Created By: Koveras on December 27, 2013 Last Edited By: Koveras on January 27, 2014

Darwinian Difficulty

Video games where the player must master all the mechanics to proceed past the first mission.

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Diclaimer: The term "Darwinian Difficulty" was coined in this Gamasutra article, but I think it describes the concept pretty well, so I'm snatching it. Is This Tropable?

A philosophy in video game design that advocates throwing the player headfirst into the fray, forcing them to either learn the rules on the fly—or die (that is, Rage Quit). The key differences between this design and other Nintendo Hard games are as follows:

  • After the initial wake-up call, the difficulty stays roughly the same throughout the game, while in other games it usually romps up gradually.
  • There are only a few core gameplay mechanics, all of which are presented to the player from the start and remain crucial until the end—in other games, these are usually unlocked one at a time and often supersede each other.
  • The only way for the players to improve their performance is to get better at the game—there are no power-ups or similar for that like in other games.

Compare Early Game Hell, Nintendo Hard, Difficult, but Awesome, and Trial-and-Error Gameplay (all of which overlap with this). Contrast Rubber Band A.I..


  • In Ninja Gaiden, the player either learns to dodge, block, and keep constantly moving or never makes it past the first ten-on-one fight.
  • Similarly, Demon's Souls and Dark Souls force the player to either learn to dodge, block, and riposte or quit at the first boss ten minutes in.
  • TrackMania racing games (especially multiplayer) feature insanely convoluted tracks that require precise control of the car to maintain top speed through craziest turns to simply reach the finish line.

Community Feedback Replies: 13
  • December 27, 2013
    Compare Early Game Hell.

    My only issue is the name. I do get the reference, but maybe others don't.
  • December 27, 2013
    So this means that the player must survive and learn the mechanics on their own?
  • December 27, 2013
    We'll, I immediately thought of adaptive enemy AI when I read the title. Maybe some with Gameplay in the title? Like Darwinian Difficulty Gameplay.
  • December 27, 2013
    ^ No relation to (but compare) Rubber Band AI.
  • December 28, 2013
    @MyFinalEdits: "Darwinian" is meant in the sense that only the fittest survive this game (i.e. you have get really good at it really fast to simply beat it), as opposed to games that hold your hand most of your time.

    @Earnest: Even though I found this working title clever, I am not really attached to it, so I am open to less misleading suggestions. Darwinian Difficulty Gameplay has the same basic problem IMO...
  • December 28, 2013
    If understanding a trope's title requires having read a specific article on the Net, it's a Bad Trope Namer by definition.
  • December 28, 2013
    ^ That is my concern, as well. :)
  • December 28, 2013
    ^^ We can always mention a basic Darwinist principle... (the same thing happens in Social Darwinist)
  • December 28, 2013
    Dwarf Fortress: You have a small group of dwarves, some tools and livestock, and the wilderness. Go build a safe habitation and figure out how to defend it from enemy armies and monsters, or die.
  • December 28, 2013
    This is covered by Earn Your Fun.
  • December 28, 2013
    This is a flatlining Learning Curve...
  • December 29, 2013
    @Someoneman: I am not sure. Isn't Dwarf Fortress a Roguelike?

    @Larkmarn: I don't think so. The two flavors described on Earn Your Fun either lock game content if you're not playing on highest difficulty, or require you to spend time/money on it (regardless of your skill) to get the best content. Either way, it's about denying the content to the player who take it easy/don't want to spend time, not requiring them to master all game mechanics to proceed. Also, none of my initial examples are on that page.

    @peccantis: But we don't have a trope for that yet...
  • January 27, 2014
    I am still certain that we have a trope here but it seems that my explanation skills are too weak to get it across. Discarding it...