Games are Freakin’ Hard (and that’s ok). An Analysis on Video Game Difficulty

NiOh makes me want to rip my controller apart, but it’s not the end of the world.

This past holiday season has been interesting because I found myself playing more challenging games than my usual repertoire. These games have quite a learning curve, and I would say these are some of the most ridiculous and difficult games I have played in a long time. It turns out many gamers agree, sparking the argument of whether or not games should be this hard and if there needs to be easier difficulty modes to choose from. I’ve heard the arguments from each side, and the purpose of this article is to address some of them for you as a reader to investigate and make your own argument. Also at the end of this article you will find out my personal overall opinion on video game difficulty.

Before we begin, lets look at the three games I have recently played that sparked this article:

  • Monster Hunter World: Beta, I downloaded on a whim at the advice of my friend with no real expectation of how it plays. I started the Beta by going straight into a quest, and wielding the great sword was really difficult to land a combo on a monster successfully.
  • Cuphead, I played with a friend for the first time and really enjoyed it to the point of buying the game myself. When I played at my friend initially, I played for 20 minutes and had a difficult time beating a boss. In co-op mode, there was some hilarity in dying as a team. When I finally played the game by myself, it was a slow frustrating burn where I probably spent more time dodging than I did attacking. Being attacked from almost every direction in a platform was extremely difficult to conquer.
  • NiOh, is the most recent game I started in the new year, and 10 hours spent in the game I feel like I barely moved anywhere because of the amount of times I died. Its mechanics require the player to think critically on when to strike, block, change stance, and even avoid the fight all together.

To truly give this analysis justice, I address 3 topics:

  1. Accessibility for all players
  2. Intent of the developer
  3. Personal goals

If games only have one difficulty or err on the harder side, then less gamers will play who would have been interested in other aspects of the game. I have to admit, the first time someone told me offhand that Cuphead was a difficult game, it was one of a few factor in me not choosing to play the game in that time because I didn’t want to dedicate a lot of frustrating effort into completing a level. But I heard the soundtrack of Cuphead was incredible and worth my listen. Personally I will not listen to video game soundtracks if I don’t play the game because I feel like it’s part of the entire package, so I dealt with the pain to get it. Some gamers may never experience the other aspects of Cuphead due to not being able to play and overcome the game’s difficulty. What do we do for gamers who want to unwind to a story and not spend 10 hours trying to pass one boss?

Does this foster exclusivity and divide the gaming community, the mentality that playing and completing a difficult game puts you in a different level from other gamers? You are a worthy one for actually finishing the game in its entirety? The community has become divisive in this manner, a way for “hardcore” gamers who handle hard modes to ween in on casual gamers and kind of berate them. It also goes off the notion that making a game easier will take away from the desired result and emotion for the player. Now let’s look at it from a different angle.

We have to also consider that maybe this is the way for the developer intends of having the player experience the game. Notably in Cuphead, when choosing between Simple Mode and Regular Mode, is that Simple Mode cuts out a lot of boss fights, scenes, and soul collecting where essentially you cannot beat the complete the game storyline if you choose the easiest difficulty. Reminiscent of the way platformers were made in the past, the game holds a great difficulty to overcome in controls due to actual technical constraints in that time. The developers wanted to represent Cuphead to act like and be enjoyed like an older game.

Gameplay is intrinsic to the entire package, and challenging games are ok with me in that mastering every mechanic is part of the journey. Starting NiOh for the first time, it’s annoying but satisfying to finally understand the different stances, weapons, builds, and how all of these affect your battles. I have to remember to switch weapons, I have 8 bookmark slots to keep track of, I have 3 battle stances to handle off enemies, and I have a damn Ki because you might as well add another mechanic to replenishing your stamina faster. But at no point in trying to figuring out this damn mess did I feel the developer added things for the hell of it. Everything felt like it was a important to my understanding of the game holistically and knowing how to pick my battles.

But is the developer being cruel to create an unenjoyable experience? Are they torturing the consumer? Another example I have is with NiOh, where save points seldom appear, meaning if the player messed up it may take them way back to a save checkpoint and lose a significant amount of progress. Albeit annoying, games like this remind me of times with my PS1 and PS2 where you needed to save progress in limited areas, and I don’t see a problem in seeing this style of play implemented in games today. Also, developers will always include ways for the player to practice. In Monster Hunter: World Beta, with 14 weapons to master, there was an available practice mode to learn combos. The world may seem against player, but I have never experienced a video game hard because the studio wanted to watch the world burn… besides maybe that iPhone running game.

For a final topic, what exactly is your goal as a gamer and what does that mean for the vast library of games to choose from? I’m used to this idea of practicing and re-doing things until it’s correct. There was a point in college when I took Electrical Engineering classes, and breadboarding was really frustrating for me. These concepts were difficult for me to grasp, and for majority of the quarter I was the last person to leave the lab and needed to re-visit the lab the next day to finish my work. I was pulling my hair figuring this shit out, and I can’t express how many times I felt like rage quitting and dropping the class. But when I felt like giving up on the homework after hours of what seemed like nothing, something would light up (literally on my breadboard). I was able to successfully wire one light. Sure it wasn’t the entire project, but the step-by-step progression and improvement upon each iteration meant something to me because I felt I was actually figuring out the system. Until finally on the due date of my project, I am able to submit a fully working projects. That is the sense of accomplishment I feel from these difficult games, overcoming the mechanics and figuring out the system in front of me.

At the same time, I don’t fault anyone disinterested in playing the game because practice can take a long time. It’s important to note that although I got good scores in my classes, I no longer pursued Electrical Engineering because I no longer wanted to put that amount of work and I lost interest. This factor is incredibly important to the user experience, because as gamers we have backlogs of other things we want to play. And I don’t just say that about games perceived as difficult like a Dark Souls and even a difficult puzzle game like The Witness, but any game for that manner. But in context of this article: if you drop a hard game or take longer than expected to finish it, there is 100% no problem with that and don’t let other gamers define what you feel a sense of accomplishment is.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question because developers and gamers alike all hold different opinions on video game difficulty. Hell, I’m still back-and-forth on this. Both sides are correct to an extent, but I want to wrap this up with a more capitalistic view. So many games exist in the world, and I think the world needs a variety of ridiculously easy games to normal-level games to exceedingly hard games because all players have different reasons for playing and all developers create games differently. I will never play a Dark Souls game, but I would not want people to change it to cater to me, I will just accept I’m not interested in playing it. I guess it comes with age, but I no longer feel entitled to finish a game if I don’t want to. I can watch videos or play other games I have. I respect people who can finish them, and I respect people who don’t want to finish them.

I won’t play all hard games that exist in this world, but I accept their presence and place in gaming.


Videos I enjoy that express the heartache of gaming difficulty.

Check out Gromek999’s video, A compilation of me dying in Cuphead

Check out PlayStation Access’ video, How Not To Die in NiOh

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Video game blogger with JRPG upside and ok human being.

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