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Forget difficulty, video games have a communication problem

When we talk about video game difficulty, that usually means one thing: “This game is hard.”

Hard can mean a few different things. In the case of a game like Dark Souls, it means that a game is physically demanding. It can require precise mastery of controls and superhuman reflexes. In a puzzle game, there’s more of a cognitive workout. Baba is You, a game where players essentially code the rules by pushing boxes, features notoriously difficult puzzles that require heavy brain power.

But as video games have grown, they’ve stumbled into a new form of difficulty that other artistic mediums are all too familiar with. A stronger focus on storytelling or thematic intent sometimes demands gameplay decisions that aren’t always enjoyable for players by design. It’s an arthouse approach that raises some complicated questions for a medium where the ability to actually progress through a game can be a barrier to getting its point.

High-concept games

Talk to a cinephile and they’ll tell you that the most celebrated greats aren’t always fun to watch. One of my all-time favorite films is Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a three-and-a-half hour film about a French widow repeating her same mundane routine over and over. It’s a difficult watch. It features a handful of static camera setups that repeat, hardly a word of dialogue, and five-minute sequences where the main character prepares veal in real time.

Jeanne Dielman - Veal Cutlets

It’s excruciatingly boring, but that’s the point. If a film is going to paint a portrait of mundane, domestic life, it wouldn’t make much sense for it to be entertaining. Instead, the glacial pace forces viewers to sit with the silence. They start to feel antsy just as the titular Dielman begins to unravel, leading to a shocking conclusion that only works because of the grind that proceeds it.

When I think of Jeanne Dielman, I think about Death Stranding. Hideo Kojima’s big-budget courier simulator is one of the most polarizing releases to ever hit the gaming industry, at least at its scale. Its gameplay can be downright tiring, but that’s the backwards appeal. It’s a video game about reconnecting a fractured country. It literally forces players to do so by having them traverse unpredictable terrain that makes the simple act of walking into an annoyance.

Sam Bridges, the game’s protagonist, wonders what the point of it all is. Why go through such trouble to unite a country that destroyed itself through division? Some players will likely wonder the same, but there’s a payoff. When players connect more regions to the Chiral Network in-game, they’re also connecting to other players online. That region soon fills up with helpful structures like bridges and highways built by real players who have worked together to make the game better for others. It’s an emotional system that makes the individual feel part of a wider community and reinforces why humanity is better when working together.

Sam Bridges walks across a valley in Death Stranding.
Kojima Productions

Part of the game needs to be a little frustrating to convey that message, and that’s what makes it challenging. Other recent releases have taken a similar approach. The Last of Us Part 2 forces players to commit uncomfortable acts of violence (it’s not recommended for dog lovers) in order to deliver a thorough meditation on the inescapable nature of cyclical violence. Hellblade: Seanua’s Sacrifice threatens players with permanent death to communicate the kind of fear that people with psychosis can experience. Returnal illustrates an inescapable trauma by trapping players in an overwhelming time loop.

Games with high-concept ideas like this can be stressful, frustrating, or downright boring to play. But they require decisions that the subject matter calls for, just as Jeanne Dielman’s unbearable pace is a necessity.

Antagonizing players

While subjecting audiences to unpleasant experiences is standard in all forms of art, it’s a much more complicated idea for video games. Physical difficulty is a unique feature of interactive media. A reader can make their way through a dense book (be it through sight, Braille, or audio) with enough time; after that, it’s a matter of whether or not they can understand what it means. With video games, it’s never guaranteed that a player will actually make it from cover to cover.

Sifu's main character at age 70 in Sifu.
Kepler Interactive

That tension comes to the surface in Sifu, a new indie kung fu game from developer Sloclap. It’s one of the most punishing video games I’ve ever experienced. Players have to fight through five levels over the course of one lifetime. Every death increases their character’s age, making them a wiser martial artist, but physically weaker. Get too old and it’s game over. There’s no room for mistakes. Every death is a firm slap on the wrist from a stern mentor demanding players do better.

There’s a purpose to the punishment and players who can make it to the end will fully grasp it. In our review, writer Otto Kratky had glowing praise for the way the game delivers its message in an uncompromising way. “In more ways than one, the “you can do better” mantra of self-improvement is central to the overall game,” he writes. “Repetition and memorization are both keys to playing successfully, but to beat the game itself, players will have to improve in just about every way.”

