I wish the games community at large had better ways to describe difficulty


Haha, thats how my girlfriend is now, she can’t do both at the same time.


Are failures always part of the text, though? I wish there were more examples, but the only one that I can think of in which this is true is Dark Souls. There are few games in which the protagonist’s failure does not end in death, and further, in which the death of the protagonist does not mean the end of the ‘story’. Realistically, every time Nathan Drake dies is a “that’s not how it happened” moment. He won every gunfight, slid under every trap, and leapt over every pit on the first [his only] try.

I will agree, however, that the protagonist’s struggle against the odds absolutely plays into the story. A game-breakingly OP character build can totally undermine a fight when you kill them in two hits, take no damage, and the cutscene that follows shows the protagonist bloody and exhausted.

An interesting way to approach this dissonance would be for a difficulty level in which the AI challenges you until the final stroke, and then ultimately offers up its neck when you’re on your last sliver. Like in the end, we’d still know what’s happening, and that our agency is at odds with the rhythm of the story as the writers saw it, but how much of a fixed narrative can anticipate how the player will engage with the systems in between cutscenes?

I guess players seeing Detroit: Become Human’s shocking wealth of narrative routes as an achievement (in spite of the quality of the scripting) is symptomatic of this dilemma.


The Wolfenstein’s reboots really struggle with difficulty and pacing. I hate how they’re labeled, but I hate the random spikes in difficulty even more. For no apparent reason, you’ll hit a room that is just punishing without any warning. I played through both on the lowest difficulty just to get through the nonsense.

The names are also frustrating because of how they completely fly in the face of both game’s message. Having such a divisive, taunting message in a story that’s trying to argue for the strength of inclusiveness and diversity of experience is very off-putting. I’m assuming it’s a call back to the old games, but it’s so unnecessary to me.


I think this is another of the terminology problems. I know I should shoot and not get shot, but I have to do all that other stuff to actually succeed. That’s part of execution, as well as knowing when to squeeze the trigg— push the left A button or whatever the heck it is.

Compare this to the old arcade shooters, where all I had to do was move the one stick up and down and push the red shoot button. Timing still mattered, but it’s a much easier experience IMO.


That’s interesting, because I would consider old arcade shooters to be one of the few genres of game that really does demand alot from the player in terms of precise execution. There’s a little bit of needing to know what weapons best suit which scenario, and learning the levels helps, but there’s not a whole lot of room for grand strategy.


I think you might be mistaken, considering the last sentence contradicts itself. If you want to say that it’s good to learn over time, then you should say that a very high yet gradual learning curve is best. A steep learning curve would imply that the game expects you to learn a lot very quickly in order to maintain competence. A gradual learning curve would imply that the game increases it’s difficulty slowly as you progress so that you are learning for a long time.


No, I want to learn the game right away. I want to know how to control it, and then go do stuff. Get all the learning out of the way ASAP.

(Learning how to beat a level or boss isn’t part of the learning curve to me.)

We may be playing different types of games, which also plays back the the original point. Frex, if I recall the names correctly, Russian Solitaire (with cards) is way harder to win than Klondike. Your odds of being dealt a winnable shuffle are significantly lower. But this has little in common with talking about a hard boss in Resident Evil. (Your odds of winning are also low but it’s because you have to master all those little subsystems like reloading or ducking with the second joystick etc.)


So then are you just talking about a tutorial? Because that’s not what most people would define as a learning curve. It’s not only about specific levels or bosses, but overarching systems, pattern recognition, strategies for faster world navigation, strategies for what to do when you’re in trouble; it really depends on what type of game we’re talking about but almost any good game has depth and minutiae worth learning beyond what’s required to play the game at a basic level.

In fact, in many games a new level or boss fight is meant to get the player to learn a new concept, with the intention being that they will then have to continue applying those concepts through the rest of the game, and as each concept gets layered and stacked together the game increases in difficulty. So it’s actually true to say that levels and bosses are often incredibly important in dictating a game’s learning curve.

EDIT: This is true regardless of if we’re talking about a puzzle game such as The Witness, or a shooter like Titanfall 2, or a 3rd person action game like Dark Souls or Devil May Cry. Even the old arcade shooters would introduce new elements through level or enemy design, and this largely defined their learning curves.


