A new From Software game released last month, and with it came another round of predictably banal difficulty discourse. You don’t have to look too hard to find examples of people saying that any accessibility feature is an affront to artistic integrity or that any design decision they don’t like is an affront to accessibility. I don’t care about engaging with these arguments too much because I don’t think we should let these reductive hot takes control our ability to talk about difficulty in games, but I’ll mention my priors on this real quick just to let you know where I’m coming from: Accessibility and difficulty are not the same thing. Accessibility features are essential. Difficulty options that let players tune a game to their skill level are good. A game being challenging or obtuse by design or lacking quality-of-life features is valid and often very compelling. A person playing a game the “unintended” way by using mods or guides or “cheese tactics” is fine. And if you let things like the presence of options or the knowledge that somebody else played “the wrong way” ruin your experience of a game, you need to touch grass.
So, with that out of the way, let’s try to have an interesting conversation about difficulty in games and what it can achieve, because the release of Elden Ring got me thinking about another notoriously difficult game that does have pretty generous difficulty settings and yet somehow feels even more soul-crushing than pretty much any other difficult game I’ve played. But before we get to that game, we need to ask the question of why difficulty is important. What do so many people get out of difficult games, and why are they so precious about defending them? At the risk of being reductive, I think there are three main appeals of difficulty that often get brought up:
1. Difficulty requires the player to mentally engage with the game
Mental engagement brought about by difficulty can come in many different forms. It can be through strategy, reaction, observation, and/or pattern recognition. A game like Dark Souls includes all of these. You have to make decisions about your character build and how to approach a fight. Memorizing attack animations or when a certain attack is going to be used is helpful on repeated attempts. You need to react quickly to avoid attacks or adapt to anything unforeseen. And being a careful observer of your environment can help you find shortcuts, more powerful items, or alternative ways to approach a boss or circumvent it entirely. I don’t think I have to explain too much why being engaging is a good trait for a piece of media to have. Plenty of simple games can be fun, but walking into every enemy encounter and doing the same two button combo over and over without any thought or consideration can get boring very fast. Games that are built around combat as the main appeal often need a high level of variety and depth in order to maintain a player’s attention.
But in addition to optionality or depth, a game also needs to force or at least encourage engagement with that depth, which is why difficulty is important here. If a game has a lot of depth or a variety of options but simpler and easier options are highly effective, then a lot of people are just going to use those simple options. We often take the path of least resistance. And while there can be some joy in trying to do something really cool-looking or elaborate just because it’s fun to do, in my personal experience being mentally engaged because you can’t continue otherwise is always more satisfying. Doing something difficult as a small part of a larger goal adds an additional layer of accomplishment over doing something difficult for its own sake.
2. Difficulty can underscore and support the narrative or tonal elements of a game
A lot of games that are difficult take place in cruel worlds or are about one person trying to overcome tremendous obstacles. Dark Souls is uninviting to its players because the world of Dark Souls is uninviting to its inhabitants. The world is trapped in an endless cycle of apocalypse that has ravaged the land and killed most of its inhabitants while leaving those left alive to wallow in destitution. Only those who are unfathomably strong or gleefully immoral are able to thrive at all here, and even their thriving is often undercut and viewed as futile. These sorts of setups are common throughout videogames.
At their most basic, these narrative set ups exist to stroke the player’s ego and justify wanton violence. ‘The world is gone to hell, but you’re the one badass who’s badass enough to save it.’ At their best, they are the set up for a sort of tragic irony. ‘You’ve gone through all of this, fought tooth-and-nail, barely scrapped by, and it was all for naught. Who were you to think that one man could save the world from hell?’ While both of these narratives can use difficulty to enhance them, I would posit that the latter gains more from difficulty. As an example, let’s briefly take a look at two PlayStation 2 exclusives from 2005 about slaying large monsters.
God of War has a difficulty that is reliant entirely on reaction and memorization. It reinforces a sort of macho relationship with difficulty where the process of overcoming an obstacle that nobody else can is cool because it reinforces your own greatness and strength. You can get that feeling through playing the game on the hard mode and feeling good about your gamer skills, but you can also largely get it by bumping the game down to easy and basically just watching Kratos do these things. Shadow of the Colossus also has some level of traditional difficulty, but its monsters are puzzles first and reaction-time challenges second. Even if you gave yourself infinite grip and infinite health, you would still have to engage mentally because you’d need to make sure you were approaching the colossus in a way that actually allowed you to kill it. Ultimately, Shadow of the Colossus ends with Wander being cut down, mocked for even thinking that he was ever in charge. Sure, he was strong enough to slay the beasts, but barely. He stumbles when he rolls, and he flails around in the air when the colossi shake. He could barely fight the colossi. He was never going to stand a chance against the God he made a bargain with.
