A game’s difficulty  is a very interesting thing.  Sometimes it defines a game, and sometimes it destroys a game. In some cases, people  hail it as the thing that makes a game a hit, while other games live in infamy thanks to just how difficult they are. Difficulty is certainly a subjective measure, and certain people are going to find different thing more difficult than others, but when the majority of a community holds one opinion, It’s probably a fairly good measure of a games difficulty.

So what happens when a game, or part of a game is so mind-numbingly, pants-dirtyingly hard?

Video Games

Madness? MADNESS?!?!

The idea for this particular column came up thanks to Guild Wars 2’s Halloween release, titled “The Shadow of the Mad King” as part of the event’s second phase,  a large and imposing jumping puzzle was made available for the legion of masochists that wanted to attempt to conquer it. The puzzle is beautiful, taking place on the swirling wreckage of a bizarre, twisted clock tower  The brave, and slightly insane, adventurers must not only make the series of difficult jumps onto gears, beams and boards, but must also do it fast. REALLY fast.

You see, if a spooky platforming test wasn’t enough, there is a terrifying bank of poisonous,  acidic fog moving up the tower. Lag behind? You’re dead. Miss a Step? You’re dead. Act 2 of “ The Shadow of the Mad King” launched at around 3 pm EST on Friday, and  by  around 4:30 pm there was already  a  Official Clock Tower Jumping Puzzle Rage Post on the Guild War 2 Reddit (shortly followed, hilariously, by the Official Clock Tower Jumping Puzzle Appreciation Post). Full of numerous less than savory comments and more than a few choice

Use RAGE!!! (it’s not very effective)

words directed at the view blocking Norn and Charr.

The game’s official forums are no better than Reddit. From the very angry 4hrs wasted — giving up on clock tower “puzzle”, the rather polite “In my view, Clock Tower is not fun”, to the even more angry posts, there is clearly  some strong opinions being voiced about the difficulty of this puzzle, and while there are just quite a few threads that voice other player’s love of the challenge that the Clock Tower Jumping Puzzle presents, even those thread actively admit that the thing is difficult.

When I arrived home on Friday evening, I sat down, cracked a Samuel Adam Pumpkin Ale (Delicious!), and readied myself for some Halloween themed fun. This was about 7 or 8 in the evening, and I was in high spirits, being a big fan of all things related to Mad King Thorn.  Shortly, I followed the Lunatic Boatman to the base of the Clock Tower and started my first attempt. I didn’t complete that damn puzzle until at least 11:30 at night.  I’ve seen reports that others were at for up to 7 hours , and while I felt a great sense of accomplishment form finishing the puzzle, others have felt frustration.

Guild Wars 2 isn’t even close to the only game that is known to be hard to the point where it will drive you two insanity. The other title that immediately jumps into my mind when thinking about this is Demons  Soul. Released in 2009, Demons Soul got itself a reputation very quickly.

Before I continue, talking about what others have said about game difficulty and such, I do have to make a note. I have never played Demon’s Soul, nor its successor Dark Souls. Frankly, I was too terrified.  Everything I heard about Demon’s Soul in all the press stories and reviews painted a picture of a game that I would never have been able to put down.  Dale North’s ‘non-review’ puts this better than I likely could have;

It’s not that Demon’s Souls is a bad game. Actually, it’s a very good game, and one that I’d recommend to gamers that like a stiff challenge. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience at times, too. This is the type of game where patience and a mind for strategy are more important than reflexes. But it’s also the type of game that is so difficult that you’ll sometimes have to put the controller down and step outside for some fresh air. It’s been awhile since I’ve played a “controller breaker.” Demon’s Souls is definitely a controller breaker.   (Read more at http://www.destructoid.com/non-review-why-i-couldn-t-finish-demon-s-souls-151008.phtml#az3pRaPLrvWLJqRF.99)

The Mad King’s Clocktower was the first Control Breaker I’ve ever encountered in an MMO, and it was shocking enough that I responded not how I should have, but with the typical MMO mindset: Grind. I put my head down and plowed through 3-4 hours of failure. This is the same effect that Demons Soul would have had on me, I’m sure. It was effective, but I didn’t really enjoy the experience, or appreciate the scenery of the event until I ran it a second time. (Yes, I did run it a second time… I know…). But that’s enough GW2, back to Demon’s Soul

Dark Souls

Oh crap….This isn’t going to be easy…

Demon’s Soul, and its successor Dark Souls embraced the idea of creating a Control Breaker (though I still think they may be working for the God of Madness), and this had a definite effect on the gamers that played the game.  The internet outcry over those first weeks was, of course large. Large enough to raise some outcry from people like William Harrison, who in an article titled “Dark Souls isn’t hard, gamers are just stupid and impatient”,  critiques the internet community for not rising to the challenge. Harrison touches on something  that I think is particularly interesting. He claims that the gamer reaction to difficulty, typically of claiming that the game is too hard and, more or less, pouting, is not necessarily entirely the gamer’s fault. He claims that it may be partially the fault of the industry and game designers.

Who thought this was fun?

If someone does something easy over and over again, and when something even moderately difficult comes along, it may be a shock to the system.  Demons Soul, Dark Soul, and now the Mad King’s Clocktower are all part of that system-shocking family.  They challenge gamers with something more difficult than they are use to.  Being challenging isn’t something new. In the good ole days of gaming, games weren’t just hard. They were cruel. Lacking Save points, the necessity of pinpoint accuracy, murderous monsters. Don’t think for a minute that I’m going all sentimental and wearing some retro rose-colored glasses. I don’t think for a second that this was the right way to go. Games shouldn’t always incite rage and stress. They should be fun, not frustrating. But just because something is a challenge doesn’t mean it can’t be a source of entertainment.

So, how do we react to these kinds of games in the modern era? Well, undoubtedly we’ll react in many ways.  Some of us will take these challenges better than others, but that doesn’t matter. It isn’t about how long you can hold out against a impossibly difficult challenge, or how many rounds you can go in that crazy deathmatch of doom. It’s about pose. It’s about not loosing your cool.

Give it a few tries. Rest for a while. Try it again. That didn’t work? Well, try again. Slow and steady wins the race.

So take a deep breath. Take a stretch. Challenges are not something to stop you in your path. They are something to overcome  So consider this you pep talk. If you are playing Guild wars 2 and haven’t finished that puzzle, get back to it! Give it another shot, and don’t give up.