A successful player will feel like they’ve spent a lifetime mastering the art of kung fu, with each failure only making them more focused. But that could be lost on someone who simply can’t get the hang of its purposefully unforgiving systems. Maybe that only strengthens the point. If you don’t have the patience and resolve to master its combat, then perhaps you’ll walk away better understanding just how much work goes into honing a craft as precise as kung fu. There’s a lesson to be learned in failure.

Sifu's main character jumps over a table as two enemies attack.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Still, there’s a unique challenge there. Nothing is stopping me from watching through Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (save for a weak stomach and two hours of free time). I can see its grotesque depictions of torture and draw conclusions about its critique of fascism. By contrast, I could spend dozens of hours playing Sifu and simply never arrive at its thematic resolution. I can watch a playthrough on YouTube, but physically playing it is the point. Is it an effective piece of art if the message is locked behind so many requirements?

Communication breakdown

Those problems become even more compounded when thinking about accessibility, which presents a more urgent problem for games at large. What kind of message does a player who’s physically incapable of playing Sifu with its current demands receive when they’re told they have no choice but to “do better” or they’ll never master a skill? It’s not one the artists likely intend.

Every form of art presents its own set of accessibility challenges, but gaming has a specific communication breakdown that’s only become more pronounced as games seek to deliver more intentional thematic takeaways.

Tam's points are exactly where accessible design combined with options can help. I'm removing difficulty modes for a sec because that is a different chat, but in that design process, a lot can be learned & could've made this game the answer to making challenging accessible games.

— Steve Saylor (@stevesaylor) February 6, 2022

This isn’t about “hard” games either. The Dark Souls series has become a poster-child for gaming’s great “difficulty discourse,” but Sifu faces a different issue entirely that only happens to intersect with it. Players will die a lot in Bloodborne, but the struggle only blocks players from seeing all the game’s cool bosses and locations. Deaths don’t keep players from grasping a grand thesis. Sifu has different ambitions, philosophical ones, that can be clouded by the act of play.

In an accessibility review for Death Stranding: Director’s Cut, Can I Play That? writer Courtney Craven criticized the game for its reliance on physically demanding trigger holds. “I don’t really know what the game is actually about,” Craven writes, “because, as with the original release, four hours in is as far as I’m going to get and, as with any Kojima game, you don’t understand what’s happening until you have reached hour 58.”

When the experience has to stop there for a player, Sam Bridges’ initial thought becomes the game’s ultimate point: It’s just not worth it.

Video games have found themselves in an awkward growing phase. Developers are getting better at using interactivity to communicate ideas, setting games apart from other art forms. But there are inherent barriers to the medium that make it difficult to communicate certain ideas in the same way a film, novel, ballet, or opera can. Gaming could become a more exclusive art club than any of those.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
The best video games of February 2022
Armored character wielding sword in Elden Ring.

February 2022 will go down as one of the best months for video games ever. From indie platformers to AAA open-world powerhouses, several fantastic games launched to critical acclaim and record-breaking player counts. Because so many great games came out in January and February, it’s not surprising if some players’ missed one -- or more than one.
Seven titles in particular rose above everything else released this month and will be remembered by many gamers for years to come. These are the February 2022 games that players should not miss out on, in no particular order.
Elden Ring
Elden Ring Review | A Near Perfect Open World Adventure!
The latest game from FromSoftware was finally released, and it’s clear that Elden Ring may be a contender for game of the generation. Combining methodical and challenging Soulslike gameplay with a vast and open world like that of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring struck a chord with critics and audiences alike.
Digital Trends gave the game four stars in our review, which was more critical than the general consensus, but we still enjoyed the experience immensely. “Elden Ring is a new gold standard for open-world game design, dishing out some of the best freeform exploration since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” our review states.
Elden Ring seems like it might be the pinnacle of FromSoftware’s Soulslike formula, and it’s a perfect example of what great open-world design looks like. If you somehow haven’t heard about it already, make sure that Elden Ring is on your radar.
Horizon Forbidden West

