When you play a video game, you expect to be able to use your skills as a gamer to beat whatever challenges the game throws at you. If the challenges require a lot of skill, the game is hard to win. If it doesn't require much skill, it should be an easy game. However, some games that should be relatively easy are actually quite hard. It could be due to shoddy programming, a Game-Breaking Bug, poor implementation of gameplay elements or time constraints, or the developers threw in something which makes the game harder, but which has nothing to do with the player's or Video Game A.I.'s skills. This is fake difficulty.
There are five main kinds of fake difficulty, in addition to The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard, a sub-category of this:
- Bad technical aspects make it difficult. Making a difficult jump is a real difficulty. Making that same difficult jump under an overly complicated control scheme, horrible jumping mechanics, or an abrupt mid-air change of camera angle—and therefore the orientation of your controls—is fake difficulty.
- The outcome is not reasonably determined by the player's actions. Unlocking a door by solving a color puzzle is real difficulty. Unlocking it by pressing a button until you get the right number is not.
- Denial of information critical to progress. A reasonable game may require the player to use information, clues, or logic to proceed. Withholding relevant information such that the player cannot possibly win without a guide, walkthrough or trial and error is fake difficulty. Also includes hidden Unstable Equilibrium (e.g. a later level is much harder if you do badly at an early level, and you're not informed of this ahead of time). In a 2D game with no camera control, hiding important details behind foreground elements or Behind the Black counts as fake difficulty if your character should be able to see them.
- The outcome of the game is influenced by decisions that were uninformed at the time and cannot be undone. (Unless the game is heavily story-based and unforeseen consequences of actions undertaken with incomplete information are legitimate plot elements, or the game offers some way of mitigating or eliminating those consequences.) A game that offers a Joke Character and is clear about the character's weakness has real difficulty. A game that disguises a joke character as a real one has fake difficulty.
- The game requires the player to use skills or knowledge that are either incorrect or have nothing to do with the genre. An American football game that requires you to describe the position that Jerry Rice played for a power-up is real difficulty. An American football game that requires you to describe the position that Ronaldinho played the most as, or one that forces you to do multi-variable calculus in order to train your starting lineup, is fake difficulty, not to mention just plain silly (even if that last one would arguably be kind of cool, at least to the mathematically-inclined).
It is important to note that just because a gameplay feature is annoying and frustrating does not make it fake difficulty. For example, placing a large number of invincible minor minions between the player and the Plot Coupon is extremely annoying, but if they can be avoided by skilled movement — the difficulty is real.
Note also that fake difficulty is not inherently bad. If used subtly, it can provide a satisfying challenge in cases where the AI might be lacking. However, it is obviously preferable for the AI to provide a challenge by playing well than by getting special advantages from the programmer. Moreover, some games (notably Platform Hells and Retroclones) get the majority of their comedy/nostalgia from Fake Difficulty and it is much of the appeal of them. Dungeons & Dragons' most popular module is packed to the brim with Fake Difficulty and attempts to reduce it have caused complaining from the fanbase. In these cases, it's perceived fair game because these games do not lie to the player about being fair challenges (or rather, about the nature of the challenges they provide), so a prospective player knows what they're signing up for.
Fake Difficulty was prevalent in many older games, when developers were still learning about how to make fair challenges. It took people to realize that sometimes, a game was hard for all the wrong reasons, before they could see how to make it hard for better reasons. The unfortunate side effect is that newer games seem easier in comparison merely because they're a fairer challenge. There are plenty of other reasons for this (such as players being aware of some persistent forms of Fake Difficulty and making sure to avoid them) but that's another article entirely. It still does exist today, mind you.
Fake or Artificial difficulty is sometimes used to refer to the raising of enemy stats without improving their AI or giving them new abilities. However, raising enemy stats may force the player to devise new strategies or execute their inputs with less errors. Trial and error and reattempting sections of a game are a natural part of most games, and only excessive or ridiculous examples of trial and error should be considered "fake". Also, difficulty is a measurable statistic that can be categorized into different kinds of player skills required to overcome it. Thus the term "fake" difficulty is a matter of opinion which can change from player to player, depending on which forms of difficulty they like or dislike.
