Relative Difficulty: The Line Between Challenging and Frustrating

The bane of my young life was this level.
The bane of my young life was this level from Infinity Ward’s 2005 FPS, Call of Duty 2.

Some time ago, maybe when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I decided to play Call of Duty 2 on the Veteran difficulty setting. It was going to be tough, of that there was no doubt, but the prestige that went with beating the game on the hardest setting was too good to pass up. By the time I reached the nineteenth level, named “The Silo”, it began to dawn on me that no amount of gamer pride would ever be able to compensate for the countless hours that went into the play-through. What did playing this game on the hardest difficulty setting amount to? Nothing more than an endless cycle of hope, shock, and frustration. The level would begin, I’d hit a checkpoint, I’d get shot, start right back from that checkpoint, perhaps get two feet further than the last time, get shot again, start right back from the same checkpoint, and do the same thing over and over again. Tom Cruise had it easy compared to me and the thousands of other gamers who played that level. By my hundred-and-fiftieth attempt, I decided there was no point in continuing my forlorn venture, so I promptly unplugged my Xbox 360, turned to the wall, and punched a hole straight through it. It was the only time in my life that I’ve actually gotten physically violent because of a game.

It should go without saying that any honest gamer appreciates a good challenge. None of us are or ever will be gladiators, space outlaws, or Kung-Fu masters, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hop into a fantasy world and imagine what it’d be like to walk around in their shoes for a couple of hours. It’s a joyful experience, and one that is often timeless. But all too often it seems like video game developers opt to make games difficult in a superficial sense, and not in a way that truly tests the vast range of a player’s skill. I can only speak for myself, but it seems that there would be a lot more intellectual satisfaction derived from a game that challenges a gamer’s ability to think critically rather than a game that challenges their patience.

Let’s return to Call of Duty 2 for a moment. The only difference between the Recruit and Veteran settings is the amount of times you can get shot before you die. Aside from that, the levels, weapon layouts, and game mechanics remain the same. To some that may be a challenge, but it is one that only tests a gamer’s forbearance. Other skills such as dexterity and the capacity for abstract thought go untouched as the player trudges their way through a campaign that makes them want to add some rather unseemly renovations to their room.

The Halo series does offer genuine challenges, but only as a bonus feature.
The Halo series does offer genuine challenges, but only as a bonus feature.

The same goes for the Halo franchise. Playing on the Legendary setting isn’t a true test of your wits, it’s just a sophomoric endurance test that wants to see how long you’ll play before you chuck your controller out the window. What’s extra sad about Halo is that the developers offer a means to make the game genuinely difficult, but only as bonus content that exists outside of the actual campaign. The skull system is more or less an Easter-egg hunt that requires the gamer to find hidden skulls throughout the campaign that unlock a variety of challenges upon repeat play-throughs. For example, the Fog skull disables the Motion Tracker on your Heads Up Display (HUD), so you won’t be able to see where your enemies are coming from, while the Famine skull makes ammo much more scarce, so you have to choose your targets carefully and be precise when you go for them. These are challenges that affect your reaction time, your aural and visual senses, and your management skills; in other words, they are actual challenges. But for some reason, Bungie thought that they’d be much more fun as bonus material that has to be unlocked rather than an integral part of the campaign.

As enjoyable as both of these game series are, they commit one of the worst sins that any game can, and that is to provide the illusion of a challenge rather than a substantial one. All games inherently offer the player a stacked deck, but the point of the game is that you figure out the rules and bend them to your favor. And when you are able to learn the ins and outs of the game, you feel a sense of accomplishment when you are finally able to outsmart it. The problem is most modern games end up playing out like an episode of Game of Thrones; you think you’re going to win but then out of nowhere this big, burly Brute with a gravity hammer clobbers you to death. It may make for good TV, but good gameplay it is not.

Having said all that, I do not mean to imply that game developers should get stuck in the similar rut of making games too easy. While Call of Duty and Halo are both games that make games difficult in a rather shallow sense, they are also games that provide incredibly pedestrian experiences when played on easier settings. The big one with these two is the regenerating health mechanic. Now, that isn’t the same as finding health packs to recuperate lost health; that at least provides somewhat of a challenge as you try harder to avoid more difficult engagements and are actively searching the area for aide. Regenerating health automatically returns a player to full strength, so all they need do is duck and cover for a few moments in order to do so. While it may provide players with a few moments of excitement, it doesn’t provide a satisfying challenge for players.