Both Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West have had the honor of being fantastic open-world games … that were released just before other titles that revolutionized the genre. Though Horizon Forbidden West has tons of dialogue and might not be the most innovative open-world game, it’s still gorgeous on PS5 and an enjoyable romp.
“Horizon Forbidden West establishes the Horizon franchise as a power player in Sony’s first-party arsenal,” Giovanni Colantonio wrote in Digital Trends’ four-star review of the game. “It fixes the few blemishes Horizon Zero Dawn had by strengthening its combat and adding better ways to get around the world.”
There aren’t many other games that can match the feeling a player gets when taking down a giant mechanical monster in Horizon Forbidden West. It’s a must-play for PS5 owners, even if Elden Ring is the best open-world game released this month.
OlliOlli World

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Can’t wait for Elden Ring? Play these games in the meantime
The Hardern Hero from Mortal Shell wears gold armor and holds an axe.

Elden Ring is the most hotly anticipated game of 2022. It's the next massive game from acclaimed developer FromSoftware, creators of the Soulslike genre, and the game already looks like it's brutal fun. That said, its release is still over a week away. As such, some players might be getting a bit anxious and want to scratch that Soulslike itch prior to Elden Ring's launch.
Those who just can't wait to play Elden Ring -- or those who are just looking for similar games to enjoy alongside it -- should check out these titles. They'll all give players a tough, but enjoyable, time. 

Released earlier this month, Sifu is an intense action game with a unique hook. Every time the player dies in Sifu, they will age. Players become a little stronger with each death, but also have less health to work with until they die by aging over 80. Sifu rewards dedication and memorization as players are forced to learn the right combos and routes through levels if they want to beat each level's boss before dying of old age. Fans of FromSoftware games will appreciate how Sifu encourages players to get better through harsh punishment for failure. This game can be quite frustrating at first, but once players learn the right strategies it becomes immensely rewarding. 
Digital Trends loved Sifu, giving it four and a half stars. "Sifu‘s punishing loop and intense combat are nothing short of brilliant," Otto Kratky's review asserts. "It’s one of those rare titles that doesn’t just want players to do their best; it demands it instead. Falling short of that requirement means the entire experience is going to be that much harder until you start doing better. For a majority of people, that’s not going to translate to a fun gameplay experience, but it perfectly serves the game’s themes."
Sifu will definitely give Elden Ring a run for its money as the toughest game of February 2022. It's available now on the Epic Games Store, PS4, and PS5.
Mortal Shell
Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition - Official Reveal Trailer | PS5
For those that don't want to replay FromSoftware's originals but want something that hits all of the same notes nearly as well, I recommend Mortal Shell. It's a shameless Dark Souls clone, but it makes up for it by introducing some surprisingly solid twists on the Soulslike formula. Players possess the "mortal shells" of dead warriors the gain access to the weapons and abilities Dark Souls players normally associate with certain classes. Players can also harden themselves at any time, even mid-attack.
These small tweaks to the formula add a ton of depth, as players can find and upgrade the shells that work best for them in any situation. The hardening mechanic also means Mortal Shell feels a little more aggressive to play than traditional Dark Souls as players will constantly assess when they should harden or tank and attack for maximum effect. The game is available for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. It's currently included with Xbox Game Pass.
Skul: The Hero Slayer
Skul: The Hero Slayer - Console Launch Announcement
Skul: The Hero Slayer is more of a roguelike -- a genre where one must replay the adventure from the start when they die -- rather than a Soulslike. Still, those who like games that reward a player's mastery of mechanics will like the punishing roguelike gameplay loop of Skul: The Hero Slayer. It also flips the script of most fantasy adventures as players control a character who'd typically be considered the bad guy. The Hero of Caerleon and Imperial Army unexpectedly attack the Demon King and his forces after a truce, so players take control of a skeleton that can equip different skulls to gain different abilities. 
Playing as the villains is a fun change of pace, and the constant skull-switching is reminiscent of class-building in Soulslikes or shell-switching in Mortal Shell. Skul: The Hero Slayer is a tough game where the smallest enemies can give the player just as tough of a time as gigantic bosses if the player isn't attacking or dodging at the right time. Fans of Soulslikes, roguelikes, and pixel art should still get a kick out of this game on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It's currently included on Xbox Game Pass. 

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2022’s biggest video game reveals have been a bummer so far
Player with handgun in Call of Duty: Warzone.

