Predictable Difficulty is Fun Difficulty

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.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.