By making players into Wolverine-esque super soldiers, developers place them on a gargantuan pedestal that shields them from any harm or challenge and therefore nullifies any sense of accomplishment. Similar mechanics that give gamers too much of an advantage include infinite inventories (the Metal Gear Solid series, with the exception of MGS 3) and button prompt tutorials (the Arkham series). While it’s important to create a means by which players can overcome the obstacles laid before them, they shouldn’t be placed on a tier where they can simply walk through the game unscathed or unchallenged.

Ultimately, it may be better if developers start to look towards mechanics that make games harder in an intrinsic way rather than an extrinsic way. Rockstar Games is a game developer that is currently offering gamers such challenges. Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, and the Grand Theft Auto series all lack difficulty settings, but that’s because the challenge is one that comes from the players’ ability to figure out a problem rather than one that simply tries their patience.

In L.A. Noire, the gamer has to carefully scrutinize the character's faces and tone of voice to detect whether they are telling the truth or lying.
In L.A. Noire, the gamer has to carefully scrutinize the character’s faces and tone of voice to detect whether they are telling the truth or lying.

L.A. Noire was a remarkably fun game because of its intricate facial animations that challenged gamers to decide whether or not their interviewees were telling the truth only by observing their body language and tone of voice. Sure, the feature lacked some polish but for the most part it was a very novel mechanic that required players to watch and listen attentively, think critically, and be fully immersed in the world of the game. Moreover, the gameplay requires players to actively search for clues and other details that will aid them in their investigations. If you mess up an interrogation because you don’t have enough evidence to prove that the person you’re talking to is lying, then that is your fault. It is not as if the game hid the evidence from you, you just failed to acquire all of it. This has the dual purpose of encouraging repeat play-throughs and making gamers try to find a way to beat cases even if they don’t have all the required evidence. Though it did have its flaws, L.A Noire was definitely a step in the right direction in terms of providing gamers with a worthwhile challenge.

Good games offer people a puzzle that needs finishing. Great games offer people a puzzle that they delight in taking the time to finish. As Sir Ken Robinson once said, “When you’re doing something you enjoy, an hour feels like a minute. When you’re doing something you dislike, a minute feels like an hour.” Though his statement applies to more important things in life, one can’t help but judge a video game following that criteria. A player should not be looking at the clock hoping that it’ll turn faster; they should be lost in the game and be happy that they are lost in it. As imaginative and fun as they are, games like Halo and Call of Duty don’t provide the kind of challenge that people want to meet. Instead, those games just sit back and laugh like a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass who wonders with cruel amusement as to why the tiny critters can’t run away fast enough. But it isn’t fair to say that all is lost, and so long as developers strive to make games fun and original, they will be able to offer new challenges for us to face. I just hope they aren’t of the how-many-bullets-can-you-take-before-dying variety; I have enough holes in my wall as it is.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Michael Krebs

    Great article! I can’t count the number of times I have had similar conversations with others regarding this topic. I agree regarding shooter games, specifically playing the library level on Halo. Playing on legendary was just ridiculous and nearly pointless because of the increased damage done to the player by the flood. The level wasn’t enjoyable for me during legendary difficulty. I also agree with the reference to L.A. Noire – near the end of that game I had trouble reading social cues and facial expressions, but that is what made the game fun. For the same reasons I appreciate platforming games as well as RPGs. The player is encouraged to take the time to learn game mechanics and enemies rather than hoping that by some stroke of luck they make it from cover to cover without getting hit.