The announcement of 2022's Call of Duty was always going to feel weird. Over the last year, Activision Blizzard has been scrutinized over horrific sexual harassment allegations, turned Call of Duty: Warzone into a glitchy and bloated mess, and was acquired by Microsoft. But I wasn't expecting its reveal to be this sloppy.
Activision Blizzard previously mentioned that Infinity Ward was making a new Call of Duty. Then, at 1 p.m. ET on February 11, enthusiast Call of Duty websites and content creators posted that Activision told them that Modern Warfare 2 and a reworked Warzone with a sandbox mode are on the way. There was no official word on these claims for about 15 minutes, but Activision eventually confirmed them... in the footnotes of a blog post. Its reveal lacked excitement, was confusing, and dodged the biggest questions surrounding Activision Blizzard.
Six weeks into 2022, this is just the latest example of a AAA publisher announcing a huge game with little fanfare. But why have AAA publishers dropped the pomp and circumstance of their game reveals? 
Activision wants you to know that 2022's Call of Duty is a sequel to 2019's Modern Warfare and on a new engine. Image used with permission by copyright holder
For the fans
Previously, a trailer, press release, and detailed info about what players could expect accompanied Call of Duty game announcements. In recent years, it even happened inside Call of Duty: Warzone! We weren't so lucky this time and had to deal with a flurry of enthusiasts and leakers claiming to have new information about the game with no good way to verify its truthfulness.
Earlier this week, there was reportedly a call where Activision and Infinity Ward revealed the new information on this game, but it seems to have been attended almost solely by enthusiast sites and content creators. Even the most prominent gaming sites like IGN and GameSpot didn't seem privy to the news beforehand.
This announcement was made by the fans before Activision even confirmed it. Based on the coverage from those in attendance, it doesn't seem like content creators asked the tough questions about the status of Activision Blizzard's workplace, how the acquisition affects these games, and the reasoning behind Activision Blizzard's decision making (perhaps they did and Activision refused to comment, but we'll likely never know).
By announcing it this way, Activision Blizzard circumvents having to answer hard questions about the company's current state, gets free press from its fans, and gets ahead of the leaks, reports, and rumors that have occurred since the Microsoft acquisition. Activision built a mostly positive -- if oddly rolled out -- reveal narrative for the new Call of Duty that doesn't have much substance.
While other announcements this year haven't felt as malicious, they still lacked a certain flair that we've come to expect.
Rockstar announced Grand Theft Auto 6 in the footnotes of a GTA series blog post. Respawn Entertainment announced three new Star Wars games, including a sequel to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, through a tweet and press release light on additional details. Even Blizzard did it just a few weeks ago with a survival game blog post reveal that called the game "unannounced" in its announcement. None of them had trailers (Crytek got this right with Crysis 4). AAA games are being announced very early with minimal assets and information, making these unveils much less impactful.
This is the only asset EA released alongside its Respawn Entertainment Star Wars announcement. Image used with permission by copyright holder
For the company 
As I previously discussed when Rockstar announced GTA 6, these reveals aren't really about the fans -- they are about the investors and potential hires. Activision first discussed 2022's Call of Duty in a financial results report. GTA 6, the Respawn Star Wars deal, and the Blizzard survival game were announced ahead of earnings reports from their respective companies. The latter two were tied to recruitment calls for their respective developers.
The gaming industry is in the middle of an acquisition craze, and studios are reportedly struggling to recruit great talent. Announcing video games in a nonchalant way helps address both of those issues. Games that are almost guaranteed to be hits please current investors and entice potential buyers. Meanwhile, some developers might be more willing to jump ship from their current employer and work for someone else if they know exactly what they're working on. If some fans get hyped and don't ask tough questions, that's just a positive side effect.
These publishers are putting the bare minimum into reveals and yielding the greatest results. And if this strategy generates enough buzz and keeps working, this might become the norm outside of events like E3, or individual showcases like Nintendo Directs, where fans expect game developers to go all out.
I'm not frustrated because I'm not getting flashy reveals. It's that these announcements all seem more focused on drip-feeding the minimal amount of info so that studios can drive up profits, circumvent criticism, and please investors without sharing anything of substance. As a fan of games, that makes it challenging to care about big projects that should have me excited.

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