Sonic Mania & Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Highlight Our Changing Opinions Of Difficulty In Video Games

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In the space of just over a week, I’ve seen and taken part in two entirely different discussions over difficulty and the penalty for failure in video games. It’s a topic I think about every now and then, and that’s mainly due to my own relationship with the medium.

The way I play games now is entirely different from how I played them even as recently as a few years ago. It wasn’t that long ago when I could easily fit in 3-4+ hours of game time in a day. A time when I could be an obsessive-compulsive completionist and squeeze replay value out of every single game I possessed – Grab all the Achievements/Trophies, find every collectable and hunt down every shred of optional narrative or content available.

But there does indeed come a point in your life when you realise that time spent gaming should most certainly be kept in moderation, as other priorities and life goals enter the scene. A period when free time is finite, precious even. And that fundamentally changes the when, why and how you use that time.

It’s been just over a decade since I heard the term of games and game developers “respecting time”, and it’s a term I’m absolutely fascinated with. It’s a great way to describe how games deliver (or fail to deliver) a satisfying and entertaining experience, even in the shortest of play sessions. There are indeed, games that do not respect players’ time – Where hours of grinding through powerful enemies and repetitive quests only provide the tiniest of actual progression or satisfaction to the player. At that point, games do become a genuine waste of time.

Respecting players’ time should be the goal of every developer. I want to know that if I play a game for 30 minutes, I can get as much satisfaction than I do if I were to play that game for 2+ hours. More importantly, I want to know that if I reach a fail state in a game (a term coined for lives lost, “Game Overs”, lost progression), the penalty for that mistake does not cost me hours of progress.

And that brings me onto Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a game developed by Ninja Theory (Enslaved, DmC, Heavenly Sword) that deals with some genuinely intriguing themes of mental health. Without spoiling too much, when reviewed popped up, around a week ago (at the time of writing), a great deal of discussion revolved around a scene early on that suggested that if the player should die in battle too many times, their save file would be deleted and all progress would be lost.

Yes, this was essentially a knee-jerk reaction from myself (A “hot take”, as the cool kids call it). I received a few replies from friends and former games media colleagues telling me there was a bigger picture to all this. And again, without spoiling too much, that much is true. I haven’t played the game yet (but being a fan of some of Ninja Theory’s prior work, and being intrigued by Hellblade’s content), but I now know that this game isn’t terribly difficult (and there is an Easy mode, too). The game itself is around 5-6 hours long, and it would be incredibly unlikely for players to trigger this unwelcome feature. But, should that threat be a real one – 5 to 6 hours is not an insignificant amount of progress to lose in one go, thanks to a feature that enforced on the player. There’s a little more to Hellblade’s permadeath scenario, but I won’t go more into that as it does delve into some pretty serious spoiler territory, which media outlets have gotten flack for reporting on.

I reacted rashly without knowing the whole story or playing the game for myself, and that’s an uncharacteristic failure on my part. But, it does raise that question on how to punish players for failure. Permadeath is a mechanic that’s usually an optional difficulty modifier in some games, that punishes the player for death, by deleting their progress and causing them to start from the beginning. Or as we call it, “how video games worked before battery backup, memory cards and save files were commonplace”.

It took a long time for difficulty and challenge to be a refined mechanic in video games. Fail states became a necessity in the arcade era, as a means of making players pump more coins in cabinets, and making arcade cabinet owners more money. For much of the arcade era, games were created to have such a high difficulty that multiple credits would be required to reach the end of linear arcade games.

When video game consoles got their second wind in the mid to late 80’s, arcade-style difficulty came along with it. After all, many console developers had up ’til that point worked exclusively on arcade games – They were just designing games as they had all done. The result was some pretty high difficulty spikes for many 8-bit games, which regularly delved into the unfair and frustrating territory – If you can, talk to anyone who finished Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES without a cheat cartridge, and you’ll see the rage in their eyes.

There were even instances where Japanese games were deliberately amended to be made harder for the Western market when localised, to combat the burgeoning rental market (which was illegal in Japan but very popular in the West – much to the chagrin of Japanese console and game manufacturers). The idea is that games could not be finished over a weekend rental, meaning it made more sense to buy and own a game and have all the time you needed to complete a release.

Still, the high difficulty of these games was, in most cases, a good thing. Games without battery backups or passwords were usually brief enough for a player to finish them in half hour or so if it weren’t for them being so ridiculously hard at times.

