Difficulty and Approachability in Action Games and Fighting Games
And how the learning curve in both genres demand the same things
Elden Ring launched on February 24th, 2022 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Everyone on my Steam friends list has been playing it nonstop, going back and forth between posting their reactions to certain areas and boss fights, and sharing memes about being maidenless and ‘try finger, but hole.’ Of course, while basically everyone has been showering the game in glowing praise, Elden Ring has also been subject to the typical discourse cycle that often surrounds the newest FromSoft game regarding difficulty modes, conflation of ‘accessibility’ (which, here at least, I will define primarily as options such as modular control schemes and visual clarity that allow physically impaired players to play the game) versus ‘approachability’ (which I will define as how inherently difficult the game or the genre is for an average player) and the more toxic contingents of the playerbase flaming people who may have reasonable, albeit inapplicable, concerns with ‘git gud’ comments.
I’ve never played a FromSoft game mostly because I prefer my action games to have an extremely fast, fluid feel based on moving around the screen with longer combos, rather than the more methodical combat based on recognizing patterns in the level and enemy design after trial-and-erroring your way through. (I’ve played plenty of games like Cuphead where the latter is certainly true but it’s often coupled with an aesthetic preference or high-octane movement that most FromSoft games didn’t seem to experiment with until Bloodborne.) Most of my favorite action games are PlatinumGames titles like Bayonetta, Nier: Automata, The Wonderful 101, or Astral Chain, and the game that I’ve been playing the most lately when I’m not grinding Guilty Gear or BlazBlue is Metroid: Dread. That said, I’ve seen the criticisms leveled at FromSoft games mirrored in discussions revolving around many of my favorite games, including fighting games and Dread itself.
A bit of a tangent here: I’ve been a longtime Metroid fan for far longer than I’ve been playing fighting games. I’m very picky about my Metroidvanias in general (Hollow Knight is probably my favorite indie Metroidvania) and Metroid as a series has been my favorite example of the action-platformer subgenre at its finest. Dread has very quickly worked its way into my heart as my absolute favorite 2D Metroid (if not my favorite in the series, period) due to the high degree of control that it offers to Samus, the tasteful and challenging level of difficulty, the amount of variation in combat, and the emergent design in how the game approaches speedrunning and sequence breaking. I have regularly picked the game up and finished it in a single sitting using casual application of the easier speedrun techniques and have consistently earned times around the 2 hour 30 minute mark, and I’ve put about a hundred hours into the game since it launched last October.
When Dread came out, a lot of the early critical reception was oriented around how surprisingly difficult it was, and not for no reason. In modern titles like Fusion and Samus Returns, Samus is shockingly fragile and will take single hits that deal several Energy Tanks worth of damage even on normal difficulties, and Dread is no exception. On top of that, regular enemy and hazardous environment variety has increased since the most recent 2D Metroid, and the boss encounters are likewise more difficult than previous 2D Metroid games where they only had a handful of patterns and could easily be killed by tanking hits and dumping Missiles. This is all before we even discuss the EMMI Zones, which can be difficult to traverse if you’re too slow or unfamiliar with the layout. The EMMIs themselves have parry timings barely outside of the threshold of human reaction times (the first swing happens at ~200ms or 12 frames with variable timing) meaning even the most talented players are escaping those encounters based on guesswork or having grinded out the timing rather than reacting to an audio-visual cue.
Because of all of the above, a lot of the early discussion around Dread was focused on similar concerns that people have expressed regarding Soulslikes. Players new to the series or unfamiliar with the genre’s trappings would find themselves stuck in areas, believing themselves to be soft-locked (a state which is nigh-impossible in Dread, but more on that later.) Bosses also often have patterns that the game will constantly remind you in loading screen tooltips as being avoidable but may still clip you in annoying ways. As mentioned before, Samus takes more damage in this game than she has in most other 2D Metroid titles, which, when combined with difficult enemy encounters, may result in you dying very frequently. (This is of course already the case with the EMMIs, who cannot be killed before their Central Unit is scripted to be destroyed.) Post-launch, MercurySteam seems to have come across a middle ground when responding to this feedback, adding an Easy Mode difficulty where Samus takes less damage and earns more health pickups on kill, and a Dread Mode difficulty where you die in one hit (unless taking environmental damage from extreme-temp rooms or lava.)
Metroid: Dread is, at its core, a very short game. The speedrun routes are approaching sub 1 hour 10 minutes, but the game is designed so that a casual player can beat it in under four hours. (An average ‘first run’ can be anywhere from five to ten hours based on the player’s existing familiarity and skill with the genre and series.) While Dread is certainly more difficult than prior entries, much of the difficulty can be circumvented in two ways: using trial and error as a learning tool to approach difficult situations and developing all the options at your disposal over time. Dying repeatedly to a boss is usually fine because most players won’t recognize or be able to brute-force through difficult patterns on their first attempt and being caught by certain EMMIs is almost inevitable without exceptionally refined movement. Subsequent areas and fights also get easier as the game progress for the same reason, since not only do you gain a better grasp on your existing repertoire of weapons and movement techniques, but you gain new ones as you push through the game. Longtime fans know that power-ups are not only keys that let you traverse through previously inaccessible parts of the world, but also powerful weapons that can increase your survivability. Figuring out how to use your skill set can even get you out of situations that otherwise seem like totally locked rooms. Extremely clever application of these tools is what inevitably leads to sequence breaking, with or without glitches. Because of this, it’s impossible to be truly soft-locked in any part of the game, since there is always a method to let you move on through any section, conventionally or otherwise.
