The Myth of Difficulty

Hollow Knight is a video game that first released in early 2017 for the PC. I played that initial release, and it ended up being one of my favorite games of 2017. There’s a laundry list of things I love about it too: The world is incredibly well-designed and full of details I love exploring. The art style does a lot to bring the world to life, along with the diverse set of creatures you encounter. It has a host of meaningful upgrades that alter what you can do. The music is great, the map system is clever, and the combat is effective in its simplicity and responsiveness. Best of all may be how it all comes together to create a singular, impactful vision. I could go on, but I think you get the idea; it’s a wonderful game that I appreciate for many different reasons.

Is Hollow Knight a
Is Hollow Knight a "hard" game? Does it matter?

And yet, Hollow Knight seemed to slip under the radar throughout 2017. Fast-forward to the summer of 2018, though, and everyone seems to be talking about it. That’s what a release on the Nintendo Switch gets you these days, and while I’m super excited more people are now playing and enjoying Hollow Knight, the main talking point doesn’t appear to be any of the things I most appreciate about the game. Instead, most blogs and reactions I’ve come across are about how “difficult” Hollow Knight is. So much so that a friend (who has no interest in playing Hollow Knight himself) asked me why I never mentioned the game’s difficulty before. The best answer I had was that I never really thought about the difficulty; it simply wasn’t all that important to my appreciation of the game. And I’ve always felt that way about the games I enjoy. But why is that? Why is this aspect of video games, which has defined much of video game history and culture (for better or worse) never been important to me? I’ve continued to think on the topic, and while that original answer I gave to my friend remains true, I think I’ve finally realized more fully why.

Difficulty doesn’t exist.

Difficulty is an entirely mental construct, and something we use to explain all sorts of things that have more to do with ourselves than a game itself. When we get frustrated by not making clear, tangible progress by a game’s metric, we call it difficult. When we feel lost, stuck, or have to reload a checkpoint? When we feel like we failed? The game must be difficult. But I would argue it reflects player behavior and/or mentality more than anything, and the key is that every player is different. Some players could lose progress in a game and get frustrated or get down on themselves, where others could simply acknowledge that they’ve learned from their mistakes or gotten more practice, and soldier forward without being bothered in the slightest. Others still may get excited about it, and say “Aha, I didn’t realize that could happen!” before jumping back in with renewed vigor. And of course there are the masochists that take it as a challenge, and see beating the game as an opportunity to test their skill. I’m not trying to argue than any reaction is better or worse than another (though I would be a happier person if I never saw the phrase “git gud” ever again), but rather that everyone reacts differently to different situations.

That gets to my problem with the idea of difficulty: it’s subjective and impossible to define, an unmeasurable and theoretical metric that isn’t actually present within the games we play. Is a game difficult if you can’t reliably make progress every second you play it? How do you even define progress? If it’s getting closer to beating the game, then doesn’t dying from a mistake, but learning from that mistake, gain you knowledge and practice that also gets you closer to completing the game? You could argue almost anything as a form of progress, a necessary step on each individual player’s journey toward their goal within the game. I think games and our relationship to them are more nuanced and personal than a simple, universal scale of player skill vs. video game difficulty. Everyone has their own path through each individual game; there are simply too many variables in play to codify the idea of video game difficulty.

I was a math major in college, and whenever anyone asked what my major was (you know, the typical icebreaker question) and I said math, the near-universal response was “Wow, math is hard. You must be smart.” But I never felt math was all that hard, or that I was all that smart. I’d then ask what their major was, and they’d say something like biology, or psychology, or business, or English. And I would think, “Man, those all sound way harder than math to me.” Math was something I enjoyed, and something I wanted to spend time learning more about at that time. Therefore, whatever potential challenges came with that didn’t seem all that daunting. Math excited me, it motivated me, so the individual steps of the process were fulfilling and worthwhile. Biology, on the other hand? I always hated biology, and the work I had to put into it always felt, well, difficult as a result. I eventually realized that the classes I found “harder” were nothing more than the classes I didn’t like enough to want to do the work for.

Fighting through adversity for things I love helps me grow.
Fighting through adversity for things I love helps me grow.

The same has been true for me with video games. The biggest and truest sign of whether I’m into a game or not has always been my gut reaction when I meet any form of adversity. If I die, for example, and feel excited and eager to jump right back in and try again, then I clearly really like that game. A favorite example of this was Resident Evil 4 -- a wonderful and fascinating game for many reasons -- which I played obsessively when it came out, including through many sections that tested me through many deaths. But I didn’t bemoan each death. Instead, I felt it was a chance to try again and figure out how to improve. Conversely, if I die and feel the urge to set a game down or go search for help, then I probably don’t like that game very much in the first place. The supposed roadblocks I hit are nothing more than indications I don’t really want to play the game in earnest and that it's not worth any more of my time; I was only going through the motions until that point because that’s often what people do until adversity strikes.

But how worth it is that, really? Just going through the motions in games that don’t provide any kind of adversity? I’ve read a lot lately about how happiness requires struggle and growth. Humans are real good at getting used to anything, and if you were to somehow obtain all those things we stereotypically think of as making us happy -- a great job, enough money to cover what we need/want, great relationships, all the knowledge and skills in the world, etc. -- how long would it be before you got used to them, and then subsequently bored. We need new problems to solve, new things to engage with and see, and new things to, you guessed it, challenge us. These challenges don’t always have to be back-breaking, but it’s through our struggles that we grow and learn, no matter how messy they may be. Most things that come easily aren’t worth much, because it’s often the struggle itself that provides meaning, that lets you know you are in fact growing and moving towards something you care about. There’s nothing wrong with simple pleasures, the games that go down easily and don’t push us to think or grow. But they’re like junk food: they feel good in the moment, and are well and good in moderation. But basking in it too much ignores the substantial stuff we need to be truly happy and healthy.

I would argue that if you’re not willing to work through adversity for something, then that something isn’t worth much to you to begin with. Conversely, if you enjoy what you’re doing to the point where you genuinely want to push through, then that struggle feels completely worth it. It’s not about “no pain, no gain” or “git gud” (gosh, did I really use that phrase twice in one article?). It’s about finding the things you’re willing to deal with any amount of adversity to pursue. That’s your biggest indicator of happiness, and once you find such games, you won’t even think about whether it’s difficult or not; you’ll be too absorbed in the process to notice. That’s why difficulty is a myth, and why I don’t think any of us should avoid adversity in the games we love, but rather embrace it.