Friday, 10 November 2017

The Difficult(y) Question

Picture related if your brain works like mine does
So, recent events have once again brought the concept of 'difficulty' to my mind, and I think I've finally nailed down my thoughts about it. We Shall See.

I'm a big fan of the Dark Souls games, or more broadly, the 'souls genre' which also includes Demon's Souls and Bloodborne. A complaint that is often levelled against the series is that it's 'too hard' or should include a lower difficulty setting for those who can't handle it. If this call is resisted, people often bring up the fact that no other form of entertainment prevents you from getting to the next bit until you've mastered the current bit- to paraphrase Dara O'Brien, if you want to finish reading Lord of the Rings you don't have to personally defeat the Balrog.

The thing is, though, that if you think about it this 'fact' isn't actually a fact at all. The thing stopping most people from finishing 'War and Peace', for example, is the (approximate) 1,225 pages of 'War and Peace' you have to read to do it. A few years ago, inspired by the Dynasty Warriors series of games, I read 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms', one of the seminal works of Chinese literature* that underpins a lot of their modern culture. I finished it, and enjoyed it for the most part, but it was hard going in places and I nearly gave up. There are plenty of other literary examples, like James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (written in an almost impenetrable stream-of-consciousness) or Georges Perec's 'A Void' (an originally French novel written entirely without the use of the letter 'e') which many people find it very hard to get to the end of without page-flipping there. We might think of, say, Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling as 'easy' authors and Tolstoy or Mervyn Peake as 'hard' ones.

Music is just the same. As I was writing this I had the Mastodon album 'Blood Mountain' on, which I still find too damn weird to actually listen to without doing something else at the same time. Most people who get into any genre of music other than the blandest pop or lounge crooning start with the easy stuff and then graduate to the more complicated and challenging artists- maybe Andew W.K, Halestorm or Linkin Park got you into rock and metal, and then you moved on to Nine Inch Nails or Slipknot. Back in the days when record shops were still a big thing, most stores had a section marked 'Easy Listening' for a reason.

Now, here's what all this has in common. The perceived 'difficulty' of this material is an intrinsic and vital part of what makes it good. Not- and this is important to recognise- necessarily better than the 'easy' stuff, but critical to how it does what it does. If the word-play and wit of a Jane Austen novel isn't capturing you by page 20 (sorry Jane, this includes me though I loved you in Saint's Row) then there's no point skipping to page 200, it's just going to get worse. If the Undead Burgh keeps killing you and you aren't enjoying the process of figuring out what you did wrong and trying again, then making that bit easier is just going to push the moment you get frustrated and give up on the game a little further away- possibly meaning you miss out on the chance to return it.

A game, be it playground, sporting, card, tabletop or console, is a series of linked challenges each of which leads to the next, just as a book is a linked series of words and a song a linked series of notes. For some, those transitions will feel natural and right, to others they'll be jarring, dissonant and uncomfortable. That's fine, and implies no fault on the part of either party, but just like most readers will accept that certain books just weren't written for them and most people understand that a lot of music is really, really aimed at someone else, so it is with games. The thing presenting the challenge doesn't have to change- the consumer has the option to try to rise to the challenge, or move on to something less tricky. Both options are fine.

*I read it in English, of course. I was interested, but not that interested.

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