    • I hear you Michael. Most RPGs tend to lean more towards challenges that reflect the player’s inner choices and mold the game based on what the player does. BioWare and Bethesda are both developers that do this fantastically, and while the former does provide difficulty settings for their games, it’s still more of a rewarding challenge to be able to beat a game that challenged me emotionally and mentally than one that becomes a drag. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. Candice Evenson

    I completely relate to this–I think I mentioned before how Kingdom Hearts drives one crazy with the monsters just having outrageously long health bars. It becomes a test of endurance rather than one of strategy. My sister and I used to pause the game and take turns fighting monsters after our hands cramped! Anyway…
    Thank you for writing this article at the risk of other gamers crying out that you just aren’t cut out for difficult games. With your comparison of extrinsic and intrinsic you have touched on some important aspects of games that make them actually challenging and fun–something that the gaming industry could learn from.

    • I remember you talking about that Constellation. It’s certainly apparent that the health advantages can also be given to enemies rather than to the player. I ended up skipping the secret bosses in KH because I just couldn’t do it. It ought to be said though that I was also very under leveled and ill-equipped to take them on so it may be unfair for me to say that KH was too hard. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Monique

    Great topic, and thanks for saying this. I was in a controller-throwing mood after a round of Mass Effect this weekend, and finally ended up taking out the game and playing more Skyrim instead. The annoying thing to me is that I knew I was going to get frustrated by ME’s “Insanity” setting, but I was trying anyway b/c there’s an achievement for it, and I’m just OCD enough to want all the achievements.

    Which is why I really resent games that include achievements for the harder difficulty settings like that, precisely b/c, as you so eloquently put it, one person’s challenge is another’s frustration — my reflexs are not your reflexs. I don’t actually save the world — or anything else — by wasting dozens of hours trying to get through one single fight at the hardest setting, I just waste my entertainment time getting grumpy.

    Also, what I’m finding is that playing the “Insanity” setting means that I have to play the game a certain way — all variables have to be max’d and complimentary, there’s no slack for decisions made for role-playing reasons. So the game is less enjoyable on many fronts, not just the hours of re-playing that one battle.

    • That’s interesting; I’ve never played ME on any of the harder difficulties because I tend to find the story to be a bit funner than the gameplay, but from what you say, it makes it sound like the game inherently makes you mold a character a specific way instead of making your own. While that certainly sounds like a worthy challenge, it also limits the ways in which you can personalize your character which is perhaps the most popular staple of RPGs. So, perhaps the question for BioWare is do we make the game hard and therefore limit customization, or make it personal and less harder? Thanks for your comment Monique 🙂

  4. The truth is that games are far easier now than they’ve ever been . If you don’t believe me, try playing the original Battletoads on the NES. Back then, most games were crazily hard to make up for being short on content.

    • There’s no doubt about that. I confess that I grew up appreciating a game’s story over its gameplay, but even then I can find enjoyment in a good challenge. It also ought to be noted that while older games were certainly harder, there were some that are notoriously hard and therefore hated by some gamers. Battletoads is a perfect example of that kind of game. Thanks for the comment Chow 🙂

  5. I normally play games through on “Hard” difficulty first time through (tend to leave the hardest as an excuse to play through the campaign a second time), as I am certain most others do as well. But I find that games tend to put up a fair, and challenging fight. Not too hard, not too easy, but challenging in such a way that it is always satisfying and never too frustrating (with emphasis on too).

    The sum is that games just do not punish us like they used to. With the exception of notable bastard-hard games like Ninja Gaiden, there hasn’t really been a rock-hard game since the N64/PS1 days, while nothing has come close to the games of the 16 bit and, indeed, 8 bit gaming eras.

    • I told Chow more or less the same thing; I grew up with fairly easy games, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate a good challenge like the puzzles in God of War or Jak and Daxter. I’ve just always thought that amping up the damage that an enemy can do to the player is a cheap way of saying the game is challenging.

  6. John Kern

    The harder a game is, the prouder you feel when you win it. But the harder a game is, the less people will be capable of winning it.

    • True, but there are some games that are more worthy than others and carry with them more prestige. The Call of Duty series is hard only in as much as you get shot and killed quicker. Really the only thing that would impress me about someone who plays those games through on Veteran is their patience. But if a player told me that they beat games like Super Meat Boy or even something like Dance Dance Revolution, I’d admire them for their dexterity and reaction time. I suppose that what people find impressive is just as relative as what a person finds difficult.

