How difficult should video games be?

I’ve been playing “Split/Second” for about two weeks now. Although I’m enormously happy with the game, it has one critical vice which I feel drags it down significantly: it’s too hard. Every single race has to be repeated again and again before you finally snatch a victory. Now this is a precarious point to make, because until you approach some kind of event horizon and a game is not physically beatable (like that damned snowman in “Ski Free”), difficulty is relative. Extreme challenge has also become something of a war standard for the hardcore gamer, who feels assaulted on all sides by casual shovelware. True gamers, we are led to believe, like inordinate challenge.

And yet, we have to ask ourselves: is this a good standard? One of my biggest problems with extremely hard games is that they do not represent any kind of finesse on the part of the designer. It’s easy to make a game hard. It’s not like when I beat “Halo 3″ on Legendary Mode, I’ve somehow overcome Bungie. That wasn’t the best they could throw at me, they aren’t sitting over there thwarted like some kind of super-villain. If their actual intention was, “No one ever beats this game,” no one would. They could stack Elites two stories high over every square foot of every map, and no human being would ever rescue Cortana again. They could also accommodate the opposite goal, and make the game so belligerently easy that a retarded monkey could find all the skulls. They are gods in their little worlds, they have complete control, so displays of extreme power are unimpressive.

What is impressive is an understanding of human nature, and the ability to manipulate it effectively. Put another way, I pay a video game to entertain me, and entertaining me means predicting exactly how much pressure I need to feel before I value my in-game achievements. A mediocre designer can stuff a room full of triple-shielded enemies, let beta testers sweat through it for a month to make sure it’s physically possible, then ship it and call it “hardcore.” But a master can create the illusion of difficulty. They can nudge me through an obstacle in four or five tries, but leave me with the impression that it might have taken many more. That’s the only value that difficulty has in a game: it’s a seasoning used to sweeten the flavor of the overall experience. As the game progresses, it is necessary to use more and more of it, but letting it get out of hand earns you nothing from me. It is ridiculous, in my opinion, to be impressed by a game because you cannot beat it; it makes about as much sense as enjoying a movie you can’t watch.

The reason gamers get so attached to hard games is the personal sense of reward: they overcome something quite difficult, and derive immense satisfaction from it. I think this is a waste of time. The only place where video games should be difficult is multiplayer. Here, the rules change: the designers present us with a clean battlefield and then get the hell out of the way. Their task is to craft an experience where the largest predicting factor in any win is the personal choices of each combatant, with just the right degree of luck thrown in to keep things from getting stale. But even here, it is not the game that is difficult, it is the other players. If you lose a multiplayer match because of the game itself, then you have been cheated; the whole idea is to lose because of your performance.

The grossest offender of my sensibilities in this arena are racing games. Besides a few forward-thinkers like “Forza 3,” they make you take each race completely of a piece with itself. Make one mistake, you probably need to do all three laps over again. Why should this be? Almost every other genre in existence has developed a structure that accommodates the relative lack of training the average gamer has. Why can’t we save mid-race? Why can’t we have a limited number of “do-overs”? Why must racing games be such ball-busters? I think there’s some perceived purity in winning a race unfettered, but such a notion is nonsense. There is nothing unfettered about even the most intense simulation racer, it’s a pre-programmed set of experiences like every other game. And like every other game, the point is to be fun.

Certainly, this psychology can backfire. The Vita-Chambers in “Bioshock” were a critical mistake, because they undermined the value of each life lost. The same was true of the ill-fated, life-giving syringe in the original “Bad Company,” which rendered enemy fire a nuisance instead of a threat. But both of these were quick-fixes inserted into a game structure that did not adjust to their existence: “Bioshock” played like a game that didn’t have Vita-Chambers in it, except it did have Vita-Chambers. Ease of play destroys a sense of meaning in any accomplishment, and is just as corrosive to the overall experience.

Most games that are too hard test too many skills at once. Really satisfying challenge builds your skill set over the entire experience, then stresses key points just beyond their typical capacity, so you can push yourself a little farther and beat the obstacle. Poor design, like rubber-banding A.I. in a racing game or the final boss in the original “Gears of War,” tests too many skills at once, which causes the gamer to end up relying on luck more than anything else.

The key is balance, and that’s what we should respect. An impossibly difficult game is not some master stroke you’re unworthy of, any more than a masseuse who breaks your neck is “too good” for you. If you’re doing a level twenty times over, you’re not failing, they are.