A friend of mine and I have had a discussion about the nature of difficulty in gameplay—what changes to a basic design make it harder to reach a state of victory, ideally increasing the sense of reward when the player reaches that state. I would suggest, and will talk at length here, about how games which try to be challenging can instead be punishing—that is, they discourage the player after the player has already failed by some means. Punishing factors can certainly make a game harder to play and beat, but they don’t generally make the games any more fun. I’m sure this has been talked about before, but I want to share my own experiences and considerations on the matter. Follow along and hopefully you’ll learn something new.
The Souls series of games created by FromSoftware (at this time of writing: Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, Dark Souls III, and I’ll include Bloodborne for convenience) make an excellent case study for elements that make a game challenging versus punishing. Most anyone with a shred of ego who has played them at length will tell you about how hard the games are, and the series as a whole is revered for its brutal difficulty. Beyond the games’ immersive worlds, their dark and secretive narratives, and the creativity of the character and enemy designs, the series has been championed as a fine example of challenge in a gaming industry that has had to tone down difficulty in the last decades to become more marketable. The challenge, claims some reviewers, comes from the fact that the game forces you to learn from your mistakes in order to triumph. “Tough but fair,” people call this series, and they’re often right.
But as the games can be “challenging”, they can of course be “punishing”. In Dark Souls, while fighting the Taurus Demon successfully requires either learning how it telegraphs each attack or figuring out how to use the arena to slay the demon with plunging attacks, the Taurus Demon also has a decent chance of knocking you off the castle with every strike, even if you block with your shield. When that happens, you die instantly, and you don’t respawn in front of the demon’s boss arena. No, you respawn near the beginning of the Undead Burg, and that necessitates cutting your way through a swath of revived skeletons and knights to reach the Taurus Demon again. Die once more, and you have to run through the Undead Burg again. And again. And again.
I had a lot of difficulty with the Taurus Demon on my first playthrough of Dark Souls. Eventually I just put in headphones and listened to a podcast while I ran through the Undead Burg for the fourth time, because the game had stopped being fun and started being tedious and boring.
The game challenges you by presenting a boss with powerful wide-sweeping strikes, but it punishes you by making you redo much of the level when you die just to fight the boss again. Just the fact that the Taurus Demon can instantly kill the player means several minutes of careful, tense progress in battle could be lost because the Taurus Demon knocked you off the castle again. When you die in these moments, you have to waste time doing something you already did in order to make another attempt at the boss.
This problem—I call it a problem, because I believe games should embrace “challenging” and eschew “punishing”—exists throughout the games. Demon’s Souls has it worse, because in Dark Souls the world is heavily connected so each area feels less like a “level” to clear, but in Demon’s Souls each area is connected in a linear chain and all chains link at the hub area, the Nexus. When you die in Demon’s Souls, then, you return to the beginning of the area; the next checkpoint, or archstone, only appears once you defeat the boss of whatever area you’re in. So dying in Demon’s Souls often necessitates replaying almost the entire area you died in, and of course the enemies respawned and the traps reset. This has its silver lining, as the game creatively sets shortcuts for you to find and unlock, but it still means you’ll likely have to run down a dragon-guarded bridge many, many times because you got killed by the dragon, or the archers and knights at the end, or the Tower Knight that is the boss of the area.
Some Castlevania games address this well—starting in Symphony of the Night, rarely do you fight a boss in Castlevania where a full-healing checkpoint isn’t just a couple of quick rooms away. When you die, you can generally return to the boss arena in just a few seconds, and while most bosses in most Castlevanias are blisteringly hard, you’re never punished too badly for dying.
One of the Souls’ games central gameplay mechanics, and one I dislike, is actually modelled on punishing rather than challenging the player. In killing enemies and discovering loot, the player collects Souls which are used as currency (it’s a grim world). When the player dies, all of their souls are left on their bloodstain, and they have to return to their bloodstain to recover those souls. If they die without doing so, all of those souls are lost forever. It doesn’t matter if the player got them from defeating a boss or from farming souls for a half-hour—die twice in a row and the game takes away your valuable currency. Much time and many souls can go to waste in the course of those games. Shovel Knight is another game that forces the player to retrieve their currency after each death; I have a bit to say about that one next.