  7. SwanMan

    We should blame Achievements and Trophies: the modern game designers know exactly when most people stopped playing their last game, and how staggeringly few actually made it to the ending.

    I have mixed opinions as to the results. I mean, I guess having every game turn into Dragons Lair ever thirty minutes for a while is better than having long, unskippable cutscenes broken up by tiny snippets of gameplay…

    • Thanks a great point that I neglected to make. In high school, my friends and I tried our hands on the hardest settings of Halo and CoD, only to be able to say that we had beaten the games that way. It wasn’t a surprise when many of us gave up because wanting to have fun was a much better incentive for playing the game than wanting to earn some achievements.

  8. Well done. I’m surprised that there isn’t any mention of the Dark Souls series only because the difficulty of those games is marketed so aggressively. I am definitely one to lower the difficulty of a game that I’m just trying to experience and have fun with like an rpg as I’m not very good at taking punishment.

    • I’ve never played Dark Souls, but I’ve heard many people say that it is a ludicrously hard game. I suppose that it depends on how it’s hard; if it is as simple as making the enemies stronger and the player weaker, then it’d be a pretty cheap game. But, if it required the gamer to keep their wits about them and grow as a player, then I’d say that the sense of accomplishment that goes with the game must be great.

  9. Danny Cox

    Very interesting topic August, and well-written, but I think I disagree to some extent with your main argument. I realize that playing the same level on the “legendary” setting for hours on end can quickly stop being fun, especially if the only thing preventing one from beating the level is a monotonous or seemingly irrelevant feature, but I think that the fact that only some people can persevere past the average setting and claim victory even though it was insanely difficult is actually the beauty of it! If it wasn’t treacherously difficult or mind-numbingly ridiculous, then it wouldn’t be “the most difficult setting.” If it didn’t force people to consider smashing holes in the wall, then it wouldn’t be considered “legendary” and you wouldn’t be considered a legend for beating it. If it was easy or readily possible for everyone to beat the level, then there would be no glory in proclaiming that after 14 hours straight, the level finally succumbed to your legendary skill, especially when every single one of your friends has yet to beat the level. If a game is to maintain that its hardest setting really is legendary, then it is required that some people simply won’t be able to beat it. It will only be the elite players that can actually surpass the boundary, whether it is because of increased skill or simply because of perseverance.

    You argue that at a certain point, skill isn’t really required, but rather one’s ability to maintain his or her composure in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge. But I would counter that there is in fact a skill required to beat the hardest levels, even if it is something that seems absolutely ridiculous. Perhaps there is an element of luck involved in beating certain levels or games on the hardest setting as well, but I think that for the most part, it is indeed the skill of the gamer that allows one to beat the level. You say that you wish that the hardest setting, instead of simply reducing the player’s health or something similar, would test the player’s critical thinking abilities and other intellectual capacities. But doesn’t it require critical thinking to beat an enemy with half of your original health, or to finish a quest with a minimal amount of ammo, etc.? I think it takes a large amount of critical thinking to possibly come up with a completely new strategy or to try something crazy in an attempt to avoid defeat for the 1,000th time.

    For example, consider Call of Duty’s various zombie games, of which I happen to be a huge fan. After about level 40 (depending on which game), the way in which the player enjoys himself changes drastically. It no longer is very “fun” to find a zombie to shoot as it was in the first dozen levels. Instead, the fun and satisfaction come after each level is over, that is, after one can say that victory has finally been reached. In this example, the same basic thing is going on in every level. The only thing that is changing is the difficulty and quantity of zombies. But this is why the zombie games are fun, not because it is constantly enjoyable, but because it is freaking difficult!

    In my opinion, you have to take the hardest setting for what it is. If you simply want to enjoy the game without having to worry about the various woes associated with the legendary setting, then playing the game on the normal setting is the way to go. To me, when I tackle a game’s legendary setting, it is already a given that there will probably be little whimsical fun or easily gained entertainment. A lot of the fun and entertainment come after victory is finally reached, not during game-play. I guess that the misconception, in my opinion, is that the level of “fun” should remain constant throughout the various difficulty levels, but I don’t think this is necessarily true.

    Wow that was a long rant, my apologies. Just had to get my two cents in. Nice Job!

