CJ and Holmes disagree: Are 'emotionally difficult' games more legitimate art?

June 18, 2020 2 min read

[CJ and Holmes Disagree is a series where Destructoid Features editor CJ Andriessen and washed-up Dtoid Show host Jonathan Holmes disagree about video games. Who will you agree or disagree with?]

Some game developers love making hard games. They thrill at the idea of inspiring players to dig deep for the courage to get through a seemingly impossible situation and to use their heads to devise strategies that are beyond anything they've ever planned before.

It's a risky move. Any time a developer might intentionally or unintentionally extend the player's time with a game past the point of enjoyment with some nearly unstoppable force or unmovable object, they run the risk of being accused of being "lazy" by adding "padding" through the route of "fake difficulty." Bullet-sponge bosses and level designs that require memorization through trial and error are two easy examples of the kind of design elements that will cause many critics to feel personally disrespected by the devs of the game in question. 

Strangely enough, we've seen games with "emotional difficulty" garner the exact opposite response from some of these same critics. Where they might accuse games that are technically difficult of "not respecting their time," they'll call games that go out of their way make you feel like crap "the next Schindler's List." Some of these games, like That Dragon, Cancer, are painful because they do such a great job of instilling genuine empathy in the player. They hurt because they make you understand and care about someone else. Then there are games like Heavy Rain, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian," and The Last of Usfranchise, which focus more on hurting the player with guilt than goodness. They make players choose between mandatory objectives like "shoot the innocents" and "kill that dog" or putting the game down for good, and because of how well they're made, many are compelled to keep going even when they aren't enjoying themselves anymore. To me, that sounds like some sort of mutually-abusive virtual relationship, but some critics seem to think this brand of traumatic escapism is proof of gaming's maturity and artistic integrity. 

When people experience strong emotions through internal conflict, they are bound to feel like something "real" and "meaningful" is happening. Getting through internal conflict is how we grow as people. Living with internal conflict is how we know we're real and not just two-dimensional, fictional characters. That said, just because a game makes you feel conflicted doesn't mean it's more real and meaningful than a game that just makes you happy. 

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