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It should come as no surprise to anyone who lived through the arcade era that video games can be brutal. In the documentary King of Kong, Donkey Kong high-score champion, Billy Mitchell, claims that “The average Donkey Kong game doesn’t last a minute. It’s absolute brutality.”


This level of brutality, of course, is economically motivated. One of the driving forces behind video game difficulty in the early days of the medium was related to the coin-op business model of the arcade. The greater the failure of the player, the greater the financial reward of the machine’s owner. More ‘deaths’ meant more quarters per hour to the arcade’s proprietor.


Of course, considering this phenomenon by contrast to the modern state of game difficulty suggests a rather noticeable difference in our understanding of an acceptable difficulty curve. Barring the cult status of rogue-likes, such as Dark Souls (2011) or The Binding of Isaac (2011), most games are rather gentle in their overall approach to the player’s feelings these days.


Talk to a retro gamer and that individual will sneer at the ease of modern console games. The arcade, it would seem, used to require an uphill walk that went on for miles (both to and from), and of course, through six feet of snow.


Such sneering is not without warrant, though. With the business model changed and money made on games up front, the need for constant monetary collection via the difficulty of play became an inessential component of getting dollars via gaming. Continued revenue for a game now means selling downloadable content, not frustration and tears. 


Indeed, some gamers are especially interested in the satisfaction of “beating the game” that they purchased. That is often now how a buyer can determine whether they got enough bang for their buck (okay, bucks), and an inability to fully experience the whole of the game is considered an unfair expense. I wouldn’t buy a novel missing the last chapter or a film that was missing the last 30 minutes or so, after all. Why would I want to play a game that I am incapable of “finishing”?


This economic analysis of game difficulty, though, doesn’t consider the social and psychological components of the changes that have been made in game difficulty. A recent playthrough of the original X-Com (1993) got me thinking a bit about how this financial incentive for making games more or less difficult and more or less accessible for players has created an odd history of game difficulty in the medium and how such shifts have conditioned certain attitudes about how and what we play and whether those experiences require acceptable levels of pain, leaving enough room to still feel pleasure in them.


The late ‘80s and the early ‘90s were an interesting time in gaming history, as the arcade game was on its way out and the gaming console had nearly solidified its ubiquity in the American home. While who is perceived to be the hardest of the hardcore gaming set were the ones playing a turn-based strategy game, like X-Com, on the PC, offerings on Nintendo consoles were still considerably more difficult experiences than most modern games are. The original release of Mega Man (1987) on the NES, for instance, could only be beaten with the use of a limited amount of continues.  Mastering the game required players to really learn through trial-and-error how various powers interacted with one another and to plot a strategic course through the game’s boss levels, as earning some powers from beaten bosses made later bosses easier to defeat. However, you had to learn the sequence, especially if you were to beat the final stage in which all of the bosses would be fought again in a new sequence and with no breaks in between that might refill Mega Man’s life bar.


My experience with X-Com reminded me of such moments, as a game that spells out little to the player in terms of how to go about strategizing your development of an entire global organization dedicated to protecting the planet from alien invasion, nor does the game provide much in the way of a tutorial for the tactical-based combat required for fighting the alien host on the ground. Often seriously outgunned and seriously outclassed by your opposition in the earliest encounters in the game, competent play is very much a matter of shedding a lot of blood, sweat, and tears until you understand how to reasonably approach a very basic combat situation.


For example, in just my second battle with invaders from outer space in X-Com and in the second turn of the battle (following the first turn in which all I had accomplished was merely moving my ten man squad off an airplane onto the streets of a town overrun by aliens), eight of my soldiers were killed in a single grenade blast. Worse still, five of those eight were characters that I had managed to level up following my first encounter with aliens, in which half of my squad was sacrificed to defeat the crew of a small flying saucer. Oh, and did I mention that when characters die in X-Com that they are dead? That means they can not be revived, dead.


My options at this point? Fight on, probably losing the mission, and rebuild a new rookie squad at my base later, having lost a considerable financial investment in soldiers, equipment, and vehicles. Reload a recent save point. Start the whole game over again.


My decision? I started the whole game over, realizing that a decision to research one line of technology at the game’s start was probably going to have a negative impact on both long term and short term play. Better to build on a smarterinitial strategy in the game than to even go the route of the recent saved game. After all, I could probably replay the scenario with my five leveled up guys intact once again (through the magic of a save system), but they were probably already far too underequipped to avoid the same fate again and again and again. Replaying the first hour or two of the game seemed reasonable when considering the lack of success I might have in the hours and hours to come.