And as gaming has developed and evolved into the massively-popular pastime and entertainment medium it has today, game difficulty and in particular, length has changed. The AAA tier games usually start at offering around 7-8 hours of gameplay, to the literal hundreds of hours of content, and with it, the necessity of save games. Even the shortest of games offer the ability to save progress and carry on later because developers now understand that there’s a wide audience of people that play games, and each one has their own life priorities and they own perceived value of their time. For the most part, games respect the time of their players these days.

The tradeoff for this respect has been a change in the punishment for a fail state. With games being many hours long, enforcing the complete loss of all progression is a punitive measure that most certainly does not hold well with players of modern games. Over a decade of save points and quick saves has certainly softened us in a medium that at one time relied on skill and/or persistence. The backlash against Hellblade’s Permadeath has certainly made it clear that there’s a line to be drawn between the punishment of fail states and respecting players’ time.

On the flip side, a very different new release has raised the question of difficulty, and interestingly it’s a game more akin to the old ways. Sonic Mania is a game that honours the blue hedgehog’s 2D past, warts and all – Adopting a save feature ripped straight from 1994’s Sonic The Hedgehog 3. It’s a game with finite lives, but also saves progress after the completion of each 2 Act (level) “Zone”. A very “old school” new release adopting some very “old school” save mechanics should not be that much of a surprise – Unless you’re Tom Orry in this piece for USGamer:

In the piece, Tom finds fault in this save system, suggesting that losing up to two Act’s worth of progress is too harsh and disrespectful of player’s time. Of course, I don’t begrudge any of his opinions, and I can understand how frustrating this mechanic might be. But, this piece really does highlight how attitudes have changed.

I commented on this article on Twitter:

That Tweet has become the most Liked/RTed thing I’ve ever done on Twitter (which is sort of depressing – Seriously, share this blog right now *wink*), which means there are enough people that do agree with me. Sonic Mania’s Acts are pretty short – Some of the later Acts and Zones are a little longer, but most of them really can be finished in about 5 minutes.

I finished the game this morning, and not once did I lose all my lives. Honestly, I didn’t find the game terribly challenging – Mainly due to the one tip that I’d give any Sonic player: Always make sure you have one ring, and you’ll mostly be invincible. Yes, others will find the game easier or more difficult than me, but even if you are losing 5-10 minute progress at a time, this is a game that’s no more than an hour or two long, with save states and regular checkpoints. Its difficulty is designed to cater to players of all abilities. There’s even a mode for the hardcore that doesn’t allow you to save.

Without that punishment for starting at the beginning of a Zone after losing all your lives, where is the challenge? Why even have finite lives, if the game just stuck you back to the beginning of that level after a Game Over? I stick by the opinion that Sonic Mania’s save system and multiple checkpoints are pitched just fine, offering sufficient challenge and enough of a safety net.

It’s Miles (Prower *snigger*) better than reaching the final boss of Sonic The Hedgehog 2, losing all of your lives AND continues, then having to start right back at the title screen – Losing all of your Chaos Emeralds in the progress as well (and those Special Stages are HARD!).

Sonic Mania’s entire raison d’être is based on being a throwback to classic Sonic, and its progression structure mimics that for the most part, but adds plenty of concessions to modern players. Yes, there’s punishment for failure – But 5-10 minutes of gameplay is the standard for plenty of modern games these days.

Fail states are becoming a non-existence entity these days. Most of the new games you and I play rarely offer punishment for failure – You’ll die and most likely be placed right where you were. That’s fine, and that’s certainly the highest way to respect players time. But a challenge is what separates the video games to the interactive narratives, and it is about time that the concept of fail states is revised. Even Nintendo is removing finite lives from Super Mario Odyssey, replacing it with a system that removes 10 coins when a “life” is lost – They say a player will never see a Game Over screen, even if they don’t have 10 coins. This is coming from previous experiments in Super Mario releases, including mechanics that offer struggling players invincibility, at a cost of marking their save record to states that the player has utilised this feature.

Ultimately, there needs to be a way to offer flexibility in terms of catering for those who want a challenge, and those who just want to experience a game. That goes beyond Easy, Medium & Hard difficulties, and delves into giving players the flexibility to mould base mechanics around their abilities. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a wonderful example of this, offering separate auto-acceleration and auto-steering modes that give low-ability players, young or impaired gamers a chance to compete against the CPU and more skilled opponents.

The reasons we play games are varied, and the amount of time we spend playing them is ever-changing. Developers are realising this, so here’s to the ever-changing challenge of video games.,

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