No, learning the game doesn’t need to be jammed into a tutorial. Even if it is completely explained there, you’ll need some practice to actually understand how the systems work.

I think there may be a separate “mastery curve” which would be what you’re talking about. Until one gets fairly high up the learning curve, you’re not in a position to worry about strategies.

Obviously both of these involve learning, but it’s sort of the same conflation of everything into “difficulty” that started the discussion.

You can learn how to play Letterpress pretty quickly, but you’ll keep learning how to play well for a while. There’s not a lot of nuance in the game itself though.


The one thing that has always felt most consistent to me is numbers based stuff.

How many things do you need to keep track of?
How much time do you have to make decisions?
How many actions or inputs per minute are expected/needed?
What is an average failure rate?
How precise do you need to be? (If you can be off by 5 or 15 degrees, or if you can miss timing by a fraction of a second, or several seconds.)

For multiplayer, how much do you need to communicate?
How long do you have to communicate it?

That sort of thing.


The analogy of literacy makes a lot of sense to me. I think a lot of difficulty issues come down to when and how the game teaches that literacy and when and how strictly the game demands that literacy of the player. Metal Gear Rising is notorious for having a difficulty spike at the last boss, but that isn’t a result of a numerical shift or a shrinking margin for error. It’s because it’s the only point in the game that actually requires mastery of two game mechanics that the player is told about early on and then never forced to use. They mismatched the timing and slope of when to teach you and when to demand competence.


I wonder how spatial literacy factors into difficulty, because that is often my issue with action games.

In Wolfenstein, it’s keeping track of where the enemies are relative to the space I’m in before I get killed.

In Prey, Dishonored 2 (and even Doom) it’s trying to make sense of complex spaces that are not only filled with dangers but are also vertical. As someone who sometimes has trouble navigating completely flat spaces in the real world, navigating vertical spaces breaks my brain, especially once you put enemies on top of that. It’s why I was never able to get anywhere in Dishonored 2—if the enemies didn’t get me, my inability to navigate the space did.

It’s why I like games that allow for very flexible goals (like No Man’s Sky or Stardew Valley) or let you bulldoze the difficulty with lower difficulty levels or the ability to grind levels.


I’m an art school dropout and this sentiment was one of the main reasons I left. It’s feels so elitist to make art that is purposely obtuse, hoping that one of the few people who “get it” is also rich enough to pay your rent. Which is extra frustrating when that mindset also allows for the creation of art that caters to underrepresented viewpoints and experiences. It’s such a frustrating feeling knowing that the only way to sell those viewpoints is to sell them to people who view themselves as “elite.”

I love your Celeste comparison, since that sense of beating your head against a wall until you succeed matched the struggle of Celeste the character. And yet, they still built in options to make the core mechanics more forgiving or different for those that couldn’t get through. It might not be the intended experience, but it let so many more people enjoy the game.

I wish the fine arts had more customization settings…


No Man’s Sky is so good at allowing skills in one area to supplement a lack of skills in others. I couldn’t wrap my head around the already simplified economics and crafting systems in that game. It’s…kind of embarrassing. But my dumbass Quake brain figured out a physics exploit that launches you horizontally across the map at high speeds. I was able to drop onto high security planets and farm super valuable materials by outrunning every enemy.

I then sold those materials and just bought whatever I needed. I was able to use my spacial reasoning to avoid all the scary crafting and grinding trees.

Damn, I want to play No Man’s Sky now.


I’ve been running into more and more games that describe their difficulty settings in terms of “familiarity with this type of game.” I think that’s a pretty good start, honestly.


This is something I think a lot about in RPGs, too. “Grinding” can serve as a really nice dual-purpose mechanic. If the game starts to get too hard, you can grind to make the enemies easier. And, grinding also gives you an incentive to practice fighting against lower-level enemies in a safe area!

I think this type of gameplay is really hard to get right. In a game with a lot of overlapping mechanics, a lot of players will just choose whichever strategy is the easiest, fastest, safest, or most efficient. But if that strategy isn’t very fun, it can feel frustrating, like the game is pushing you into a playstyle that you don’t enjoy.


It absolutely does suck when it saps the fun out of the game. The speed jumping in No Man’s Sky actually increased the fun. It added an entire new tactical layer to the game because if you did it without watching yourself, you could slam into a tree at 80mph and die. Also there’s when Rob Zacny made the sky rain mechs…