This is something that’s been swimming around in my head for a while but Cuphead has catalyzed it. Why is there an inverse relationship between the amount of story a game has and how difficult it is to beat?
It makes sense if you think about it. The pace of a narrative suffocates with tests of subjective skill. In the same way that a movie can’t stay dramatic if it requires you to answer mini-quizzes every few minutes, a complex narrative can’t be fulfilled if ninety percent of players slam to a grinding halt on the level five boss.
Like I said, it makes reasonable sense. But it makes sense as a business venture, not a creative one. Narrative and difficulty are inversely proportional in the modern games industry, no doubt. My point is that they shouldn’t be.
Gaming is a storytelling medium in the same way that film is a talking medium. Talking is an aid to film’s essential pictorial language, as cut-scenes and story are supplements to a game’s gameplay. Those extra things can elevate the medium, but they can’t replace it. A game without story is an arcade game. A game without gameplay is a motion comic.
David Cage games like Beyond: Two Souls are exemplary at attempting to commodify the game without gameplay. I can play them, but only when I’m in the mood for a visual novel or an audio book. Cage makes these button-press simulators tightly wound up around a strict story and I have to wonder whether the actual game in his games is just a formality. If I wanted to play something, these interactive pop-up books don’t measure up to one level of Mega Man. They’re easy in exact proportion to their expectations to tell an “interactive story” that even non-gamers can enjoy.
But the idea that narratives are mutually exclusive with difficulty is a matter of industry expectations, not a fact. I want to compare the way two properties use story within their gameplay to illustrate the industry’s idea of narrative. I want to talk about the Uncharted and the Souls series.
A game like Uncharted is marketed to gamers looking for an epic cinematic experience, with the game playing second to the cut-scenes. This is why so much of the player’s interaction with Uncharted is directly contradictory to the story. Imagine pitching a high-falutin’ Indiana Jones-esque adventure with almost no freedom of exploration, with more cover-based shooting than treasure-hunting. There’s regenerating health in the game but a strict presentation of mortality in the cut-scenes. How would you sell it? You would say that people are coming for the story, not the game. You’d be right. But we should be arguing for these things to become the same.
That’s where Dark Souls comes in. Story unfolds a bit at a time through the act of playing, in the minutiae of a treasure hunt or the tiny consequences of a little extra exploration. Beating Quelaag is a victory for a video game player. Discovering that she was a victim of the poison she gave her life trying to stop, is a victory for a narrative made specifically for a game. Being told this would have no effect: it’s potent because you played through it and now understand more about the world through your actions as a ruthless video game player and a conqueror. The high difficulty of the Souls games does not impede their storytelling because they were designed to be played, with a story that fills in your imagination as you explore. This integration of story with the player’s actions is not the norm.
I could experience the kind of narrative present in Uncharted regardless of what the gameplay is like. You go to Naughty Dog for the stellar animation and voice-acting, the Nathan Fillion-lite antics and Claudia Black rigmarole. Difficulty would just get in the way of the experience, like a book that makes you answer trivia before turning the page. In respect to what Uncharted seeks to accomplish for what audience it hopes to draw in, gameplay is as unnecessary as subtitles in a film that’s already in your native language. Despite being marketed for adults and for stalwart heroes, Uncharted games are soporifically easy, with gameplay serving only as an occasional break between the all-important talking head segments.
As a simple exercise, imagine Uncharted with completely different gameplay – David Cage-esque quick-time-events, or puzzles exclusively, or first-person shooting – and the story could be exactly the same. Gameplay is the icing on its cake. Try to imagine separating the story from Dark Souls. It’d be like taking the same cake and unthreading it from its flour.
As a more recent example, look at how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has reasserted its series’ signature difficulty after the long lull that began when the games went to 3D. Nintendo decided that to tell a story to ten-year-olds they’d have to ensure they could make it to the end. This meant thinking of the player’s ability as an obstacle to telling a whole story. So the games became easy. By opening narrative to mean a sum of the player’s experiences rather than a set story in text, Nintendo made Breath of the Wild harder than any Zelda game in recent memory, and with increased difficulty increased freedom was quick to follow.
The central idea behind limiting difficulty in response to a game’s narrative is that games are designed to be experienced by the masses, not to be conquered by individuals. The birth of the cinematic trailer and of the general gaming public has created a need to balance between the minimum a game can challenge a player and stay a game and the maximum a game can rely on story without being a movie.
With those trailers, devs essentially promise a tour of their computer-generated creations. The more strictly linear a game is, the more consistently they can ensure a productive tour. Beyond: Two Souls is the perfect example, touting action-packed mechanics in its trailer that are only used in the game a single time. Any more and they would threaten to add a difficulty curve to the easily navigable series of carefully-planned button presses and pretty motion capture.
But difficulty is what would be left if a game was stripped of all its aesthetic elements. In other words, without the game’s resistance to be beaten, there would be no game at all. It might as well be a button that says to “Push to Win,” and subtracting its aesthetic elements, this is what Cage essentially makes. The idea that narrative must replace that resistance is so backwards because it implies that a statistically consistent experience is more important than playability. It bounds an interactive medium to the storytelling constraints of its non-interactive ancestors.
I’m not saying story-driven games are inherently bad. But if a game is essentially difficulty, it shouldn’t be hard to predict what happens to game design when everyone is expected to beat everything.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: email@example.com