Personally, I find the narrative in Shadow of the Colossus to be a much more compelling one, and I think it’s interesting that that kind of narrative is more reliant on difficulty as a core component of its design. If the player never struggles in God of War, that’s fine because Kratos is a super-strong badass who in canon doesn’t struggle. Our struggles in playing the game are not his failures but our failures to play him correctly. If the player never struggles in Shadow of the Colossus, that undercuts the point a little bit because the character struggling is a part of the plot. And even if you’re someone like myself who has played Shadow of the Colossus countless times and knows every fight by heart, you still have to approach each one with a certain level of consideration. I don’t find the game to be “hard” per se, but it does force me to mentally engage with the mechanics in the ways that hard games do. When I play I still feel a level of mechanical tension that I think we can broadly call challenging. Mechanically driven games that aren’t power fantasies but are instead about people who struggle in the face of tremendous challenge often need that challenge to be mechanically represented in order to be effective (there are a fair number of exceptions to this idea, but those are a topic for another blog post).
3. Difficulty provides cathartic release and a sense of victory.
This is the most common appeal of difficulty in games. It feels good to do something hard. We feel a sense of accomplishment when we think about the progress we’ve made as players. It’s like climbing a mountain and then looking down and thinking “I was there, now I’m here”. Accomplishment is a simple feeling that we’re often chasing in everyday life. It’s no surprise that we’d chase it in videogames as well. In an interview in 2012, Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki described this as his main goal with the difficulty of the game, saying “I personally want my games to be described as satisfying rather than difficult. As a matter of fact, I am aiming at giving players a sense of accomplishment in the use of difficulty.”
And, interestingly enough, this is an aspect of difficulty that is think is largely absent from one notoriously difficult game, Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic 2.
Pathologic 2 easily fills the first two appeals of difficulty that I discussed. You are forced to engage with its mechanics. You have hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and infection meters that you need to monitor. There is an economy of resources that you need to manage. The clock is always ticking. Direct combat is often a death sentence. You even have to pay attention to the decisions you are making at a narrative level and consider what unforeseen consequences they could have. It’s by no means a game that allows you to turn off your brain and mash buttons. Pathologic 2 is also telling a grim story with an oppressive tone. You are a surgeon in a plague-ridden town on the Russian steppe who is desperately trying to fix an unfixable situation. The people and the environment are hostile to you. The town already existed in a largely untenable state, and now thousands are dying every night as bodies continue to pile up in the streets. It’s not a fun time, and the game uses difficulty to emphasize the in-world difficulty that the characters face.
But Pathologic 2 doesn’t give you the catharsis of victory because there is no victory to be had in the game. And I don’t just mean that it has an unvictorious ending. It does have this. Thousands of people die, and Artemy is forced into positions where there are no win-win choices to make. People suffer and every victory comes with a cost. But this is also true of plenty of other games, including the aforementioned Shadow of the Colossus. After Wander defeats the colossi and return to Dormin for the last time, his goal that he has been chasing is only achieved with the sort of irony befitting a Greek myth. He fails, and as observers we’re left to ponder the futility and arrogance of his destruction of his environment and the self-destruction it results in.
Where Pathologic 2 differs is with the fact that your mechanical goals as a player are also basically unachievable. Your three main goals in Pathologic 2 are to survive for 12 days, find a way to end the plague, and protect the lives of the townspeople along the way, primarily 25 named characters who you interact with and who are all liable to be stricken with the plague on any given night that their district is infected. By the end of the game, the plague will be over regardless of your actions. If you don’t find a cure, one of said 25 characters will find it instead, dying themselves in the process of doing so. The plot is always moved forward even if you don’t act, often with grave consequences for your inaction. And when taken in isolation, your own survival is often fairly trivial. If you never spend time being an actor in the plot or trying to save lives, you’re really not in any danger. The survival mechanics like managing food and health are not super difficult in-and-of themselves. They are difficult because they act as a roadblock to you completing your other goals. You are travelling across town to treat someone’s plague, but you get in a fight along the way and are almost out of health. Now, to ensure your own survival, you have to find a way to procure some bandages or a health kit. You find a shop, but you don’t have the money for the health kit. You scrounge for items to sell, but along the way you run out of food and your hunger meter is going down. So now you need both food and bandages and don’t have money for either and all of a sudden the day turns over to the next one because the clock never stopped ticking and that person you were delivering a cure to is now dead. Also, you failed to complete a time-sensitive quest that would have made it easier to save more lives in the days ahead.
