There are tons of reasons to play video games—for the story, for the graphics, for the immersion, or for the challenge. For a while, it seemed that challenging games were falling by the wayside in favor of easier games that appeal to a wider demographic. A gap emerged between serious gamers and casual gamers, who didn't want to deal with repeated failures to attain story achievements.
Some developers have tried to bridge this gap with customizable difficulty settings, and others are firmly catering to one camp or the other. Lately, we're seeing a resurgence in challenging games that use permadeath and other old-school arcade techniques—sure to satisfy gluttons for punishment in the gaming community.
Roguelike Games Bring Back the Challenges of the Arcade Era
Roguelike games are procedurally-generated games that employ permadeath, a mechanic that means once you die, you're dead for good and must restart at the beginning. Some of the top-reviewed games on Steam are roguelikes, with three of the most popular being Crypt of the Necrodancer, The Binding of Isaac, and Don't Starve. For players of these three challenging games, the gratification comes from how far you can get, rather than actually beating the game—although beating these games is certainly an achievement to be proud of.
So what's the appeal of this kind of punishing gameplay? Aside from the challenge itself, roguelikes can be played in short bursts because it's difficult to get very far in one sitting. They're ideal for people who have twenty or thirty minutes to kill, though they can also be incredibly addictive as you struggle to surpass your longest run. Roguelikes can also be ideal games to play in group settings, inspiring plenty of competitive bouts and laughs at your best friend’s losing face.
These kinds of games hearken back to the arcades of many a gamer's youth, when hours of playtime required at least one roll of quarters. Old arcade games were about skill, not story. There's certainly some nostalgia at work in the appeal of these newer challenging games. Being the first in your friend group to earn an achievement in Spelunky is no less satisfying than when you were the first to enter your initials on the high-score board at the local arcade.
Dark Souls Punishes and Rewards Players in Equal Measure
But roguelikes and arcade-style games aren't the only ones employing difficulty as a selling point. It's impossible to talk about punishing gameplay without mentioning From Software, the creators of Demon Souls and its spiritual successors Dark Souls and Dark Souls II. These are games that drop you into the world with little instruction. Sure, they'll walk you through a brief tutorial of how to swing your weapon, but beyond that you're on your own. The story is murky, the world dark and unforgiving, and the gameplay is much the same.
Like roguelikes, the fun in these games is the thrill of achievement, or getting past certain milestones. Some players give up after being slaughtered by three skeletons, but others will keep trying a new strategy until they succeed. In Dark Souls, that persistence is rewarded with better gear, snippets of story, and increasingly difficult enemies.
While roguelikes appeal to fans of arcade games and nostalgia, games like Dark Souls are a little different. People who have grown up with video games frequently grow bored of the often-derivative and repetitive nature of popular arcade series. While there are always permadeath runs and player-created challenges, replaying your favorite game with an extra step of difficulty isn't always what you want. That's where games like Dark Souls come in, targeting dedicated adult gamers who won't be swayed by the dismal atmosphere, challenging gameplay, and lack of hand-holding.
Challenging Games Reward Dedication
Games like Dark Souls aren't inherently better than easy games, and there should always be a place for casual gamers in the market, but the demand for challenging games appears to be growing, not shrinking.
Fortunately, many developers are rising to meet that demand. From Software's Bloodborne is slated for release this year, bringing the difficulty of their previous games to a new setting. Titan Souls, originally developed for Ludum Dare 28 with a free prototype online, is a highly anticipated indie game that's similar to Shadow of the Colossus—if Shadow had only given you one arrow and one hit point.
The repeated failure and constant frustration of challenging games isn't for everyone, but dedicated gamers can rest a bit easier knowing there are plenty of new permadeaths and forehead slaps awaiting them in their gaming future.