Hard Games – The Unending Thirst for Challenge


Art by Major Sniper.

A group of bandits runs down the hill towards my farm. They’re hungry, likely haven’t eaten for days, and what meager crop I’ve managed to cultivate out in the desert seems a feast to the haggard handful. So, they descend on my preoccupied farmers, weapons drawn, voices raised in a battlecry that my group doesn’t hear until it’s too late.

The world of Kenshi, an Early Access title on Steam that’s been in development for quite some time (read: since 2013), is defined by such brutal encounters. Just like real life, things can be going well, then take a turn for the worse with only a moment’s notice. Yet, despite the unforgiving nature of the game’s world, and the punishment it heaps upon me, I can’t help but be enamored by it.

Kenshi is just the latest in a list of brutally difficult games I’ve subjected myself to over the years. And no matter how frustrating the experiences – even after giving up on a title simply because it’s far too challenging – I find myself always searching for the next proverbial mountain top.

I’m not the only one who’s a glutton for punishment.

Take a look at any player’s game library and you’re likely to find a title or two that others define as “hard”. But why is that? What is it that makes us crave a challenge? And why, even after crushing defeat, do we throw ourselves back into the fray?

What Makes a Game “Hard”?

It goes without saying that what’s “hard” to one gamer might come easily to another. But there’s no denying that, exceptions to the rule aside, there are a few games, and genres, that pose a significant challenge to all.

Most notable, and perhaps the benchmark for “hard”, is From Software’s Dark Souls series. Over the years, it has become so infamous that its legendary difficulty has spawned a fair share of memes, including “Git Gud” and “It’s just like Dark Souls!”.

But even this behemoth is only one of a multitude of games that test patience and destroy wills. And if we were to take a poll, I’d guess that everyone’s list would be significantly different, yet filled with games that pose similar challenges.

Here are a few of my own examples: Hyper Light Drifter, Kerbal Space Program, and Prison Architect.

Each of these games push the player in different ways. Hyper Light Drifter tests the player’s reflexes; Kerbal Space Program tests a player’s problem solving ability; and Prison Architect constantly measures the player’s ability to manage resources. Yet, all of these games require the player to think on their feet and respond to challenges in real time. Failure results in loss.  

Why Hard Games?

I wrote a bit about objective overload in my April article. More and more, companies like Ubisoft seem to be pushing games towards the realm of busy work. It can be nice to have a game that allows ten minutes of play at a time, but that can get very boring very quickly. And, to a degree, I think that’s what drives players towards games with a more singular focus.

Take Bloodborne, for instance. This entry is somewhat tangential to the Dark Souls games, but hails from the same grisly place. It’s faster and more frenetic than the previous entries designed by From Software.

When it released, I resolved to give it a try. As my first foray into the world of Dark Souls, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect despite seeing many hours of gameplay over the years. I knew it would be hard, but wanted to give it a try anyway because it looked so good.

But I had no idea just how soul-crushing it would be.

The opening area of the game is meant as a tutorial. It’s designed to teach the player how this type of game is meant to be played. It lays out the ground rules and lets the player figure them out, but is unforgiving if the lesson isn’t learned. For the first week, I was stuck in this area. It took me somewhere close to six hours just to make it through.

To say that it was hard would be an understatement.

But the sheer sense of achievement I felt when I managed to beat the first boss – after almost twenty hours of play and nearly as many tries at beating him – was unparalleled. And it still is.

I never finished Bloodborne. I regret that decision and occasionally glare at the game as it rests on my shelf, still untouched. If I set my mind to it, I know I can beat it. It would take me a long time, and much heartache, but it’s possible. I’ve thought about going back, but I haven’t had the resolve or time. Not yet, anyway.

Even so, the thought of picking up where I left off has stuck with me all these years…

Why go back?

Regardless of the game, that feeling of triumph holds great sway over players. Even when a game crushes their will to carry on, the desire to overcome drives us back into torture’s open arms. We gladly endure failure, frustration, and setbacks in order to feel that rush when the challenge falls to the wayside – when the insurmountable becomes routine.

That next step to bigger and better things is a milestone, but it’s also a trophy; one begets another, so we carry on.