Ultimately, what determines success or failure in Pathologic 2 is how well you do at saving those characters, and you will not save all of them. Even if you know all the games tricks and how to maximize their survivability, there are still elements of randomness at play that can never be entirely removed. There are people who have saved everyone because of course there are. But I would wager that this group is less than 1% of people who have finished the game, which is already a fraction of the amount of people who have played it. Those are outlier cases that in some way help prove how devastating the near-guaranteed failure in Pathologic 2 is. 25 is not an inconceivable number of characters. They are all memorable and well developed. Losing any one of them feels like a failure. It feels like you can save all of them (and you technically can), but the odds are stacked so hard against you that you are almost certainly going to fail.
I think it’s noteworthy that Pathologic 2 does actually have pretty significant difficulty modifiers. It has the dreaded sliders that are always such a hotly debated issue around From Software games. But these sliders are almost entirely focused on the game’s survival mechanics. There’s nothing to lower the number of infected areas or raise other characters’ chances of survival. There’s nothing to add more direct routes through the town, move important places closer together, or slow down the clock. There’s nothing to remove a narrative choice that can save one of your 25 characters but only if you’re willing to accept more mass death elsewhere. You can make the game much easier in the moment-to-moment and feel like a more competent survivalist, but you’re still going to inevitably feel failure when it comes to the game’s most significant measure of success.
And I use the word “you” intentionally here. “You” are not the protagonist of Pathologic 2. Artemy Burakh is. But the death of any of these characters is not solely the narrative failure of Artemy to protect them. It is also the mechanical failure of you as the player to achieve your primary goal. The goals of a player of a game are usually not the same as the goals of a game’s protagonist. To go back to Shadow of the Colossus, your goal as a player is to defeat the 16 colossi and complete the game. The goal of Wander is to be reunited with his deceased love. As the player you might feel empathy with Wander’s mission and be motivated to continue in order to help bring it to fruition, but you are not the one who is going to be reunited with Mono. And if you fail to defeat one of the colossi, the game reloads the fight and you try again. In Pathologic 2, saving the other characters is your goal as the player, and if you fail at that goal, the game continues on with one less character in it. Failure is not this stumbling block on the road to success. Failure is maintained and internalized as part of the experience of the game.
And this is devastating, because that sense of victory, that cathartic release, that “accomplishment” that Miyazaki talks about that makes the banging of your head against a Dark Souls boss for hours feel so worth it in the end is completely absent. There is no feeling of victory in Pathologic 2 either on a narrative level or a mechanical one. There is simply one of survival. We can leave a playthrough of Dark Souls or Shadow of the Colossus feeling conflicted or melancholic about the narrative but also satisfied in our recreation of it. In Pathologic 2, given the almost assured mechanical failure with permanent consequences that exists in every playthrough, we leave not simply feeling conflicted about the state of the town and the failures of the characters involved but also about our own failures to stop as many deaths as possible. It’s like a permadeth strategy game with way more emotional and thematic heft. Alternatively, you can argue that our ability to save the people we did leaves us with a sense of hope that even if saving everyone was a fool’s errand, it was still an errand that resolved in a lot of people still being alive and that was worth being a fool for. Personally I believe that Pathologic 2 embraces this absurdist philosophy of optimism in the face of failure that I find endlessly compelling. But regardless of how you interpret the various endings of Pathologic 2, it is an interpretation that is highly informed by the game’s difficulty and its unwillingness to provide the player with the cathartic sense of victory that is so often a key component of the appeal of difficult games. Finding joy in the face of failure hits differently than finding joy in the face of delayed success. And because of that, I think Pathologic 2 opens up an alternative way of thinking about difficulty in games, where our failures exist not only to underline our future successes but to sit and be failures long after the credits roll.