X-Com and Mega Man are not the only games from this era that make replay and learning to play extremely proficiently requisite to experiencing all of their content. Maniac Mansion (1987) is an adventure game in which you can get stuck and be unable to complete the game at all because you missed certain events required to progress the plot. And the game doesn’t even tell you that you lost, for pity’s sake! Seriously, you can continue to wander the game endlessly, not knowing that there is no path forward any longer. It doesn’t even hint at a game over. You’ll figure that out through sheer frustration eventually, I guess.


Why did we play these games?!?


What I find interesting about these games’ appearances at this time is the cusp that I alluded to earlier between the end of the arcade era and the beginning of the console era. Also, as I somewhat alluded to before, the experience of the arcade and its brutal and financially-motivated mode of difficulty had conditioned players to expect acceptable levels of pain in games. Failure was inevitable and wringing more value out of your quarter required intense practice of a particular machine’s challenges. If you wanted to play, you had to pay, investing more quarters to eventually wring more than a minutes worth of play out of a game.


Design for games intended to be played in the home seemed to assume that players expected and could accept pain and failure as a quality of play. Despite the fact that game difficulty could have been eased up on, still countless matches with Bald Bull were required to get the timing down well enough to defeat him and finally move on to the next challenger in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (1987). As a matter of fact, there may have been some sense of expectation on the developers’ parts that assumed that such pain and failure were a requisite part of the pleasure of play. Gamers had been conditioned to expect to try, try, again. Maybe try, try again is part of play?


It’s a common assertion that Japanese games are generally more difficult than American games. The Ninja Gaiden series is legendary for its difficulty, for example. It requires an intense amount of physical dexterity and patience, as I and my nearly smashed television screen can attest to. And Final Fantasy games may not be hard per se, but they do require an intense commitment to grinding and strategizing properly built and equipped characters to defeat their most intense secret bosses. When a game like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta rates your performance at the end of each level and getting any score higher than the lowest grade seems miraculous, you know that the game is intense. More power to you folks that have scored an “SSS”. My will is too weak and my time too precious to ever hope for better than a simple “D”. I got through it, okay?


One consideration as to why the Japanese gamer cries out for greater challenge than the American gamer may be linked to that culture’s seeming emphasis on personal performance and the importance of demonstrating a high degree of aptitude in order to receive even an average score (or a really, really high aptitude to, say, go to a university). Encouraging intense competition in real life leads to expectations, perhaps, that exceptional success and pleasure are derived from exceptionally difficult and challenging experiences. Pleasure and success is derived from acceptable levels of pain.


Indeed, contemporary games like Dark Souls, who American players have met either with high degrees of praise for their consequential difficulty or have rejected as too punishingly difficult, often hail from Japan. There are, of course, other brutally difficult American games that have met with similarly divided responses, like Edmund McMillen’s Super Meat Boy or The Binding of Isaac. However, McMillen’s love of ‘80s retro video game aesthetics and his birth date in 1980 may explain a lot in this regard. McMillen was a child in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, living through the cusp of the arcade’s demise and the rise in popularity of the console game. If I’m right that that is an era in which difficulty is driven by the conditioning of players to an acceptable level of pain, his oeuvre may make an enormous amount of sense. McMillen was weaned on games that assume that pain is all a part of appreciating play—or at least that that pain must be accepted in order to play.


Little video game marketing advertises the challenge or frustration that a game might offer these days. Dark Souls advertisements taunt us with the phrase, “Prepare to Die” (and, honestly, that is not false advertising), but I imagine that the developer and publisher offering such a game recognizes that this challenge to the player speaks to a far narrower audience than it once might have.  The new economics of games needs to get you to plunk down another $60 for a sequel, not another measly quarter for one more play. Thus, gaming’s current emphasis (which has moved away from an interest in complicated systems and high levels of challenge) has moved us instead towards appreciating the pleasures of experiencing narrative resolution, spectacle, and the feeling of occupying game worlds. The higher premium for the game requires a game that you will want to love and take home with you, not something that makes you cry in your living room, more often than not conditioning us towards seeking only pleasure and not expecting any appreciable and acceptable level of pain.

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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