Notably this is the reason why joysticks and d-pads are on the left, despite the majority of people being right-handed. Following The Great Video Game Crash of 1983, there were less new arcade cabinets being made, leading to players getting too good at the existing games and putting less money into them. Taking the cabinet apart and swapping the controls was a simple yet diabolically effective way to inflate the difficulty and milk more quarters out of their patrons, so much so that the idea spread like wildfire to the point it was adopted globally, leading to it becoming the norm in gaming today.
Difficulty due to technical aspects of the game
- Game-Breaking Bug
A bug which renders the game unplayable from its current state (and sometimes, even future states).
- Pixel Hunt
When a plot-critical item is hidden so well in the scenery it's barely visible, and you might not even know it was there.
- Some Dexterity Required
Games with unintuitive, complex, and/or difficult control systems.
- Uncomfortable jumping or other physics. Especially apparent when the system the game is on doesn't support smooth screen scrolling (like MSX).
- Ratchet Scrolling
Non-continuous scrolling that only allows you to go forward.
- Badly implemented examples of Rubber-Band A.I. or Dynamic Difficulty
In which the player does so well that the AI outright cheats, so much so that it makes certain mission objectives impossible unless the player also cheats, or even spawns so many extra enemies that tracking all of them starts to overwhelm the hardware. See also Fake Balance.
Outcome due to factors beyond player control
- Checkpoint Starvation
Absence or severe lack of Check Points or Save Points.
- Escort Mission - Some of them.
The success of a mission depends on the performance of a non-player character you can't control.
- Artificial Stupidity - on the part of your teammates.
As you progress in the game, and the difficulty rises, your teammates become more and more incompetent, forcing you to pull more weight.
- Interface Screw
An event where the player's display or control scheme are screwed around with.
- Static Screw
An event where the player's vision or audio is filled with static.
- Static Screw
- Luck-Based Mission
Skill matters not in this level!
- Random Drop - if the dropped item is necessary to continue the game or achieve certain endings.
- Damage-Sponge Boss or Marathon Boss
A boss whose difficulty is derived from the limits of the player's patience and endurance. They don't always qualify, but when they aren't difficult from a technical standpoint, aren't particularly evasive or hard to hit, and don't hit like a train, but are still hard because they take an unreasonable amount of time to kill or have excruciatingly long fights (especially with numerous unskippable cutscenes and/or quick-time events), it's probably Fake Difficulty.
- Video Game Delegation Penalty
By delegating a certain in-game task or mechanic to the AI or a NPC, you get a less desirable result than when you do it yourself.
- Forced Level-Grinding
When a boss or the encounters in an area reached in the normal order of progression are significantly more powerful and durable than what a player at the expected levels and equipment strength for that point in the game can reasonably deal with, forcing them to grind until they can handle the boss or encounters.
- Gang Up on the Human
Too many enemies gang up on the character the player is currently controlling for them to handle and not enough gang up on the computer-controlled party members. This can get pretty bad if the party members are also artificially stupid and focus on the one or two enemies attacking them instead of the dozen or so attacking you.
Denial of critical information
- All There in the Manual
If you don't know how to do a Shoryuken because you didn't read the manual, that's just you being lazy, not Fake Difficulty (or just a case of not having access to it or any reproduction of it for whatever reason). This is for games which refer to plot elements or instructions that are only in ANOTHER game's manual which you haven't purchased yet.
- Camera Screw
Problems with the camera in a 3D game.
- Copy Protection
Games with Copy Protection or Feelies that are not included with some nonetheless legal purchases of the game. E.g. Quest for Glory having only maps and pamphlets with certain versions of the game.
- Depth Perplexion
If objects that reside in the background or foreground layers can still obstruct and/or kill you by Collision Damage. In isometric views, it's hard to tell what's blocking you or what's safe to land on. Your bullets are blocked by walls, enemy bullets don't have that problem.
- Guide Dang It!
You'd never figure this one out without consulting some form of walkthrough. This can be invoked deliberately to hide really powerful weapons, substantial rewards, etc, that are optional. However, if the cryptic action is required to advance the game, it is fake difficulty.
- Hitbox Dissonance
Where the area around a character/enemy that registers hits doesn't match up with the actual appearance of the character/enemy the game registers hits that don't visually connect, or fails to acknowledge hits that do.
