Do Games Need To Be Difficult?
I follow a twitter account called “Shitty Gamer Takes” (@GamerTakes) that usually consists of gamers complaining about female characters not being sexy enough or about “historical accuracy” (read: an excuse to be racist and/or sexist). Recently, however, I saw a tweet highlighting one gamer talking about difficulty in games. “Difficulty is one of the things that makes games memorable,” they say, before going on to complain about “casuals” causing the “gaming community (to) wither up and die.”
This complaint is nothing new and reminded me of a game that faced similar criticism when it first came out about 10 years ago. Prince of Persia was released in late 2008 as a completely new entry in the long-running Prince of Persia series. Serving as something of a reboot after The Sands of Time series on the previous generation of consoles, Prince of Persia (2008) was quite a drastic departure from the previous trilogy of games. It was more colorful and less angsty, with a bigger focus on platforming rather than combat. It was generally well received, but a big criticism of the game was that it was “too easy.” Do a quick google search on the game being too easy and you’ll find several articles and forum posts debating this topic. For me, however, the difficulty of the game was never something I considered.
Prince of Persia (2008) follows the nameless Prince as he attempts to help a stranger named Elika entrap Ahriman, an ancient and destructive god. Ahriman has covered the world in his dark magic, meaning Elika needs to heal the land by traveling to one holy spot at a time. Throughout this all, the Prince and Elika learn to help each other, unable to get far without the other. The relationship itself is a core part of the game, as they not only work together while traversing, but also within the combat scenes themselves. There are also prompts throughout the game where you can press the dedicated talk button to stop for a bit and let the two chat. At the beginning of the game, they’re strangers, but through the story and the actual gameplay itself, their bond grows stronger and stronger.
To get a bit of nerd cred, I’ve been playing games as far back as I can remember. I don’t remember actually getting the original Nintendo Entertainment System as a Christmas present, but I remember playing certain games on it. One early memory I have is finishing the game Rockin’ Kats (1991) in front of my brothers and feeling so proud that I managed to pull of this accomplishment. I can’t remember if the game was especially difficult or not, but the memorable part of that game was finishing it.
Prince of Persia (2008) was never about the difficulty for me and serves as a big counterpoint to the earlier mentioned comment that “difficulty is one of the things that makes games memorable.” There are certainly games that are memorable because they are difficult. A semi-recent example I can think of off the top of my head is Super Meat Boy (2010) and many current indie games harken back to that old-school emphasis on difficulty. To claim, however, that games have to be difficult in order to be enjoyable is ludicrous, especially in this day and age when the medium itself has continued to evolve and adapt.
What makes Prince of Persia (2008) memorable to me is the bond between the Prince and Elika. Every design choice in the game is about strengthening that bond. As you jump, you can have Elika warp across and sling you a bit further. If you fall, a close-up of her hand catching yours appears. She saves you so you can try again. Some gamers complained that this made things too easy, because you couldn’t die, but it still requires you to make it across the platforming area. Furthermore, the difficulty isn’t the point. This gameplay mechanic is just one of many facets of the game that all work towards the theme of this game: that the Prince and Elika need each other in order to save the world. Even the combat places a strong emphasis on using both characters. Elika is never a princess that needs to be saved. She and the Prince are equally necessary, with their personal strengths offsetting the other’s potential weaknesses.
The moment I fell in love with Prince of Persia (2008) was quite early in the game. After healing a bit of land, the darkness vanished, only to be replaced by vibrant grass and beautiful sunlight. Healing the lands takes a toll on Elika so the Prince goes to talk with her. The game lets you take a brief pause from the combat and platforming so that the two can just talk and get to know each other better. As I started to move again, I noticed the little bits of animation that brought them closer together, both physically and mentally. That’s when one of my favorite pieces of game music ever kicked in and it was the first time I realized that I was on a journey, where the ultimate goal was not to save the world, but to see how the Prince and Elika develop. It’s when I fell in love not only with the game, but with the characters as well.
On a basic level, the game is about healing the lands so that you can trap Ahriman, but even more so, the game is about the Prince and Elika. What makes the game memorable is not the ultimate act of beating the final boss. The game is memorable because every aspect of it is designed around two characters that you grow to love. I’ve beaten countless difficult games over the years, but the “too easy” Prince of Persia (2008) is still one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played.