Games

Predictable Difficulty is Fun Difficulty

A level doesn’t change. It's predictable, so it's easier to gauge how my skills and knowledge have grown.

I’ve come to believe that when it comes to gaming, “difficulty” comes in two forms. The difficulty can stem from the design of a level or from the opponents that we face within that level. Personally, I much prefer to play a game where the difficulty stems from the design of the level as opposed to the enemies that occupy it. It has to do with a perceived sense of fairness. The level doesn’t change. Therefore, any failure would naturally be my fault, but in a game in which the difficulty stems from the enemies themselves, my failure can come from any number of random elements inherent in combat. One form of difficulty is predictable, the other is not.

Guacamelee encapsulates this dichotomy. It’s a 2D Metroidvania game that evokes both types of difficulty and the stark contrast between them.

The platforming sections are great. They’re hard, but they are difficult due to the inanimate obstacles that define them. These enemies as "objects" don’t attack, don’t move. They just sit in place, and I can imagine them laughing at me as I throw Juan the Luchador into their spiky maws over and over and over again. The key fact that makes this appealing rather than frustrating is that I know there’s a way through or past this obstacle. There’s some combination of dash moves, executed at just the right moments, that will get me through the spikes and over the pits, landing me right next to the treasure on the other side. If I fail, I’m usually transported right back to the initial ledge. The lack of punishment for dying encourages me to keep experimenting until I find that perfect combination. It may take a while, but I never feel dejected because every failure is a teachable moment. Dash instead of jump, then dash a little sooner, then uppercut after the dash. Scratch all that. Start with a wall jump…

I think there’s a popular desire for this type of difficulty in games. That’s why notoriously tough games like Super Meat Boy, Trials: Evolution, and Dark Souls have become mainstream successes. It’s always obvious what we have to do in a general sense -- get to other side-- and it's always obvious how we get there -- don’t die on your way over there -- so it’s really just a matter of whether we have the skill and knowledge to execute that obvious plan. Since the obstacles don’t change, we always know the relative difficulty of the thing standing in our way, and it becomes easy to gauge how much our skills grow with each attempt.

The combat in Guacamelee is frustrating. Even though Juan can plow through enemies using the right moves at the right time, like the platforming, there’s a split-second delay after your attacks that makes Juan feel slow. It’s this perception of weakness that makes the combat frustrating. The more that I play, the better I get, but my actual skill doesn’t alleviate my annoyance because my actual skill doesn’t affect my perception of weakness.

This seems like an inevitable problem when the difficulty of a game stems from something unpredictable. This particular annoyance, the animation speed of a character, is unique to Guacamelee, but the issue of one’s perception of a weak ability is not.

I’ve steadily stopped playing online shooters. At some point, it just seems futile. Everyone seems to be a better shot than me, everyone seems to take more damage than I do, everyone seems to have better equipment than me. None of that is actually true, but it feels true. My perception of skill doesn’t match my actual skill, since the difficulty in an online shooter is so unpredictable. I don’t know what I’m up against at any given moment. I have no barometer with which to measure my own skill other than a set of rankings at the end of a match, but those scores are vague at best. Am I really a better player than the person below me or was he just having an off day or was he distracted or did he join the game late? There are too many variables.

If I’m going to play something hard, I’ll probably die a lot, and if I’m going to die a lot, I’d at least like to know why I’m dying. It helps when the thing that’s killing you is entirely predictable because that makes it easier to experiment with and easier to understand the results of said experiment. An inanimate level can’t be a better gamer than me, so if I can’t beat it, I’m clearly doing something wrong. I just have to figure out what that something is.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

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19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

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17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

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