In short, get good

Games that frustrate you aren't necessarily bad games

An artwork of an armour-clad boss from the game Dark Souls wielding an axe Artwork by Joe Verity

There it was: the fog wall. The tall, hazy barrier indicated that I was about to face another great test of skill and patience. Passing through the mist that separated me from an ominous arena, a lone figure peered at me from afar: Pontiff Sulyvahn. A woman’s voice echoed in the cathedral, emphasising the loneliness of the situation — the Pontiff and me, and nobody else to interfere.

The Pontiff, through his enigmatic helmet, lunged forward for the preemptive strike. Soon, I would realise that he was a challenge like nothing I’d ever faced before. Ignited dual blades catching my most minor of errors, I mashed my controller in frustration, and realised that — despite the punishment I would face many times over — the Pontiff meant serious business.

Whilst video games like these might not be to the taste of every video game enthusiast, games like Dark Souls III rekindle a long lost ember burning within every person’s heart — a yearning desire to achieve the impossible, and bask in the feeling of accomplishment that comes with it. However, this development didn’t happen overnight — it has a history that spans all the way back to the origin of take-home video games in the eighties and nineties.

The birth of take-home video gaming occurred during the time of take-home computers. A significant consequence of this was that video game developers were constrained by the storage capacity of cartridges, and making a simple, easy video game that could be completed in one sitting just wouldn’t be a financially viable experience for a customer. As a result, games were often deliberately designed to display a few “game over” screens for even the best players, and many games had single-hit death mechanics that stretched out the playability of a game that was only kilobytes large on cartridge.

However, many newer releases like Risk of Rain and Cuphead have continued this trend of making games very difficult, and it’s because there is a certain appeal in facing a formidable challenge. Risk of Rain puts the player into a platform shooter that gets progressively harder the longer the player takes to get to the final level, but also rewards the player the longer they play with stronger items and powers. However, throughout the whole game, there exists the possibility of being defeated in one hit. To be able to succeed in a challenge that you’ve failed at countless times before, even in a video game, is a rewarding feeling that is one of the primary sources of appeal in difficult video games.

As computing power began to grow, developers were able to stretch out video games in more immersive ways, including better worlds to explore or more captivating storylines. However, the games that have aged the best are those which have retained the use of difficulty as a way to engage players, despite difficulty outliving its original purpose. A fine example of a game that has catered to both the casual player and the difficulty enthusiast is indie platformer A Hat in Time. The game, which introduced a series of extremely hard side-missions, had had an option to make the missions easier to complete for the player who didn’t feel the need to “prove themselves” to anybody. While developers continue to blend rich, rewarding experiences via explorative gameplay with profound accomplishment by skill or strategy, the needs of the casual player and the enthusiast are continually met at the same time in increasingly synchronous harmony.

The Pontiff meant serious business, and I wasn’t backing down from a challenge. Passing the fog wall again, and… well, probably another ten times, I braved the steely cold eyes of the Pontiff: with every single encounter, I learned his fighting style, and eventually, I was met with a fearsome victory — I had done it!

The Pontiff had been slain, and I stood over his body, inheriting his fallen power. Feeling overcome with satisfaction, I came across an odd message, etched on the ground while leaving the battle arena:

Now the real fight begins.