Making Hard Games Is Easy

A couple of games I’ve played lately – specifically, Star Wars: Bounty Hunter and God’s Trigger – have had a problem where they didn’t increase in difficulty much after about their halfway point. The new game I’ve started picking at, Pumpkin Jack, is so far shaping up to have the same problem. Bounty Hunter released long before Dark Souls, but Pumpkin Jack and God’s Trigger both released long after, and I can’t help but wonder if the reason they hit their difficulty peak so quickly is because of the idea the Dark Souls games have instilled in a lot of gaming spaces that harder games are automatically better, that they have to get hard early on because if they don’t get particularly difficult until the final quarter of the game, that makes their game worse than if it was hard by the end of the first quarter, or even from the very first level.

But making hard games is easy. A lot of total conversion mods are simultaneously much harder and much more poorly crafted than the originals. A lot of Mount and Blade mods which tackle other time periods, for example, are interminably dull because they’re slavishly devoted to historical accuracy, which leads to a massive explosion of villages and factions to the point where low-level delivery quests break down because the destination is potentially so far across the massively expanded map that it can’t be reached in time even if you make an immediate beeline and taking over the map takes five times as long as the base game while the (historically accurate) similarity between the factions means the game has half the variety to go around. Tournaments are often removed for being unrealistic, and sometimes the recruiting system is overhauled into something that makes it much, much harder to recover from losing your army in battle. Curiously, this fetishization for historical accuracy doesn’t seem to extend to casualty rates, which are still sufficiently grim that you can lose half your army in one victorious engagement.

Mount and Blade mods arrive here through an obsession with historical accuracy rather than being directly obsessed with difficulty, but nevertheless they make the game both harder and less fun, because they are made by less skilled developers. And I don’t hold anything against those mod creators. I use them to make the point that creating a hard game is easy not because I expect them to do better – they gave me their mods for free, so if I have so much as thirty minutes of fun with it before getting bored, they’ve done me a solid – but because it makes it really clear how inexperience and lack of polish are the root of the difficulty. Making the game hard is easier than making it easy.

And God’s Trigger would certainly have been improved if most of its levels were easier. It’s a pulp comic book visual spectacle, and making its earlier levels easier would’ve both served the spectacle better while also giving it room to escalate its difficulty in the later levels. Because its actual difficulty is quite flat from start to finish, its effective difficulty actually goes down over time. Once you get the hang of the Pestilence levels in chapter 1, that’s basically it, the game will never be noticeably harder, and as you get used to it, it will even come across as easier. The game gives you grades on the levels based on time taken, deaths, and maximum combo, and in games with a functioning difficulty curve, these kinds of grades should descend over the course of my first playthrough. Instead, my grades are pretty flat (I usually got a B), and the biggest exception was boss fights, where I consistently did poorly. I’m not sure if they’re broadly more difficult or I’m just bad at them. Certainly the nature of a fight against one enemy who already knows where you are means it’s much more based on twitch reflexes and memorizing attack patterns and much less based on figuring out a plan of attack that ideally uses some combination of surprise, powerful ammunition, and special powers to kill tricky enemies before they know I’m there and then mop up the rest with regular attacks.

I was as likely to get a B on the chapter 1 non-boss levels as on chapter 5, though, and particularly for a game with this kind of scoring system, it would’ve been better off with an easier opening so that the harder later levels would’ve been an escalation, especially since chapter 5’s time-slowing fields are already pretty much the only new idea the game has to throw at you once you’ve beaten chapter 1. Chapters 2-4 have a handful of new weapons, but they can’t even make much use of them because you can pick up weapons your enemies drop, so if there’s a ton of baddies with SMGs, that actually makes the game easier, because now you have an SMG pretty much all the time. They totally should’ve done it anyway, though. Drop the obsession with difficulty, let chapter 4 be relatively easy because it’s full of soldiers with automatic weapons that carry 30 rounds and tactical shotguns that hold up to 8 shells. It’d be easier, but it’d also be fun.

And it’d be easy to make a scoring system that gives more points for some weapons as opposed to others (the easiest way would be to take points off for firing a bullet that doesn’t hit anything – shotgun blasts are basically guaranteed to have several missed shots and the only way to get a good score with an automatic weapon would be to fire it one shot at a time like it was a semi-auto), and add that to the grading system, so people trying to master the game will want to rely on semi-auto weapons and melee attacks.

I haven’t finished Pumpkin Jack yet (it looks like it’s only six levels, though, so I probably will soon), but so far it has the same problem. I’m guessing it hearkens less to Dark Souls and more to MediEvil for its difficulty, but it still has the problem of being a visually striking game that could’ve and should’ve sold itself on that alone, but which makes itself very hard for basically no reason except this delusion that being harder is automatically better. But Dark Souls isn’t hard just because. It’s hard because that fits its theme and atmosphere. Plus, it’s hard because of clever level and enemy design, not just because it narrows the time window on twitch-based reflex challenges to a quarter of a second. In fact, the combat of the Dark Souls games themselves (but not Sekiro or Bloodborne) is actually quite slow and lumbering, with a lot of its difficulty coming not from how fast you have to put inputs in, but the fact that you can’t cancel an animation once it’s started. You’ll know you’ve fucked up long before the attack lands, but be helpless to cancel your last, greedy attack and dodge the counter.

From my understanding of MediEvil, it actually is hard just because, but it also would’ve benefited from being easier.

Anyway, we’ll see whether Pumpkin Jack has enough gameplay polish to justify its difficulty deeper in. Its combat has been pretty good at that so far, but its platforming has not, so my concern is that it might have too much platforming and not enough combat.

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