And let’s not forget the pride one gleans from mastering such challenging games.

It feels noteworthy to say that I beat the Wii version of No More Heroes and unlocked the full/secret ending. And I am proud of the fact that I beat Hyper Light Drifter.

You can be sure that I bashed my head against the proverbial wall in both of these games, but perseverance, despite the overwhelming difficulty, resulted in triumph.

A worthwhile endeavor, indeed.

What Lies Beneath

Challenge is the real reason I bought Kenshi.

I stared at the game’s Steam page for a long time before deciding to buy it. The open world looked cool, and I was enamored by the unfettered freedom the game promised. But most of all, I was drawn in by the promise of a challenge. Before diving in, I was told that the world would be unforgiving and that I would die, repeatedly, before bringing the unrelenting wilds to heel.

But it was the promise of a challenge, and the desire to overcome it, that drove me to purchase the game.

Those initial hours of play were insanely difficult. Even on what the game describes as “normal” difficulty, I could barely stray outside of the city walls for fear of being ambushed and beaten to within an inch of death. And on the inevitable occasion a beating did occur, it was almost painful to stare at my characters and watch them bleed into the sun-baked sand.

Defeat wasn’t enough to keep me from playing. Nearly fifty hours later, my small band of farmers is almost twenty strong, and they easily turn away hordes of starving bandits that come looking for food. Occasionally, a stronger group will come by and defeat rears its ugly head, but my settlers are carving out a place of their own. And the challenge doesn’t end there. Past the dunes of the desert surrounding them is a whole world to explore, with terrors far more exciting, and deadly, than anything they’ve yet experienced.

Beating the Odds

At the end of the day, adversity is at the heart of why we seek out challenge. It’s the reason we we indulge in harder-than-average games. It’s the driver behind why we play multiplayer games centered around PvP. And it’s the reason factions in EVE are constantly fighting with one another.

Playing games is fun, but overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles will keep us entertained far more than a thousand fetch quests, regardless of how shiny, or rare, the reward is.

Of course, hard games are just a subset of what I like to play and their viability is limited when there isn’t much else in rotation. After all, it’s one thing to enjoy hard games on occasion, but quite another to solely indulge in such recreational torture.

Right now, Kenshi is my go-to title for a challenge, but I’d love to hear about yours in the comments below!

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  • Ryan

    I’ve been following Kenshi in development for years, and I’m a big fan as well. Not many games blend action RPG and base builder together, and everything about it is pretty great. I also love the little mysteries in it, and what the game world implies about its past.

    Going on a tough journey from peasant to master martial artist is also just fantastic.

    August 19, 2018 at 7:13 AM
  • Pew Pew

    Nice article.

    I like the idea that humans are modular, we are not one single personality so much as a lot of little units that make contributions at different times. I like this quote of Karl Marlantes about the vietnam war:

    “One of the things that I learned in the war is that we’re not the top species on the planet because we’re nice. We are a very aggressive species; it is in us. People talk a lot about how well the military turns kids into killing machines, and I’ll always argue that it’s just finishing school. What we do with civilization is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies, and we have to recognize them.”

    I think that may be one of the joys of hard games, especially survival games. There are modules inside us designed to struggle and win at any cost, to fight in the mud until we have nothing left and keep on fighting. In a modern society they lie dormant because that strategy is not needed and others (like showing up for work in clean clothes) are so much more effective.

    But hard computer games give us a chance to struggle. To exercise that part of ourselves that wants to fight and to take any pain or suffering and keep on going. We have a lot of ancient strength within us and it’s nice sometimes to let it flare up, in a controlled way.

    August 19, 2018 at 1:20 PM
    • Lrrp Pew Pew

      Well put Pew.

      August 20, 2018 at 1:13 PM
    • Alot Pew Pew

      Humanity is diverse enough that you land up with segments which fundamentally abhor the principles that other segments exist for – despite every segment having a role and a use. The challenge comes in finding a way to nurture the extremely savage capabilities of the species without having to rip more docile groups to shreds – or should I say, finding a way to pursue military excellence without causing wars to sustain it -.-

      August 20, 2018 at 2:08 PM