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Dracula and Difficulty

"Difficulty" is a word that invariably comes up in discussion of games of any sort. It's a setting in electronic games. It's a skill check in tabletop games. It's the basis for heated arguments about the relationship between creators and players, between accessibility and experience. But, for all of this, can we really define difficulty as it relates to games? It's a term that can mean all kinds of things in all kinds of situations, but, at its core, it's about the way that audiences engage with stories and their stakes. And speaking of stakes...

As I've mentioned previously in this blog, I started reading the original Dracula in October out of some lunatic idea of looking at the Castlevania series as an adaptation of the original novel. (Which may still happen someday, who knows what horrors the future will bring.) Life being what it is, it took significantly longer than I'd originally planned and I only finished the book yesterday. While focusing on a that particular video game franchise's use of the titular antagonist is admittedly goofy, I can see why Dracula is a book that's been adapted into playable formats for decades. Besides the iconic title character, the novel's final act is built out like a game, with specific established rules (for both vampire lore and Victorian society) and resources available to the vampire hunters and their quarry. It was, in fact, through a DOS game that I first encountered this part of the story, as most adaptations skip it or quickly breeze through. Difficulty within the story, then, is bound by these factors: as a vampire, Dracula is difficult to kill, the limited hours of daylight (and, later, Mina's condition) make it difficult for the characters to do what they need in the allotted timeframe, Victorian law and custom make it difficult to obtain information or enter locations... and so on. The difficulty of their situation is what gives the story its stakes. Interestingly, while we associate difficulty being countered through skill and preparedness, luck is a significant factor in their success... yet "luck" is rarely considered an appropriate way to overcome difficulty, even when it's literally how the concept of difficulty is approached in many tabletop games (we'll get to that later). We want our protagonists to succeed due to their own choices and efforts, and if that success is too much the result of luck, it their role and agency in their own story is diminished. Nonetheless, while Victorian novels are often notorious for deus ex machina conclusions, Dracula's ending (in terms of both the book itself and its title character) really is the result of the group overcoming  challenges through their own work and risktaking. The difficulty, as presented as a set of obstacles, was sufficient, so the audience stays engaged and the work becomes a classic.

So, let's go back to Castlevania. When I began reading Dracula, I also started playing the NES version of the first game via the Castlevania Anniversary Collection on the PS4. Due to a number of factors, primarily the PS4 also serving as our household media device, I switched to playing Super Castlevania IV on the SNES that lives at my desk. That game, while well-regarded for its music and visual style, is also considered one of the "least difficult" of the franchise, and so again we have to ask "what does that mean here?" As electronic games developed and became more complex, so too did the number of factors that could constitute "difficulty," some even offering different difficulty levels for their action sequences versus their puzzles. Here, at least, the gameplay is more straightforward, and "difficulty," at least theoretically, largely comes down to numbers: how many lives a player starts with (one more than was standard), the size of sprites and their relative hitboxes, how much damage attacks can cause, etc). Design is a factor, too if a less obvious one: the placement of enemies and taps, the frequency of health items, even the size of a level relative to player exhaustion was a element to consider in the days before save states. The relationship of intended difficulty to the player becomes an interesting one - it's more the expectation of difficulty for the average player to navigate these obstacles, and many of these were new elements in the early days. A lot of that expectation came from imagining that "average" player and adjusting around those assumptions. While it's frequently attributed to giving home games a longer shelf life (and to make it so a game couldn't be finished in a standard rental period, necessitating a purchase), I think the phenomenon of "Nintendo Hard" is more about the newness of these factors - it hadn't been that long since the era of Pac-Man, Missile Command, and Space Invaders, all of which could only increase difficulty by making enemies move faster and player resources less available. Add to that totally unexpected factors like the effect of different television formats and it all gets incredibly complicated. In short, when a game, especially an older one, is described as "difficult," any prospective player has to fill in their own experiences with all the known and unknown factors - a better question might be "is this difficult for me?" The result is, despite the static nature of design in games like the Castlevania series (which includes little to no randomization), a unique experience to each player and each playthrough. Where we experienced secondhand the difficulty of killing Dracula in the novel, it's all our own when we do it in Castlevania. The relation of story and audience in even primitive (by today's standards) electronic games show the richness and potential of the medium as a story and an artform. And I think that's pretty neat... even if I still haven't gotten to kill Dracula myself yet.

Finally, I'd like to talk about the idea of "difficulty" in tabletop games. Aside from the "difficulty" put on the player in regards to their decision making and problem solving processes, the term will refer to the modeling of an action that, within the world of the story, one would expect to be difficult: making the bullseye shot, picking the complex lock, performing delicate surgery, etc.. Unlike our Castlevania example above, the difficulty here is for the character to overcome, rather than the player (unless they're mathphobes grappling with a particularly number-crunchy system, I suppose). Some systems will even call the target number for a roll the "difficulty level," categorically arranged by the game's creators and implemented at the GM's discretion. In other words, our old friend luck returns to the discussion. While much of the enjoyment comes from experiencing the story through the eyes of characters, it can be important to remember that, when the difficulty is simply making a target number via modeling, it's only difficult inside the story. On this side, it's just luck. That's why it's important to attach the random variables to player choice and analysis, make sure that what they, themselves, decide at the table matters. Hard decisions are the ones we remember, not the "hard" rolls. Sometimes we even have to ask ourselves when those rolls are necessary, and when leaving things to chance would be detrimental to the story. There was more than a bit of luck in everything coming together in destroying Dracula in just the nick of time... but it was the how the characters decided to get there and the risks they chose to take that made their battle legendary. It's just something to bear in mind, whether you're making your challenges on the page, the screen, or at the table.

- B

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