Fake Difficulty

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Gravity follows the arrows. Do you know exactly where to drop to be lined up with the little green star in the back? Neither do we.[1]
"This is one of the hardest games I've ever played, but for all the wrong reasons!"

When you play a Video Game, you expect be able to use your skills as a gamer to beat whatever challenges the game throws at you. If the challenges requires 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, but the developers threw in something which makes the game harder, but which has nothing to do with the player's or AI's skills. This is fake difficulty.

The are five kinds of fake difficulty, in addition to the sub-category (The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard):

  1. Bad technical aspects make it difficult. Making a difficult jump is a real difficulty. Making a same difficult jump with overly complex controls, bad jumping physics, or an abrupt mid-air change of camera angle - and therefore the orientation of your controls - is fake difficulty.
  2. 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.
  3. Denial of information critical to progress. A reasonable game may require the player to use information, clues, or logic to proceed. Witholding 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.
  4. 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.
  5. The game requires the player to use skills or knowledge that are either incorrect or have nothing to do with the genre. A football game that requires you to describe the position that Jerry Rice played for a power-up is real difficulty. A football game that forces you to do multi-variable calculus in order to train your starting lineup is fake difficulty, not to mention just plain silly.

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 they can be avoided by skilled movement - thus, 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 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.

Fake Difficulty was prevalent in many older games, when developers were still learning about how to make fair challenges. When people realized that sometimes, the game was hard for all the wrong reasons, they decided to make it more of a fair challenge. The unfortunate side effect are 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.

See also Fake Longevity, Classic Video Game "Screw You"s. For its cousin, see Fake Balance. For the player variant, see Fake Skill.


Difficulty due to technical aspects of the game

  • Game Breaking Bug
    A bug which renders the game unplayable.
  • 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, 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.

Outcome due to factors beyond player control

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. 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" layer can still kill you by Collision Damage. In isometric views, it's hard to tell what's blocking you or what's safe to land on.
  • 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. The only way to find out is to jump in!
  • Metagame
    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.
  • Now Where Was I Going Again?
    If you skip or forget information, you can't see it again.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Death By Genre Savvy / Death By Pragmatism / 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".
  • Lost Forever
    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 Nonstandard 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 Forever, though.
  • Unwinnable
    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 prevent the player from winning, but the player may not be informed of this until hours after it happened.
    • Unwinnable By Mistake
      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.

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 true 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 the—why is this Visual Novel suddenly making me play a rhythm game?
  1. Here's a hint: the spin jump is your friend.