“Oh what a day! WHAT A LOVELY DAY!!” Summer 1996. Despite the gloriously warm weather outside, I am — as per usual — confiding my free time indoors once more to have another crack at something which has been aching at me for several weeks. Sitting as I do within the unofficial play-room — back when hideous wallpaper and steel-grey carpet were still as hot as those rarest of “alright” British summers — an almighty expelling of jubilation, relief and absolute astonishment releases from out my sweet cries of satisfaction. I did it; I actually, finally, did it! I beat the final boss in Sonic The Hedgehog 3 — the ending cutscene, at last, pushing that surprisingly anxiety-generating 2D background of a dark sky, to the history books. I have conquered what has felt for so long, like an impossible task. I can move on. There are plenty of games I could have consolidated myself with on my N64 to distract, but no…I have pushed and pushed…and I have done it.
This was the very memory that flooded back to me as I breathed a huge sigh of relief at conquering the second boss on show at The Game Bakers’ stand at E3 this year, in promoting their latest beast of a boss-rush offering, Furi. In short, Furi was undeniably one of the stand-out moments (let’s disregard any semantics on “games” or even “highlights” for that matter; we’re talking genuine moments of uplifting positivity here). Perhaps there was an admittance of bias here and there given this wasn’t my first experience with The Game Bakers’ offerings this year, yet the degree of exhilaration mixed with that same relief I felt nearly two decades ago, has rarely been with me. Rarely, when taking the entire accumulation of individual titles I’ve managed to come to and/or get through in my playing life. Yes, Furi is not without its low-points and its flaws — its questionable padding here and gameplay mechanics not quite working in tandem from time to time — but it’s been a while since I’ve played a game that treats challenge and difficulty with slick and immaculate respect. And the soundtrack is well-good too…which only up’s the liveliness that step further.
Except it hasn’t been “a while”. Call it genuine surprise that something this promising has actually avoided the pit-falls of limiting its core premise to that of fighting bosses one-after-another (yet more myth-busting here folks), but the reality is that this level of fascination as much genuine enjoyment, is not that unique a tale. Unique perhaps in the context of tapping into the farthest-flung memories of beating something that had given me nothing but frustration. But is this not a common tale for those teams and developers who don’t find themselves attached to everyone’s favourite repeated letters: AAA? Am I suggesting the larger and more commercially-known names can’t do what indie games are getting better and better at composing? Certainly not. But we’ve certainly needed a game or two as of late that don’t feel contractually obliged to hand-hold the player through, be it out of fear the player’s patience or attention-span might not go beyond ten seconds.
Yet when we look at this almost from a self-educating and analytical stand-point, the independent community certainly have a better handle on why challenge in games is so enticing. Not just because it’s another obstacle to get past — another string to your figuratively game-playing, game-enjoying bow — but it can help embellish everything going on around it when working in tandem. I’m talking art-style, aesthetic, structural design; difficulty is pure abstraction, it’s a non-physical noun with non-physical boundaries. It’s subjective rather than objective; what one may find simple to grasp, another may struggle until, at last, it finally clicks and the rhythm finally gets going. It’s a concept and methodology that has been rather absent in the industry and has only just found its way back into general circulation for maybe the past five or so years.
Pretty substantial in game years, but with the industry being just that, an industry — a well-oiled machine that gets its refill through money…and by accommodating to anything other than something that may deter potential sales (unless it’s popular, in which case HURRAH!) — no one would deny there’s been a saturation in titles that cater more to check-list’s and safe-bet’s than pushing gameplay conventions. Open-world this, crafting items that. When done right and integrated carefully into a balanced formula, sure they can work…but from a personal stand-point, regardless of my opinion, I will gladly admit that what From Software’s Souls repertoire has reminded us of, has been long overdue. And that reminder beckons to a time when difficulty was treated with as much a priority as visuals or sound or indeed the inner-working’s that tie all this together and keep the whole bloody thing moving along (ideally at a solid frame-rate).
Could this be why the likes of Super Meat Boy have been an immediate success? Because they come across almost like dissections or even subtle little debates on the necessity for “difficulty”? Or perhaps why Shovel Knight quickly elevated itself to beloved modern classic via the way it so seamlessly married platforming with the challenge that comes part in parcel? As I mentioned, challenge and difficulty are two of the most obtuse and abstract concepts in video game design; rarely is it simply a case of placing X amount of platforms here or giving enemy Z this much more attack power or health. The Souls series may be the exception, but when traversing the great yonder that is the indie community, I’ve often found difficulty and player challenge to pop up in ways I would never imagine were feasible. Superhot argued the case difficulty is only as intimidating as how players perceive it with its time mechanics; Seraph (though still skates the land of Early Access) treats difficulty as a measure for player success and winds up creating unique experiences at every turn.
More and more I see mentions of perma-death and in some cases, how even fatal moments can actually weigh in and permanently affect how the game proceeds thereafter. Something as simple as your character getting older upon respawning, may sound like pure cosmetic nonsense, but from where I stand, integrating player impact in this manner will always fascinate me more than countless other entries simply dropping you straight back into the action. Which is what, unfortunately, seems to be the common standard with your conventional shooter or your typical RPG or even the odd simulator here and there. These games can absolutely still hold up and prove themselves to be thoroughly enjoyable experience, but it goes without saying that there’s a rather old-school approach being undertaken by a fair few studios in recent times.
If what I saw at E3 is anything to go by, player challenge and difficulty look to continue tossing up new ideas and figuring out inventive ways to integrate this into the overall package. Regardless if these concepts will end up sticking long-term, I’m at least content in knowing independent studios around the World strive to be as much about the feel as they are the look of a certain project. I long for that same nostalgia of a bygone era, to come up against what feels like an impossible task…and somehow, inevitably, make it through. I want more of that jubilation and sense of liberation from a once impassable obstruction. The AAA side of the industry may be a little more unpredictable when it comes to difficulty, but take comfort boys and girls in the notion our beloved indie folks are here to meet the demand.