How to Feel About a Game That's EXACTLY the Right Difficulty... for You

This has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and I wanted to see if y’all have any similar experiences or feelings about it. I’ve encountered a lot of games (or portions of games) recently where I feel like it’s exactly the right difficulty for me personally. It will challenge and reward me, without going so far as frustrating me or driving me away.

Some examples include Celeste (as far as the B-sides and strawberry collection, but not the C-sides), Hollow Knight (everything before Godmaster), or Dead Cells (getting the first victory at default difficulty).

These feelings crystallized recently since I’ve been playing Thumper on PSVR and having an absolute white-knuckled blast, but also feeling like there’s hardly anyone I could recommend it to, particularly because it doesn’t have any options that reduce the difficulty. I imagine the team behind the game was fairly small and wanted to focus on their idea of the core experience. And their dedication shows, because it works so well for me! It’s challenged me a lot but also very clearly reflected my improvements back at me, which is awesome.

But rhythm games are typically appealing because they have extensive difficulty options. Thumper isn’t about the fantasy of playing music yourself; it’s music as a gameplay mechanic to get through a level, checkpoint by checkpoint. And that’s really cool, and relatively less common! But it’s also pretty unyielding, so I feel like I should have some critique about it.

Do you folks have games (or sections of content in games) that perfectly fit your skill/patience/ability level? How do we compare experiences with games like this when they vary so much between individuals? And how do we figure out how much our own improvement as players is the result of good game design vs. totally intrinsic?

While I have doubts about whether my own skill level or attitude right now would match up with it, Matt Thorson’s (Celeste, Towerfall, etc.) An Untitled Story absolutely hit that sweet spot for me when I first encountered it. It’s a free windows metroidvania that’s the sixth game from the bottom on his website.

In An Untitled Story, you begin as an egg in your nest, and the rest is up to you to figure out. Fight 18 unique bosses, traverse a huge game world, and unravel a mysterious storyline. There are 5 different difficulty options for players of varying skill levels. Also included is a multiplayer capture-the-flag-style Heist mode. Hook up a USB gamepad before starting!

direct download link

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This isn’t directly related but I’ve been playing Forza Horizon 4 all day and I have to say I really love the way it will fill in solo races with opponent cars that will give you a good match based on what you’re driving. Don’t wanna feel frantic trying to keep up with some ridiculous hypercar? You don’t need to! You could do basically all the road races with a bone stock Datsun 510 if you wanted.


That sounds interesting! I’m always game for Metroidvanias :smiley:

Souls games are definitely this for me; there are certain optional boss fights in the series that just kick my ass but the type of action game it is has just fallen so much in line with my own sensibilities and skill level.

I just don’t find the moment to moment act of playing them particularly difficult or threatening, but rather relaxing and familiar; I understand of course that a lot of this is due to sheer hour count and experience with the series, but the act of playing them and exploring their deeply interconnected worlds feel just right. In addition they have a wondrous sense of quiet and wistfulness to them, and a heavy focus on atmosphere.

I’ve enjoyed those aforementioned types of 2d platformers too, such as Super Meat Boy back in the early indie days or recently diving back into Hollow Knight after dropping off it early 2017; they’re a lot of fun too but they’re far more reliant on twitch reactions and quickly stringing together jumps than methodical timing, so they can end up frustrating me (that one damn crystal cave bit in HK for one…)

Don’t even get me started on rhythm games (and sections), unless I only have to consider one button, and even then I have never been more frustrated with my inability to perform at a video game ^^"

Anyway it can definitely be hard to recommend a series you’re really into if it’s generally considered particularly difficult or inscrutable. Sometimes there are better gateways though, like Bloodborne with Souls or World with Monster Hunter.

Fond memories of playing that well into the early morning. Thanks for the reminder. One of the first Let’s Plays I ever watched was of An Untitled Story. Strange.

On-topic, Thumper worked that way for me, too. It’s such a clean distillation of what I like about rhythm games. It’s one of those rare moments where I feel oddly connected to the designer, or at least their (presumed) mentality when in the middle of development.

To answer your second question, I’ve always felt language falls a little short. You can paint all the word pictures you’d like, and you should try, but it’ll only ever be a pale approximation of what the controlled experience actually is. The only success I’ve ever had recommending these types of games is if I know the person extremely well, and even then it’s a toss-up.

Hey, remember demos?

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Weirdly, for me, Super Meat Boy is definitely somewhere in my “games which are just on the good side of too difficult” (at least, as far as I got in it until the infamous performance issues in the non-Windows release broke one of the bosses for me); but basically all of the other “superhard platformers” (apart from N/N++/etc) that come after it are firmly in “completely unfun and frustrating”. [I think it’s because SMB has just the one button, basically, whilst the others suffer from the same problem you have with rhythm games - the more different inputs I need to remember how to do, the less likely I am to care about your twitch-skill challenge.]

On topic for other games types:

Transistor (from the late game of the first playthrough, through to the first half of NG+, with a couple of limiters turned on; and for basically all of the challenges) is basically my sweet-spot for “tactical combat game”. For me, Transistor’s draw as a game comes precisely from the opposition being just hard enough to need you to use effective combinations of the various powers you have - without it being so hard that you get forced into the narrow set of “most effective combinations”, and lose room to experiment. It also helps that it’s mostly turn-based; if it were real-time entirely, without the pause-to-plan-moves aspect, then my difficulty/fun tradeoff would be much more severe - as it was for Bastion, which was basically unfun extremely quickly for me. [This is also why I am basically completely uninterested in Pyre, as I hear the combat is all real-time-only again.]

Almost all Zachtronics Games are “exactly the right difficulty” for me usually until just before the final challenge. For me, the issue usually sets in when the challenge gets hard enough that I’d need to spend several days thinking about debugging a solution which Almost Works - and for the earlier Zachtronics Games, like SpaceChem, the interface tends to make this critical difficulty lower, as even debugging a complex solution becomes awkward (there’s no bulk-copy-move for moving a chunk of working structure elsewhere, so you have to it piece-by-painstaking-piece).

Into The Breach is about my perfect challenge level on Hard, nowadays (although it took a bit of practice to get up to it being comfortable at Hard rather than Normal); although it depends on the mech team I use.

On the meta question of “how do we compare experiences”, this is one of the basic problems of all human communication, isn’t it? I think it’s important to specify the context of your own skill level in other points of reference when talking about how “easy” or “enjoyable” a game is, certainly: it’s easy to forget that other people’s “frustratingly hard” might be your “comfortable” or even “trivial”; and that the same could be reversed for the same people with a different type of challenge.
But, again, I don’t think this is limited to games, or challenge in games: this is the fundamental problem of talking about any experience (reviewing any kind of media, for example) with other people.

On the meta question of “figuring our improvement versus improvements in game design”; surely this is much easier? You can just compare how good you are with different games of the same type, within a short space of time - if some are “more enjoyable” than others, they’re probably better suited to you [and more likely to be well designed in general], whereas if you’re finding all of them easier, it’s probably you getting more skilled with them. Going back to platformers: I still enjoy Spelunky, N++ etc, even though I dislike a lot of the modern skill platformers, so I know it’s not “just me getting worse at platformers in general”, it’s a difference in design philosophy between the things I like and the things I dislike. [But that doesn’t make the games I dislike playing bad games…]