What is the sign of a bad game?  The easy answer would revolve around the subjective idea of “fun”.  If a game is not “fun”, it’s a bad game.  But it’s hard to put a score on “fun”.  Fun is different for many people.  When you describe games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Firewatch to a friend who doesn’t play a lot of games, they don’t sound all that entertaining.  Walking around and smelling the digital roses doesn’t resemble the same type of thrill one gets when playing Nuclear Throne where you can spend hours blasting away strange lookin’ mutants in order to level up your guns and blow up more strange lookin’ mutants.  For many, video game quality is still associated with the age-old loop of getting through a level, enjoying the thrill of success, and then getting through the next level.  The idea that a good game convinces you that you have to play one more level, get to one more save point.

But even if we were going to dumb video games down to such a basic idea to evaluate their merit (and I do so very begrudgingly) you still struggle to define the nature of fun. It is fun for games to string along a player with small injections of increased difficulty?  Are the most fun games the one with the addictive loops you play for hours and hours?  Or are they all about challenging the player?  Is it fun when games frustrate you?  If you curse, and scream, and break controllers while playing a game, it is really fun?

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For almost a decade now, we’ve seen the rise of games that seek to challenge – even frustrate players.  The new cliche to describe games like Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, and Spelunky is “difficult but fair”.  The success of this breed of games has triggered a movement as more and more studios seek to prove their games are of this ilk.  We constantly get emails here at Indie Haven from developers that promise their games on Kickstarter or Steam Greenlight have “old school difficulty” and “won’t hold you hand”.  The latest entry to boast this challenge has been Hyper Light Drifter – and I feel it represents how some difficulty can bring players closer to a game, but also how it can push players away.

To discuss the difference between difficult games and bad games, we have to start with “bad games” and the imperfect way that we identify them.  I used to feel that bad games were easy to pick out.  When I didn’t understand controls, mechanics, or design – it was a bad game.  Like any other medium, video games communicate their messages to the audience and when that message was difficult to understand, you’ve likely got a bad game on your hands.  If the controls didn’t feel responsive and tight, it meant they weren’t very good.  If the mechanics seemed difficult to grasp, the game was at fault for not communicating them effectively.  But we all know that these sweeping generalizations are short-sighted – evaluating a game isn’t quite so easy.

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Sometimes imperfect controls and unintuitive gameplay is intended by the designers.  We’re seeing more attempts to not spoon-feed the game to the player by obscuring the design and intentionally tweaking the mechanics.  Occasionally, it feels like there is seemingly nothing to stop a developer from saying, “We purposefully made the controls terrible and impossible to figure out where to go – that’s just part of the fun.”

It brings to mind the game Bound By Flame, developed by Spiders and published by Focus Home Entertainment.  The game attempted to riff of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and Dark Souls with tough difficulty and a dark fantasy setting.  Here’s a segment of Game Informer’s Metacritic blurb, “When you invest the time to master the challenging combat and explore the world, Bound by Flame is a solid romp with rewarding tactical action…”  Now here is PC Gamer’s take, “…Bound by Flame is tedious, frustrating, and unpolished.”  So the question becomes, which is it?  Is the game frustrating or challenging?  Did one reviewer just – as the defenders of the “difficult but fair” movement would say – “suck” at the game?  Did they not invest enough hours to “master the challenging combat”?  I’m not here to pass judgement on Bound by Flame (though it was terrible), but I think the discrepancy in these blurbs perfectly shows how one person can think a game is bad and another argues that it just requires more time to master.

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There are times I feel like I “suck” at Hyper Light Drifter, times when the controls seem to betray me or the level design is difficult for me to decipher.  However, it got easier as a I went along and began to learn some of the tricks that are understood through time spent with the game.  Hyper Light Drifter is a game that helps me get where the defenders of the “difficult but fair” games come from.  When a game is cryptic and difficult, you have to work harder to understand it, and in turn it becomes more personal and intimate.  It’s like a friendship where you learn a person’s tendencies not through them outright giving you their life story, but simply by spending enough time with them that you come to understand something deeper about who they are.  Soon the esoteric nature of the design isn’t so bad, it’s just different – and different is almost always good.

I’ve had battles in Hyper Light Drifter that seemed initially impossible.  Whether it was my carelessness with health packs or disregard for the game’s challenge, I found myself hitting the point of exasperation.  But here’s where Hyper Light Drifter proves it’s more than a broken game that claims to be “challenging but fair”  – the game constantly reinforces the concept of patience to the player.  With the quick sword swipes and lightning-fast dashes, it’s easy to feel like developer Heart Machine is leaning on your ability to zip around the screen and flash your sword like a super-speed samurai, but the game is about being deliberate and waiting for opportune moments to strike before rushing in.  Our own Matt McKweon goes into deeper detail as to why Hyper Light Drifter is a success.  But the way the game evolves it’s combat and reinforces the theories behind its strategy isn’t by accident.

The deliberate design choices are what separates a bad game from a difficult game.  There needs to be the guiding hand of the developer behind every decision, behind every encounter.  In games like Dark Souls or Hotline Miami you can sense the authorship of the game.  Every fight has purpose, the enemies are placed in a specific way to balance the challenge, the environment is carefully decorated with the cover you might need or hiding spots for your character.  There is no need for the game to direct you to these spaces with arrows or make them into cookie-cutter shapes to telegraph their purpose, the designers simply let the world speak for itself.

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I don’t feel like Hyper Light Drifter always succeeds in its design.  While I don’t think Heart Machine’s game comes anywhere near “bad”, it does demonstrate some of the missteps that can turn a difficult game to a bad game.  The game employs a map, and makes a point to mark the map with places that you need to travel reach in order to advance to the inevitable boss fight.  However, actually finding these places rarely is achieved by following said map.  Often I would have to rely on my own mental navigation, making notes of where paths diverged and revisiting places I had earlier ignored.  Sometimes I would be certain I was going in the right direction, only to find myself back at someplace I had already explored.  

It would be easy to ignore this, to just chalk it up to another aspect of Heart Machine forcing the player to be self-reliant.  But the map isn’t just difficult to navigate, there are times when it feels worthless – almost more a red-herring than a help.  In any other games, I would shrug my shoulders and move on, but after struggling through difficult battles and dodging my way through numerous perils, it felt like a betrayal by the game.

As I stated earlier, I understand why players have rallied to these kinds of games.  Countless reviews have discussed the “rewarding” feeling of truly earning the end credits of a game instead of simply button mashing your way to success.   I understand there is an intimacy with difficult games that doesn’t exist with the vanilla design of many titles.  Many video games these days are about the journey, not the accomplishment, and these games are a reaction to that.  I get it.

But I feel there is a thin line between difficult and bad.  A balancing act that wades into dangerous territory for developers and it requires a keen sense of development.  “Difficult but fair” is the phrase that has arisen, but it might not be accurate.  Difficult but deliberate strikes me as the quality we’re looking for in games these days.  We want games that are hard, but we want to feel the design subtly working our favor.  Instead of chest high boxes, we want to marvel at the fortunate placement of a statue that allowed us the distance needed to heal at the climax of the battle.  We want to be amazed at how we could navigate the crazy labyrinth of danger that we thought would be the end of us.  Difficult games can sometimes be hard for people to love, their frustrating designs can make them unlikeable.  But when a good designer is behind them, difficult games can be all the more special.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • NyuuuuSaaaan

    What if the game is fun by accident? For instance, there are games where competitive play involves techniques the authors didn’t intend.