Shovel Knight, for all that game is a shining example of successful and brilliant game design, falls into the punishing-not-challenging pitfall as well. The game generally presents maybe five checkpoints per area, and each area—Pridemoor Keep, the Lich Yard, et cetera—is styled as its own level with unifying visual design and gameplay elements. When you die, you return to the last checkpoint, and in a clever invitation for self-challenge, the player can actually destroy the checkpoints in order to collect a lot of valuable gems from the wreckage. But even with all checkpoints in place, if the player dies during a level—say, from touching some instant-death spikes—the player generally has to repeat the rooms and challenges up to where they died. Even now that I’ve cleared Shovel Knight and its New Game Plus mode, I still lose time and patience every time I die in a level, because that means repeating something I already proved I could do.
This feature is common to many, many games, of course, and platforming games in particular have the player replaying long segments because they died somewhere along the line. But Rayman Origins doesn’t have this problem; in that game, when your character dies in a room, they simply return to the beginning of the room, usually losing just a few seconds of gameplay. Rayman Origins doesn’t want to punish you for failing; it wants you to keep playing the game.
Going back to Shovel Knight, its New Game Plus has features that make the game both more challenging and more punishing. Upon starting NG+, Shovel Knight retains all of his upgrades and collectibles, but the enemies do twice the damage and health items don’t spawn as often. Great! Fun fun, especially since the early game would be a cakewalk for a fully-powered Shovel Knight without upping the difficulty somehow. But NG+ also takes out many of the mid-level checkpoints, and that often means replaying rooms again and again because you fell down a pit or something and died instantly. In that regard NG+ doesn’t become more challenging; it becomes more tedious. And I can’t imagine any game developer was aiming to accomplish that.
Maybe the purpose of punishing the player for failure is to encourage cautious play; I especially see that in the case of Dark Souls, a game generally best played by tiptoeing into each new area, drawing out enemies one at a time and learning the lie of the land before you charge forward.
But in other games, punishing the player would seem to serve far less purpose. In the mainline Pokémon games, for instance (Red, Blue, Gold, Platinum, FireRed, et cetera), when the player’s Pokémon are all defeated in battle, the player “blacks out”; they are sent to the last Pokémon Center they visited. Makes sense—those Pokémon need to be healed up, and some of the games actually provide a brief description of the trainer running their Pokémon back to the Center, cradling them in a panic. But for some reason, the player also loses a chunk of money which is either handed to the opponent or arbitrarily dropped on the ground. This isn’t such a problem in the more recent games where the player only loses a fixed amount of money depending on their progress through the game. But early in the series, the player lost half of their accrued money. Mind you, the first generation of Pokémon games had a limited number of trainers to fight, so the player could legitimately run out of money partway through. It was entirely possible for the player to permanently screw themselves out of a lot of valuable spending because a gym leader stomped their team or something, and this was a series marketed to kids, so I imagine plenty of them had to deal with this. But this punishing feature isn’t even really necessary: the player can save the game between battles at will, without any limitations on saves. More often than not, a losing player will just reset the game, avoiding the trainer “blacking out” and making the entire punishment even more redundant.
I have a general rule I want to establish; if a game’s feature encourages the player to reset the game rather than deal with it, the feature is redundant, clumsily instituted, or just bad. Perhaps I come off as a bitter gamer moaning into the wind, but I legitimately feel that game developers could do a lot better by encouraging their players to try again, not kicking the players every time they fail. Some gamers resort to emulating games (playing a version of the game on a PC instead of on its original system) because emulators often allow instantaneous saving via “save states”. With these games, the punishments for failure—wasted time, wasted in-game currency, wasted patience—discourage the player to such an extent that they’d rather play an illegitimate copy of the game than the real thing.
Games with punishing features aren’t necessarily bad, certainly not! But they can be better. And they ought to be better. If anyone takes anything away from this article, let it be this: Developers, we gamers want reasons to keep playing your games, not reasons to give up.