Why We Play Tough Games

Illustration for article titled Why We Play Tough Games

What makes people want to play nails-tough games? When do they risk feeling like a waste of time? On this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen, we discuss.


First, Kirk and I talk about GDQ and hot dog eating contests before getting into all sorts of video game topics like Cyberpunk’s E3 demo audio leaking, Google’s plans for a video game platform, and how the wonderful Hollow Knight has got us thinking about the appeal of tough games.

Listen to the whole episode here:

Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt:

Kirk: ...If I don’t beat [Hollow Knight’s true final boss], it’ll just feel like such a defeat, and I hate that feeling, even while I’m thinking, ‘I could be practicing guitar right now... I could be doing anything except trying this boss fight for the 30th time.’ And I dunno, it’s got me thinking in general about why we take on the challenges in games that are already hard, and the psychology of that and why I feel like I need to do it. Do you get that feeling, when you play really hard games?

Jason: Yes and no, because at a certain point I have to reconcile feeling, ‘I really want to overcome this challenge’ and also ‘How many hours of my life is this going to take, and how many of those hours could I be spending playing something that will be more emotionally enriching or narratively satisfying,’ or something like that. Because you do get certain things out of beating really hard games that you can’t get out of anything else, but you also aren’t getting other things... You aren’t feeling like you’re enriching your life in intellectual ways. You look back and you’re like, ‘Oh my god I just spent 20 hours trying to beat this boss and all I got was that burst of gratification and that’s it.’

Kirk: That cut-scene I could’ve watched on YouTube.

Jason: It almost feels like eating fast food - it’s not nourishing sometimes. Sometimes it does feel nourishing, though.

Kirk: I feel almost like I’m a hamster who’s learned a really complicated light matching pattern. OK, here come the sideways swords, go right, jump, around, over. I have the sound turned way down, and as I take a cooler and cooler approach to the fight, I do better... I’m really good at Hollow Knight now. When I play against regular bosses, it’s just a joke, I feel really fluent at the game, so there’s that. But I agree that there’s this question of diminishing returns - I’m allowing myself to be subjected to this weird science experiment where I’m just trying to learn a bunch of patterns and then flawlessly execute them as my heart rate gradually picks up.

Just this morning I got to the second phase with all of my health, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’ And then adrenaline is cranking through your system, and your heart is beating, and you’re trying to focus, but you can’t keep the distance and remove that you need to match all the sequences and just keep up the constant perfect input you need to do, and it’s a really weird process compared to what most video games demand of you.


Jason: Do you ever think, ‘Oh my god I spent all these hours in Hollow Knight, I could’ve been doing something more enriching’?

Kirk: Yeah... I think that about video games in general.

For much more, listen to the full episode. As always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Google Play to get every episode as it happens. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at splitscreen@kotaku.com with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.


Nightshift Nurse

I don’t play difficult games. Pretty much ever. A handful of challenging ones, sure. Though, even then, I’m guessing what I view as a fair and proper challenge doesn’t line up with those of the enthusiast masses. Even so, this child of the eighties would invariably default to either forgiving dip switch settings or straight up cheat codes whenever the opportunity presented itself. (I recently hacked my SNES Classic and was amazed to discover I still remembered the code for Final Fight Guy’s hidden options menu.)

I’ve just never seen the point. E-peens aren’t real peens. And self-satisfaction can be found through so many other genuinely enriching or productive avenues. Pulling my hair out for dozens or hundreds of hours in order to not go pro just feels like a tragic waste of my time. And, unsurprisingly, I’ve regretted nearly every instance of tackling various hard-for-the-sake-of-hard games.

Honestly, it’s kinda why I’ve cooled on so much of the indie scene as of late. Too many of those developers are so far up their own ass with how high the difficulty and how clever the mechanics that they seemingly never stop to consider whether or not the game is actually any fun.

I play for the escapism, for the fun, for the adventure, and for the smallest amount of pushback.

Anyway, get off my lawn.