Challenge Accepted: Why fake difficulty is still a thing
Fake difficulty isn’t a term of praise. Which is kind of obvious from the name, I know.
If you’re not well-versed in fake difficulty as a named concept, you’ll still know it when you see it. The mandatory stealth section when this game had not required any stealth gameplay before now. The camera angles that shift when you make a jump. The sudden mechanical shift into a whole new sort of game that you may not be any good at. A hunt for an object that would be easy to find… if not for the total lack of distinguishing marks from the background.
TVTropes does a good job listing the many, many flavors of fake difficulty, but it only briefly touches upon the fact that it’s not entirely bad. There are a few reasons it still shows up in games, though, and while some of them are bad, a couple of them are actually better than the alternative. So why is fake difficulty still a thing?
The designers made a mistake
This is the simplest reason for fake difficulty and by far the most common explanation for technical issues in clearing a challenge. Camera angle shifts that are unexpected or not fully tested, visibility checks that aren’t done with full diligence, and so forth. Bugs that make missions difficult to complete because of various bits of stupidity. I spent half an hour in WildStar dealing with a buggy quest that required me to really trick the game into accepting my position correctly, that was not a fun ride.
Of course, no one wants this to happen. This is the sort of fake difficulty that’s never going away even in the best-case scenarios; there’s always the chance of a human being making a mistake when coding. It’s never a malicious thing.
This is a malicious thing.
Bear in mind, I’m not talking about situations wherein the fake difficulty was necessarily added intentionally. I’m talking about the cross-section of situations wherein it was there, someone pointed it out, and no one cared to actually correct the problem. It’s when you realize that a boss isn’t working correctly but no one wanted to do the extra work to make the boss work correctly, everyone throws up their hands and takes off early that day.
Often, it’s hard to tell when the former ends and the latter begins – if a bug is noticed and reported but not actually fixed, is it a case of the designers not being able to fix it or is it a case of the designers not caring? Does an adventure game puzzle violate common sense because it made sense to the developers and not the players, or was it just a matter of running down the clock? You can’t be sure. There are certain signs, though; if the game as a whole gives off the air of being made by people who no longer cared, odds are good that the challenge and balance was treated with the same amount of affection.
It covers an important problem
Let’s be honest – we’ve all done this once in a great while. We’ve moved a piece of furniture over a stain on the rug, we’ve rolled up our sleeves to cover a rip, we’ve pretended not to get a phone call to avoid spending time with someone particularly unpleasant. Sometimes, fake challenge is in place to cover up something that would be trivially easy otherwise and can’t be changed, not due to laziness but due to something more fundamentally problematic.
The Blood Sword in Final Fantasy II is broken beyond belief, and it makes the last boss a joke. Without the Blood Sword, he’s quite challenging. It’s only balanced by the simple fact that you have a limited chance to grab it and nothing pointing you in that direction; you could easily lose it forever. Hiding secrets in a bottomless pit is pretty awful, but it also covers up the problem that there are a limited number of ways to hide things in a side-scrolling game; the only other real option is to put a ledge there that’s hard to reach, and that’s not hidden so much as taunting.
All of these come down to being crutches in design, but they’re still useful crutches that can solve otherwise unassailable problems. So they stick around chiefly because they fix something, even if the ideal solution would be to find some other way to challenge players.
It makes the game feel better
Games like I Wanna Be The Guy thrive on fake difficulty. That’s the whole point, after all. But platform hell isn’t the only place where adding in fake difficulty does technically skew the challenge toward arbitrary but also winds up making the game more fun as a whole. Case in point: resources in real-time strategy games against a computer often wind up being awarded to the computer on a regular basis regardless of what they’re doing. Destroying their means of gathering won’t actually stop them.
Is that fake difficulty? Definitely; against a human player, killing their ability to gather resources in a kamikaze strike often opens up the possibility of building back up and crushing them whilst they can’t do anything. But at the same time, this pits you against greater challenges than would otherwise be possible. It encourages you – some would say forces you – to play the game focused on the actual mechanics rather than a resource-production end run.
Fire Emblem‘s unstable equilibrium is a bit of fake difficulty, too – losing units early makes later battles harder and makes it more likely you’ll lose more units. But the net result is that you’re trained to treat your troops as much less disposable. You want to move slowly, keep your units safe, engage as necessary rather than just as possible. It encourages a certain playstyle to keep people alive, because if you don’t the game just gets harder. Encouraging players to check walls for hidden passages means that there’s more possibility that they’ll keep playing longer, even if it seems like there’s no purpose to it, just to get a better sense of what they’re walking into.
Sometimes, that fake difficulty actually feels a little more genuine.
Feedback, like always, is welcome however you’d care to leave it. Next time around, I want to talk about self-imposed challenges and what they do for the overall difficulty of the game. After that, let’s talk about competitive balance and mechanical balance and how they’re similar, but not quite the same.