    • You’ve got a marvelous counter-argument there Danny, and I cannot retort. Truth is I’m about as casual a gamer as there is and whenever I play a game, it’s usually to enjoy the story or a particular mechanic that seems fun (e.g. stealth games or platformers). Perhaps I was being petty when I said that there’s no reward in beating games like Halo or CoD on the hardest settings. I did manage to beat some of them on the hardest settings (CoD: World at War, CoD 2, none of the Halos though), and at the end, I guess I just didn’t feel all that satisfied. It just felt like I had wasted time when I could’ve been having fun. But it’s not my place to say that others can’t feel pride in having conquered such games and when one of my friends does manage to beat a game on the hardest setting, I’m incredibly impressed, and not the least bit envious of their ability to just keep going. I lack that patience, and it’s a rather annoying fault. Perhaps I’ll get over it some day.

      I suppose that since I tend to play games on easier settings or ones that offer puzzle based gameplay, I’ve grown accustomed to expecting that from every game, when that shouldn’t be so. I like the things that challenge me, but they are radically different than the things that challenge most players. Again, relative difficulty.

      Thanks a bunch for your comment Danny, I hope to hear a reply from you soon.

      • Danny Cox

        August, you have most definitely voiced a strongly supported opinion in your article, as evidenced by the other comments here – Relative difficulty indeed. I think that a bigger question that can be asked here is, what exactly defines/determines the level of fun for a game, and how does this change for different types of gamers. You seem to enjoy games that have a more interactive puzzle-based or storyline-based framework, whereas others drift towards games that break down to very simple methodologies (like that of the CoD zombie games) that work by increasing the level of difficulty for consecutive levels or doing something similar. And, while I do still feel that there is a degree of glory attained after beating Goldeneye, for example, on the hardest setting, I absolutely understand how some gamers can feel bored or unenthusiastic about spending several hours taking on such a relatively unimportant task.

        I tend to play video games sporadically – sometimes going several months to a year without turning on the Xbox, and then other times playing religiously every day. When a long break is approaching, the catalyst that finally makes me stop playing for a while is usually that feeling of unaccomplishment that appears after a large part of a day is spent doing something that will not really positively affect my life. But then again, understanding why some gamers strive to beat games on the hardest setting is somewhat analogous to why people climb Mount Everest – not because doing so is constantly fun, but rather because it simply is there, waiting for a challenger to give it a shot.

        Take it easy, August.

  10. Go play ninja Gaiden

  11. If everybody can win it then winning means nothing. 🙂

    • I suppose, but some things are more impressive to win than others. To me, beating CoD on Veteran would be akin to getting first place in a race to see who could cut their own foot off the fastest. Within the boundaries of the game you win, but was it worth it? Not to me it isn’t.

  12. dominik

    I think it’s OK to have a game almost unbeatable but not to have it almost unplayable. That is, you need to let the player get somewhere, invest some time, hook the player before difficulty really kicks in. The failures also need to be realistic in size for the common player.

    • A game may be unbeatable without being unplayable and vice-versa, but what I was pondering in the article was whether there is a point where a game that is so unbeatable becomes unplayable. Unplayable implies that a game has some kind of issue (e.g the controls are delayed, the graphics are faulty, etc.), but could it be valid to say that if the rules are stacked so hard against you that that in turns makes the game broken. Many players have described games as being “broken” because they provide challenges that no amount of skill can beat. But, on the other hand, you are talking about a game that is almost unbeatable, not one that is flat out unbeatable, and that’s pretty different. I’d probably describe games like CoD and Halo as almost unbeatable, as annoying as they are for me.

  13. Mainstream games have gotten a lot easier, i put that down to the rise of the console and the consolification of games as a whole.

    • Truth be told, I can’t speak to that. I’ve only ever played console games so perhaps my article is biased in that sense. Many of my friends have told me about PC-gaming but I’ve just never tried it. How’s it different? I mean this honestly.

  14. Well modern games focus more on multiplayer, and socialisation, to keep all gamers happy. In most cases the single player game is an afterthought. I know a lot of people who don’t even play the single player campaign anymore because they just aren’t worth the time.

