I have forsaken the idol of difficulty.

21Feb12

I have recently read an article heralding the need to rejuvenate Zelda as a series, to move it away from a degenerate direction that has made it into nothing more than a hollow shell. The stated way to do this can be boiled down into one sentence:

“Make Zelda hard, like it used to be.”

There are many arguments in the article about how to do this and why it would be the best way to go, but I think that is the basic point. I was tempted to mock that (much like the article itself mocks the most recent Zelda games and those who enjoy them), but making fun of an opinion you don’t agree with is one of the lowest forms of Internet discourse, akin to the elementary school gang of kids that snicker at the students they don’t like for some arbitrary reason. It does nothing to bolster your argument except to those who agree with it already, and allows those you disagree with to portray themselves as persecuted. Also, it’s usually not that funny.

And I will admit, I at first skimmed the article. But before I started writing this, I felt I owed it to Mr. Thompson to read his entire post, from top to bottom. After all, it might be more nuanced than I thought, and it wouldn’t hurt to make sure I didn’t misrepresent him in some way. Having done so, I saw no change in the article’s point. So be it, my skimmed version was largely right. But one new argument stuck with me: the appeal to “how it used to be.” Alongside it were arguments that newer Zelda players just didn’t know their favored games were in the wrong, because they hadn’t played it back in the mythical “the day.”

As someone who did play that golden NES cartridge from release day until the paint started to flake off, I actually existed in that far off past of yore. Moreover, I grew up playing console games, and remain a proud video game enthusiast. I have played and beaten most of the Zelda series at the time of their release, and what I have not beaten I have at least valiantly reached as far as I could (I’m looking at you, Thunderbird of Zelda II). Excepting the Philips CD-i installments, I have not beaten or largely completed Oracle of Ages and Majora’s Mask. None of this is some kind of special record, but the upshot is that I did not come to the series late, or skip large chunks of it. And with that knowledge, I can firmly say that I have no desire to return to the days of Zelda I.

Does that mean I think Mr. Thompson has no good points in his article? I will admit that he makes some good observations. Gating off all content until you are able to handle it is an artificial way to stretch out a game, and often glaringly obvious. It can be forgiven to an extent, depending on how it is implemented, but the natural human response to being told something is forbidden is wanting that much more to get it. He also has a good point that Zelda games can suffer from having too many items, with many being used to a very limited degree. good for one dungeon and then largely forgotten. But both of these points only get one response: make it harder.

The original Zelda was a wonderfully intricate game for its time. Many things were hidden, both important and unimportant, and it laid down some very new concepts as well. How many games would think to put an enemy sprite in the unfamiliar position of being an NPC to interact with, rather than an obstacle to kill or avoid? However, a rush to nostalgia for the first game risks stripping it of historical context. Every video game development process, and Zelda I was no exception, is a matter of balancing design desires with programming reality. The reason why Yoshi didn’t appear until Super Mario World was that he couldn’t work in the original Super Mario brothers with the limitations of the NES at the time, and even as NES games became more sophisticated, it wasn’t feasible to include him. With that in mind, why did the bombable walls in Zelda I appear exactly the same as every other wall? Maybe because the designers wanted to keep them a secret….or making a whole new sprite to indicate a wall was different was an extra space of memory, which wouldn’t be used enough to justify trying to squeeze it in. I can’t argue the latter is the true reason, but it’s just as valid a design choice as the former, and both can be true at the same time.

Similarly, the condensing of the Zelda inventory into “a few, deeper items” is a far easier solution to propose than to implement. What is the right balance? If one of those deeper items is a wand of fire, would you have to make sure half the world can be burned? I’m sure most people would not appreciate the idea that everything in Hyrule happened to be made of bone dry tinder, conveniently soaked in lighter fluid; even if you liked setting things on fire, it would get old after a while. There is also the fact that Zelda I had the briefly necessary then disposable item, so if this is an offense in the latest games, it is also an original sin.

My main riposte to Mr. Thompson’s thrust is simple: the fetishization of difficulty is not healthy, and will not inherently produce a better game in the present day. There is nothing wrong with a sense of personal pride in defeating a difficult game, whether you did so as a child in the past or as an adult now. There is also nothing wrong with someone creating a difficult game in the modern day; different levels of difficulty appeal to different people, even in the same game. But that point is important, because these are games. They are meant to act first as personal entertainment. They can stand for more than that, and can even make important observations on our life and culture. But their primary merit is that they are an experience you participate in, rather than something you passively watch, read, or listen to. In that light, the case for ‘saving’ Zelda by making it less inviting is a hope to exclude those that do not meet your personal standards. It is a more civilized veneer over the blunt “L2P” mentality of those who resent the presence of others in their entertainment, even when that entertainment is designed as a multiplayer game first and foremost. One cannot exclude others from playing a single player game, but you can decry the game itself, in an attempt to devalue their experience. Your own purchase and play through of the game is cast as a noble sacrifice to document the ruins of a once-great franchise, while others mistakenly hail it as a wonderful experience on its own merits.

The difficulty of the original Zelda game was as much a product of its design limitations as its creator’s intent. As those limitations decreased, they expanded the world of the games, and made them more accessible. This was surely in part a sales strategy, but Link to the Past was released when the original Zelda game was still a relatively fresh game for many Japanese gamers, their primary market at the time. These were the same people who had loved Zelda I. It would have been an equally valid sales strategy to keep the difficulty ramped up, and instead they lowered it so that more of their work could be seen. This is not caused by a fear of rejection, but by wanting to give their customers games that still rewarded exploration and adventure, but did not threaten the idea of a punishing slog that may prove fruitless. There is a trade-off there, I freely admit that; a lower difficulty can make a game feel less satisfying to complete. But presenting this as though nothing can be gained is willfully misrepresenting the possibilities. You risk losing a sense of satisfaction, but you also can drop feeling frustrated about missing that one jump with exasperating consistency, or having to search half a continent for the remaining door key, before finding that the door you unlocked gives you an identical key, and nothing else. If Zelda existed in a vacuum, such aggravations might be tolerated, but the video game market place is growing more crowded, not less. And the frequent modern stumbles of other game franchises show that having a well regarded name is not a reason to assume your customers will always follow you. A less inclusive Zelda game could easily drive its fans to play an easier game, rather than feeling some personal challenge to improve their Zelda skills

I can certainly agree that as things stand, Zelda as a series needs to change. Too much tradition has built up based specifically on Ocarina of Time, the best example being how subsequent games are too often designed around your mode of transportation. But the experimentation of Skyward Sword, however conservative, was a welcome first step, as were the attempts to give the story more depth than simply saving Zelda from Ganon. I enjoyed the first Zelda game, and even the second, long considered the unwanted stepchild of the series, holds a warm place in my heart. But none of that affection for Zelda’s past is enough to make the present and future of the series unwelcome to me. Declaring that the series needs to have less story, less character focus, and more unrelenting punishment does not strike me as a way to bring the series back to a Platonic ideal. Instead, it sounds like a vain hope to trap it in amber, and protect it from ever having to risk the perils of evolving.

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One Response to “I have forsaken the idol of difficulty.”

  1. The becoming-fetish of game difficulty is a weird thing, and I think you’re right to call it out as something unhealthy on the whole. That’s not really a substantive comment, I know, but I just thought you would like to know that someone agrees with you.


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