January 23, 2022

Cheap or Challenge; The Difficulty of Difficulty.

Seems the devs behind Amy are saying people dislike the game because it is hard.

Games, as we know them, may be somewhat easier than in the past – this is true, but what is also true is that games made for general consumption today have a totally different purpose to those of the 90s, where a good many games began their lives in the arcades.

Arcade games – or games made with an arcade edge; by this I mean the likes of Golden Axe, Mortal Kombat, Strider, Double Dragon and many others, weren’t designed – or weren’t interested – in fairness. An arcade machine was interested in one thing and one thing only – your money, all your 20p and 50p pieces (or regional equivalents). And to constantly drag that money out of your pocket, the games posed often brutal, unfair, unreasonable challenges – cheap, sharp mechanics designed to kill you, and force you to pump more coins into the slot.

This is often more notable these days in fighting games – SoulCalibur 4 and Tekken 6 are prize examples of arcade AI – ramping up the difficulty often to such an extreme the games employ every cheap and dirty tactic in the book to brutally punish you for your insolence. In these cases, this isn’t bad for those who take the gaming thing as a career move – because learning from a super-cheap AI means they can better prepare themselves for tackling real players in a competitive scenario; the goal is to win, by whatever means necessary, and that sometimes means a creative and imaginative use of game mechanics to see victory.

For the rest of us, we play games for fun – and arcade difficulties are rarely fun. It’s true that a challenge, and a sensible and logical deduction of surroundings and game mechanics can make for an incredibly thrilling experience. But there are certain things that many of us can’t and won’t tolerate.

Instant death is one of those mechanics that isn’t always fun, especially if there is no inherent clue beforehand that such tactics are being employed. World of Warcraft is one of the most guilty parties in this of recent years; and players circumvented this for a long time with a mod, DeadlyBossMods. Many were not interested in surprise instadeath mechanics; so the mod provided warnings and notifications when such moves were being executed.

It has arguably led to a more refined style of raiding within the game; where Blizzard themselves had to take note and make official mechanics and notifications that allowed players to control the situation. Sure, there are still cheap and joyless fights for the uninitiated – Ultraxxion is a fight based wholly around a regular, timed instadeath mechanic, and those who are still learning to raid are often surprised at how lethal it is to not abide by the strict confines of the fight mechanics. But by and large, World of Warcraft is easing down on these mechanics – providing choice, options and intelligent designs that aren’t always meant to be done in a fixed manner.

But the goal of these mechanics is still the same for Blizzard as the old arcade style mechanics – an artificially high challenge, to keep you plugging away for weeks or months at a time, so they can continue to take your subscription fee.

Some smaller and cheaper games also make the choice to use artificially difficult mechanics in which to give their games a sense of depth and length that it wouldn’t otherwise be afforded – Amy is a game that sits comfortably in this arena.

There is nothing inherently bad about instadeath mechanics, or a creeping infection that requires constant treatment, or feeding a character over time so they don’t become weak and unable to function, or even AI that is designed to put up some resistance. However, this comes with a proviso – a caveat.

That is; to make solutions obvious. And use obvious solutions.

If there is a patrolling monster, on a set path, and it is nearly impossible to get by through stealth or combat, there should be an obvious workaround. Look around. Is there somewhere to hide along the way? Is there something overhead that could be cut down to either change the patrol path of the monster, or be dropped ruthlessly on its head so that it no longer bothers you again?

This sort of design is intelligent; and offsets the often brutal and cheap instadeath mechanic with a solution that often makes you slap your forehead and mutter; “How could I have missed that?”

And for those who prefer the challenge, making the escape timer tight but manageable also leads to a sense of relief and achievement.

Amy often gets this wrong; but at times gets it right. Easy games have to be enjoyable and whimsical and charming, but Amy is a horror game and horror games are not known for any of those things; so the design was a decidedly old-school, late-90s approach.

In layman’s terms, this is often referred to as “Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen!”.

Sometimes easy games aren’t fulfilling – for many gamers, we live for a challenge, for something that eats our time like smarties. But by token, we want our challenge to be offset by intelligence; something that is more brain than brawn.

The industry still struggles to balance this – for every Assassin’s Creed, there’s a Dark Souls, and for every Amy, there’s a Resident Evil. The likes of Virtua Fighter and SoulCalibur are offset with games like Dead or Alive and Street Fighter – games that are easier to get into.

And we continue to look for challenges – challenges are fun, we like to be taxed and forced to use reflexes, wit and intelligence. It makes us feel good – rewarded for ingenuity, creativity, observation when so often it is how the game intends for us to play it. Good checkpointing systems and frequent save points also help alleviate the cheaper ideas; make them manageable and more a bump in the road, rather than a ten-foot wall to scale.

And games like Amy, which are hard because they’re intended to be hard and use a healthy amount of cheap game mechanics, become unpopular. People don’t like trial and error anymore; they don’t want to retread the same mission or same segment of the map time and time again.

I still say Amy is better than most give it credit for; as a survival horror game, yes. It is terribly old-fashioned and yes, it’s not exactly the best designed thing in the world. But some people still enjoy this; they like the challenge, even when it borders on cheap.

The difficulty in this is – you can’t please everybody. And with the games industry expanding exponentially, there are more and more people who aren’t interested in a challenge, but enjoyment. They want to have fun, not be taxed.

Amy is a game that is likely aimed at a small, incredibly niche segment of the market. People like me who remember survival horror games of old – Forbidden Siren, the original Silent Hill, the first Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark. These games were not above cheap game mechanics because it is so easy to rely on them; they provide, for little effort, a challenge.

The catch is that more and more people are becoming aware of how games are made, and have readily-available comparisons on hand to compare you to. Amy is certainly no Silent Hill: Homecoming, which in itself is no Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly. As gamers wise up, so to must the industry – old fashioned tricks must be reworked, redesigned and re-imagined in a world that continues to march forward and innovate, challenge and sate our thirst for the violent, the brooding and the entertaining.

Using them as-is is far too obvious, and far too noticeable in this day and age. Colour-coded keycards were the cutting edge of design when Doom hit the market, but these days we expect a little more from it than simply finding the right keycard for the right door.

The difficulty posed for many who want to pose a challenge is simply that the market is older and wiser. Some tricks are now overdone; we can see through them and there is no way back on that front. The challenge for the industry is to reinvent them, or invent new and ever more interesting ways of providing a thrilling, exciting challenge than relying on traditional, safe methods of doing so.

Amy failed simply because it relied too heavily on the traditional, well-worn concepts. It doesn’t make it inherently bad; but it doesn’t make it good either.

The future will see us wheel out games like Dark Souls as examples of games built to offer a challenge; games which are cheap, but well-designed to offer methods and mechanics to subvert that often bitter aftertaste.

Games like Amy will only be wheeled out as examples of outdated, outmoded mechanics with which the industry needs to try and avoid at all costs.


I'm the big cheese here. Comment, subscribe, direct waves of hate at me - all the same. Just hope you've had some partial enjoyment here!

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