- Leap of Faith
A hole in a platform game which, despite appearances, is not bottomless and/or does have a safe place to land, just way off to the side. The only way to find out is to jump! This becomes fake difficulty when throwing yourself off a cliff and hoping you survive is required to advance the game. If the routes or rewards are completely optional, it is not fake difficulty.
When joining an online game, there are a lot of unwritten rules that fellow players expect you to know that the in-game tutorials do not explain. Worst-case, the single-player game is patched to be harder, with the expectations that players will use unwritten exploits.
- Now, Where Was I Going Again?
If you skip or forget information, you can't see it again.
- Screen Crunch
When you can't see your surroundings due to the screen resolution (or lack thereof).
- Selective Memory
When the player is denied information that the actual character should have.
- Trial-and-Error Gameplay
When you can only figure out the correct path by trying the incorrect ones and dying, until you get to the right one.
- Obstructive Foreground
You can't see yourself or the enemies because some object in the foreground is in the way.
- The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard and The Computer Is a Lying Bastard
Probably the worst cause of Guide Dang It!. This is when the game gives you information, but it's not simply inaccurate. The computer is outright lying to you (and not for plot-based reasons i.e. the player has no reason to expect a catch).
- You Can't Get Ye Flask
Where the text parser in old Adventure Games can't understand what you're telling it. Especially if you're telling it something that's really common vocabulary and should be comprehensible to the average programmer.
Punishing decisions made long before one could reasonably understand the ramifications
- Character Select Forcing
Where the game designs levels or enemies to only be beatable by a particular character or set of characters and doesn't require or at least hint at which characters you need to pick at the outset. Some older D&D modules that require a certain character class's abilities in order to advance the plot (but doesn't force a member of the party to be one at the outset) are like this. This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman is a more downplayed example, and it can be legitimate difficulty, depending on how severe it is - a niche but not useless character shining in a notoriously difficult spot very well may not be Fake Difficulty, but a full-on Joke Character (intentional or not) who rips open an extremely hard section but is useless otherwise presents a far stronger case.
- Permanently Missable Content
A "missable" item which, if you didn't get it on your first chance, will be unobtainable afterwards. Doubly frustrating if it's a very powerful item that will aid the quest, and sure to cause a lot of frustration if it's a key item, primarily required for the best ending. Extremely likely to cause controller-tossing if it's a key item required to get any ending at all. If the Non Standard Game Over screen/cinematic lets you know what you missed for your next go-around, then the Fake Difficulty of the situation is slightly lessened. It'd still be better if they told you about it before it was lost, though.
- Violation of Common Sense
When a game expects you to do something stupid or downright suicidal and punishes people who take the more "common sense" option. Forgivable in more comedic games, but it is fake difficulty when you lose the chance to get the Golden Ending because you decided to make the entirely sensible decision not to sacrifice the lives of your squad to complete the mission of "get Phantom Zone Cabbages for Mr. Maginty's stew".
A gameplay state in which it is completely impossible for the player to finish the game.
- Unwinnable by Design
A gameplay design element that in the future will deliberately prevent the player from winning, but the player may not be even informed of the possibility until hours after it happened.
- Unintentionally Unwinnable
Either a bug or an oversight has rendered the game broken so there's no way for it to tell the player how screwed they are.
- Unwinnable by Design
Requires or rewards counter-intuitive or irrelevant behavior or skill from the player to continue the game
- Bladder of Steel
If the Pause button doesn't apply to cutscenes. Have to go to the bathroom or answer the phone? Hope you don't miss the NPC giving you the secret combination to defuse that ticking bomb...
- Conviction by Counterfactual Clue
A game's solution requires an answer that is blatantly incorrect in the real world, causing players with the logical answer to get stuck at the puzzle.
- Empty Levels
Where the stat gains from gaining levels aren't enough to beat the new, stronger wave of enemies that attack higher-level characters. This is only fake difficulty if it's possible to avoid gaining levels in the first place (and thereby enjoy the artificially lowered difficulty now or at a later date) otherwise it's just a game with a Parabolic Power Curve.
- Unexpected Gameplay Change in more extreme cases
What thewhy is this Visual Novel suddenly making me play a rhythm game? I only have one arm, man, that's why I picked up the slow-paced game instead of one of those!