A lot of the criticisms about Soulslikes mirror the criticisms of Metroid: Dread, but what I find amusing whenever these discussions come back around is that they also tend to parallel discussions about fighting games from genre outsiders. Fighting games themselves are a niche genre and attempts to garner wider appeal are usually centered around making them more approachable for newcomers. These principles can be tools like simplified commands, auto combos, wider input buffer windows, comeback mechanics, and even improved training and tutorial modes. Despite these advances in the genre, fighting games still appear unapproachable to newcomers since they are predisposed to assuming that the genre still consists of long, difficult-to-refine combos, overly oppressive setplay, and a bevy of other obtuse mechanics. This also isn’t an entirely inaccurate assumption, either- even the most ‘simplified’ fighting games end up having deeper mechanics that allow for skilled and highly practiced players to get creative with their preferred method of preventing their opponent from playing the game.
Of course, much like other action games, fighting games get easier to play with time and continued practice. This doesn’t necessarily come from time invested in grinding training mode combos, however. It is often just as important to play against, and lose often to, other players who are much stronger than you. Perhaps the main difference between a Soulslike or a character action game like Bayonetta or a platformer like Metroid: Dread is that you and your character begin the game with all your ‘power-ups’ unlocked. The approachability and the possibility space of the game will get wider over time, but you aren’t earning ‘new’ tools the more you progress- rather, you are simply learning how to access existing tools once the ‘older’ options have become easier to process in your mental stack. Approaching matchups also gets easier in the same way, since you begin to recognize how to defend against certain characters only by playing against them and studying the gaps in their offense. You don’t even need to always know the frame data for certain moves- simply figuring out “their turn is over, so I can mash my reversal or fastest abare option or jump out here” is often good enough and a major first step in learning how to fight back against strong opponents.
The fundamental skill that both action games and fighting games trade in is thusly not dexterity or high reaction times, but patience. It takes a decent amount of patience to get battered repeatedly with no initial reward for it, whether it be in a Souls game or Guilty Gear. What’s important to recognize is that well-designed games will do their best to give you both escape options and the ability to be creative with your offense. In games like Elden Ring or Metroid: Dread, you can often take alternate paths around obstacles that you don’t want to deal with immediately if you can cleverly apply your movement, and you have a variety of weapons or skills on hand if you choose to fight the thread head-on. In Guilty Gear or BlazBlue, you have several ways you can defend or spend meter to escape the corner, and if you’re on the offense you can use those same resources to secure your gameplan. The more time you spend playing those games, the better you will be at understanding how to navigate those situations that once seemed unscalable at the start of the game, but you must be willing to put in that time and lose for a while before getting anywhere.
The patience that these games deal in is rewarded with a profound sense of pride, discovery, and mastery once your experimentation pays off. This can often be a simple “I’m glad that’s over with,” but it is just as often a sense of “Wow, I can’t believe that worked!” or “I didn’t know I could do that!” In Metroid, this is usually when I find an out-of-the-way Shinespark puzzle that lets me skip a major path or get an upgrade earlier than normal. In Guilty Gear, it’s when I take a huge risk on a hit-confirm and get a combo that I hadn’t ever executed outside of training mode, or when an “I wonder if this works?” option pays off mid-set. The more difficult the challenge presented, the more rewarding the feeling of mastery is when you overcome that challenge. This is often more directly rewarding when the game provides you with something tangible to show for it, like spoils or progress made after defeating a boss, but fighting games can still provide that feeling in the abstract.
It’s important to remember that other genres require a lot of depth and exploration from their players as well- the stigma surrounding fighting games and difficult action games is mostly a perception issue cultivated in equal parts by certain contingents of the hardcore audience and misconceptions perpetuated by outside viewers. Card games, for instance, have no dexterity or execution requirements, but they rely instead on luck and being well-versed in enough strategy to either make meta decks work properly or make off-meta decks perform in flashy ways. Traditional platformers focus almost exclusively on the dexterity required to make trick jumps, with harder Kaizo-style level designs punishing you just as severely as most Souls games might for minor mistakes. While it’s possible to succeed in some FPS games without proper aim by scoring assists or playing the objective, the genre still rewards honed precision and twitch reactions. Much like fighting games, these games all have a degree of difficulty to them where patience in overcoming the challenge is rewarded with a sense of satisfaction. Also like fighting games, a lot of the inherent difficulty of these genre is mitigated by quality of life improvements or features that lower the barrier of entry- online TCGs that are less expensive, platformers with more fluid movement or quicker respawns, aim assist for FPS players on gamepad, and so on.
I’ll probably be peer-pressured into playing Elden Ring for real because all my friends are making it genuinely look fun, but it’s been hard to pull me away from Metroid: Dread lately. I’ve probably completed thirty or forty runs at this point- it’s just been a lot of fun to pick the game up and finish it in a single sitting when I want to take a short break from grinding fighting games. There’s also been a lot of fighting games to play in the meantime anyway- in the past month alone, I’ve been playing Strive, +R, Type Lumina, Central Fiction, and Cross Tag Battle, and I plan on picking up P4AU2.5 now that rollback has been legitimately confirmed for it. (I’m kind of waffling on KOFXV because I’m spoiled for choice in the genre, and it’s never really been my game.) Regardless of whether I end up learning how to play a FromSoft game or new fighting game for the first time, I will probably run into some unexpected challenge and be forced to learn how to overcome it through trial and error. Of course, the reason why I play games like these anyway is because I like figuring out how to exploit my character’s strengths to defeat my opponents in a flashy and satisfying manner. Even if learning how to do so is difficult, the exploration of the game’s systems and the discovery process is all part of the fun.