is? It's because focus testers calculated each mission type, each map variety, each weapon to be easy enough for the average player to digest. Do you want that to happen to every game? I sure don't.
Now, this isn't an argument against an easy mode, per se. Easy modes are a great thing. I played through forty hours of Final Fantasy XIII before my save data got wiped, so the PC port having an easy mode was a godsend. I could breeze through the parts I'd already played. In The Evil Within, what I felt like poor design was allevieted by the enemies killing me a little less often. Certainly, the lack of resources to even manage didn't help still, but it let me beat it. And even titles that I don't find particularly challenging, like the Uncharted games or your average shooter, should have easy modes if the developers want to include them. If developers don't mind, go for it. I think that's great.
But every game shouldn't have to include one. And if it does, the developers are under no obligation to allow players to see everything the game has to offer if they choose it. Much like Rocket Knight Adventures or Contra 4, Cuphead doesn't let players see the true final bit if they don't play on Regular. That's fine. The developers intended it that way. They're under no obligation to let everyone see those parts if they don't want to. If players don't like that, they can get to that cut off point, then watch the rest on YouTube. It's not that hard to find a solution for. You're not owed a completion just because you spent money on a game, because you knew what you were signing up for when you put down the money. It's that simple, I think. Do your research, know what you're getting into, and go from there.
That's the crux of what I'm saying, I think. Demanding a game be easier is kind of entitled. It sets a bad precedent. If you want to see a game without the difficulty, then play it on an easier difficulty. If that difficulty doesn't exist, play with a friend or watch the rest be played. To me, it's not that complicated. It's a contract consumers have agreed to since the medium was born.
While some developers are changing the terms of that contract, and even changing the definition of "games" as a medium, some aren't. They're allowed to that without being talked down to.