In 1993, Virgin Interactive published a 2D platform game called Disney’s Aladdin, an adaptation of the film of the same name, for the Sega Genesis. You play as the rakish vagabond, naturally, whisking him through the market stalls of Agrabah as he eludes capture by the palace guards. The game is for the most part quite routine: you dash and swashbuckle, bounding over obstacles and scouring for treasure, the lot of it familiarly buoyant and amusing. But in the middle of the game something strange happens. As in the film, Aladdin has ventured on rather disreputable advice into the opulent Cave of Wonders, where he has been instructed to retrieve a magical lamp. When the cave begins to topple down around him, Aladdin flees by airborne carpet—and it is in realizing this perilous escape that the game suddenly and inexplicably transforms.
Here’s what happens. The game sits you on a flying carpet and has you navigate up and down as flaming boulders hurtle toward you menacingly. This happens very fast, without any preparation or instruction. At first it seems manageable, if alarming: a little blinking arrow cautions you that a boulder will be zooming at you from above any moment, and you have about a half-second to mash the down button to duck safely underneath it. Then the boulders speed up, and the arrows start to criss-cross. Then the arrows are replaced by question marks. By the time the level reaches its imperceptibly fast climax you have just enough time to move up or down at random and simply hope that you get lucky. Now this is plainly sleeve-rolling, armpit-fanning stuff. For me it was also a source, as a sensitive child, of considerable distress—the sort of anguish I would find myself dreaming about, pixelated rock formations scudding angrily toward me in my sleep.
Of course the developers were well aware of their cruelty. They even had the foresight to implement a concession to the ordinary player’s almost guaranteed defeat: dying at the hands of this level doesn’t cost you any lives. And if you die here three times consecutively, well, that’s that then: the game will politely skip you ahead. Just think about that for a second. Aladdin’s carpet escape level is so difficult that its developers don’t expect you to complete it. They knew that few would have the skill (or persistence) to make it through. Or perhaps it’s that the developers understood the particular misery of finding a challenge insurmountable and didn’t want to punish well-meaning but not especially talented players unduly. Every developer, after all, must determine their game’s relationship to difficulty. They must decide to what precise degree its obstacles will yield to a player’s advances—and to what extent, if only implicitly, their game will try a player’s patience.
You approach every new game with a fund of goodwill from which things like frustration and tedium draw. Difficulty is a reliable drain: a single indefatigable enemy is often enough to reduce us to teeth-gnashing and controller-hurling. And yet difficulty is also necessary. Videogames challenge us by nature, and it’s an impression of having overcome some sort of resistance while progressing through them that entrains our important sense of victory and accomplishment. This resistance takes different forms. In puzzle games the challenge is chiefly intellectual: solve this stumper to proceed. In action games and shooters the test is of your reflexes and coordination: swiftly aim and shoot this fellow before he shoots you. (These conventions are often so ingrained that they seem invisible—and yet you dimly suspect, no doubt, that in almost any game a red barrel will explode if shot.)
We often have the sense that videogames are unique in this respect—that “anybody” can read a novel or watch a film, but that playing a videogame is more specialized. It’s certainly true that, say, my mother, who has never played a videogame in her life, would stand no better chance of enduring a match of Call of Duty than she would pinch-hitting for the New York Yankees. The rules and skills are so beyond her comprehension and capacity as a gaming amateur that she wouldn’t know where to begin. But it isn’t strictly true that this proves gaming’s inherent difficulty. Reading, yes, is a skill; but reading a novel, apprehending fully its meaning and import, requires more than merely understanding the words as they appear in succession. And though the skillset is so natural to us that we hardly think of it as trained, if you had never seen a motion picture before you would find the average movie virtually incomprehensible: that two discrete images edited together imply a spatial and temporal connection (as in the ubiquitous shot-reverse shot) is not something we just happen to know instinctively. We grow up watching movies and television and are inured to the difficulty of their conventions over time.
On the other hand anybody, broadly speaking, can sit down in a movie theater and watch Citizen Kane. Perhaps they won’t recognize its formal innovations or appreciate its thematic complexity. But they will in the very least experience the film from beginning to end by merely sitting in a seat while the reels unfurl, and, provided they can manage to keep their eyes focused in the general direction of the screen for 120 minutes, they may even get something substantive out of it. In order for somebody to experience a comparably heralded videogame, by contrast, they must overcome certain barriers to entry—namely, they must play through the game, outwitting its puzzles and besting its foes. Now a novel of course requires the active participation of a reader to get through too. But particularly difficult sections needn’t be understood: they can be parsed cursorily, or skipped altogether. Games don’t afford us that luxury. If you want to get to the end you need to bear down and slog.
When we speak of difficulty in cinema and literature we often mean something more intellectual. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for instance, is a difficult book: difficult in the sense that its scope and complexity and erudition make its story hard to follow and its language hard to understand. Bela Tarr’s Satantango is a difficult film for its glacial pace and 432-minute running time; Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is difficult for its length and its candor in dealing with the holocaust. We tend to think of difficult books and difficult films as more serious or high-minded, and as more rewarding for the challenges they entail. There’s a nobility and prestige attached to such pursuits. Very difficult videogames, on the other hand, we tend to regard as niche items, labors of the obsessive. Perhaps you don’t have quite so much to gain, intellectually, from investing a hundred hours into Demon’s Souls rather than into the collected writings of James Joyce—and perhaps too the latter difficulty is of a higher order.
But what’s curious is that many of the sensations are the same. You approach difficult art, games and books and films alike, with a certain excited wariness, cautiously eager for the challenge. If the pressure is applied too intensely, if the challenge proves insurmountable, we abandon the effort; if we finally succeed, we feel accomplished, triumphant. The same impulse to in some sense test ourselves draws us to all kinds of difficulty. There’s a certain masochism lurking underneath it: we want to endure just enough pain in our art, just enough hair-pulling and palm-sweating as we bear down, that making it through feels like something truly achieved.
Header image via Skinned Mink.