    • But for some people, the single player campaign may be just as much apart of the overall experience, if not the dominant part of the game. Battlefield 4 has a very lame campaign, but that’s a game that you described, one that is made for multiplayer gaming. The Call of Duty series on the other hand has had some pretty fun campaigns akin to standard action thriller movies, so I at least tend to play the campaigns more than multiplayer. At the same time though, that just could be because I went a long time without any online gaming so I may just have that preference; many of those same friends from middle/high school had online games so they tended to play those.

  15. Jeramy Horowitz

    I don’t need a game to be hard. A good storyline mixed with challenging gameplay can be just as fun to play than a “hard game”.

    • Same goes for me Jeramy, though I do appreciate the Halo mythos as well as the fun storylines in the CoD games.

  16. Anna Williams

    In my experience sometimes with games after trying and trying to complete a hard level I don’t ‘officially’ give up but put the disc on my shelf and say ‘I will complete it another day’.
    Usually I see this disc a few days later and am reminded how it got me all irritated so I think ‘it’s not worth it’- so a fair few uncompleted games take residence on my shelf – unfortunately!

    • That’s happened to me a couple of times but I’ve more or less let it go. I’ve just become more invested in a game’s story than in its gameplay.

  17. Concepcion

    The games I used to love before I basically lost interest in gaming were some of Nintendo’s top-of-the-line games: Mario and Zelda games. This is because the games were designed well and were fun, whether they were the hardest games (the original Zelda) or the easiest (Super Mario Galaxy 1). The point is, they were fun.

  18. Very interesting article. Just because something takes forever it doesn’t necessarily means it’s harder. I guess there isn’t really another way to do it in the FPS genre. However, in fighting games, increased difficulty often requires you to adjust your play style and think about what you’re doing. I know FPS have a harder time doing this, but hopefully we’ll see it some day.

    • I hope so too Muy. There’s a lot of untapped potential in the FPS genre, and I think that some developers are starting to discover it. Right now I’m watching the fellas at 4PlayerPodcast play Alien: Isolation, and I’m very impressed at how fresh the gameplay looks, especially for an FPS. I probably won’t play the game, but it certainly looks like it’s taking FPSes in the right direction. Thanks for the comment.

  19. This is really a fantastic article. And I liked what he had to say about the games that are doing it right. L.A. Noir and Red Dead Redemption really are challenging intellectually. I do wish he had delved a little deeper into the things that are done right in the games that he mentioned.

  20. I really liked the article; it was very well written and had many good points. I know it wasn’t the main purpose of the article, but I would have liked to see something more about the tutorials of games because I have complained several times (amongst my friends) about how dumbed-down it makes the game.

    • Thanks for the nice words. Both you and Katelyn have mentioned that there was more I could’ve gone into and I’ll try to be broader in my future articles.

  21. Another great franchise to look at would be the Demon’s/Dark Souls series. I’ve personally met a number of people who’ve dismissed these games because they were “too hard” and thus, unfun. I personally loved all three games, despite the numerous moments where I wanted to throw the controller at the screen because I felt cheated by the game.
    They had those “trial and error” moments where you will almost certainly die the first time through–but I found those moments hilarious, the developers sort of flexing they’re creativity in different ways they can manage to kill you using the game’s physics/environment.
    Another aspect of the games that probably annoyed a lot of the beginner players were the consequences for dying. Losing your humanity after working so hard to gain it or having an untimely death right after turning human were pretty annoying and often got your blood boiling early in the game when these resources are scarce.

    Not really sure what I’m getting at here, but I guess it’s sort of an observation that the Souls series teeters on the boundary between “challenging” and “frustrating” and it really depends on how the player chooses to experience it.

    Have you tried out any of the Souls games? What are your opinions on them?

    • I can’t say that I have, but the more I hear about them the more interesting they sound. Since this article, I’ve softened a bit towards what I referred to as unfairly hard games. They still exist and while they can be frustrating, that doesn’t mean that players can’t receive a sense of accomplishment when beating them. Thanks for your comment, and who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get around to playing Dark Souls.

  22. I see the interest (and frustration) in RPG. Personally, I think I’ll stay with strategy games.

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