Length of play session: 2 hours
Fun level (-10 to 10): 9
I continued playing Cuphead with my friend this week. The story is quite similar to last week’s blog post. The general depression of everyday life completely faded away while playing the game. On the other hand, the game’s difficulty ramped up quite severely in these newer levels, and shows no signs of plateauing. In many ways, one would think the increase in difficulty would linearly increase frustration with the game, yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. Though I cannot speak on how my friend feels this frustration, I can safely say that I am having just as much fun.
If I were playing the game alone, I could easily see how that wouldn’t be the case. Dying thirty times on a single boss, and having to replay that 4 minute boss fight from the beginning every time, would frustrate me if I had to bear that burden alone. But with a friend there to laugh with for every mistake, to jovially talk down to as they make mistakes, to self-deprecate to when I make mistakes, and to have one of us cheered on when the other runs out of lives, takes the slight sting away from failure.
This blog is mostly about my feelings, so I think it’s important to speak about how I don’t think that coming up against a difficult game needs to result in frustration, and some of the design philosophy behind that.
Almost all my absolute favorite games have a good deal of difficulty to them, but I don’t like them because I’m a glutton for punishment or what-have-you. I’m actually not great at beating difficult video games, and often find myself struggling quite a bit in difficult situations. The thing that keeps me from getting frustrated easily is the mentality I have when playing these games.
I play these games for the joy of the gameplay. I’m not playing a game like Dark Souls, Bayonetta, or Cuphead just to ‘complete’ them, and I’m certainly not playing them to experience a good story. I know that these games will be difficult before I start playing them, so I do not consider death to be a failure in-and-of itself. Both Dark Souls and Cuphead provide the player with almost no real punishment on death. Dark Souls respawns you close to where you died, and Cuphead allows you to retry any stage immediately. Bayonetta does punish death in a fairly severe way, but the gameplay is so good that it’s a joy to replay the levels regardless.
Fun gameplay does not become unfun on the second attempt. The pattern recognition, dodging/parrying skills, positioning requirements, and attacking skills are still intense on the second try of an intense boss fight. The game should still be intense and fun on the third, fourth, and fifth attempts. I do admit that after this many attempts, the fight can become fatiguing, but there are many ways around this, and Cuphead’s addition of a multiplayer mode is one of them. The absolute best way is to make sure your game is fun to play; something that developers of modern AAA cinematic style games typically forget.
I feel like many developers these days treat progression as something that the player is trying to work towards. It’s as if many developers believe the player should only want to defeat a boss, or progress through a section of the game to reach the next boss, section, story moment, or cutscene. I think this presents a problem in that if the player is always looking ahead for a reward, any blocks to progress are seen as frustrating and unneeded. This sort of game design creates players who want to get to the next level more than they want to beat the current level. I believe there is a large and important line between those two goals.
My friend and I spent half of our play session trying to beat a single boss. Each attempt did not bring along new challenges (we had seen all the boss had to offer on a lucky try earlier), but each attempt still held a lot of fun. Watching my friend consistently failing to dodge the boss’ most telegraphed attack got funnier each time. Constantly losing my health to small stage annoyances was slightly frustrating, but the mood always stayed jovial in general. Those little annoyances even added up to funny situations with my friend and I ribbing each other about them.
With only the promise of even harder bosses in front of us, we wanted to kill the boss that had stopped our progress. It’s not because of that promise that we persevered and had fun; the future didn’t matter. We wanted to kill that boss because the fight itself was fun. The boss had a confident smirk on his face, and we wanted to wipe that smirk away. We weren’t playing for the future; only in the now.
Bayonetta. PlatinumGames Inc. 2009. Video game.
Cuphead. StudioMDHR Entertainment. 2017. Video game.
Dark Souls. From Software. 2011. Video game.