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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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