There’s a not so fine line between really hard games that are fun and really hard games that are not fun.
The key to making a punishing game enjoyable is to repeatedly evoke that horribly stinging gut feeling of defeat in the player, and tint it with the tiniest glimmer of hope that the obstacle of the moment could one day be overcome. If that glimmer grows too large too quickly, than the game becomes too easy and loses its allure. If the glimmer is too minuscule or nonexistent, than the sting becomes a symbol of doom. But if the glimmer is just the right size, the player will return again and again to get his ass kicked by whatever monster, puzzle, or dice role the game can conjure up. This, coupled with the sheer rush that victory is indeed possible, makes the severity of the challenge all the more satisfying.
However, there are many ways to both create a worthy challenge and offer the glimmer of hope. Some of the most innovative and difficult games of the last couple of years have created wonderfully enjoyable systems built upon tapping into the addictive failure-hope feedback loop in a wide variety of ways.
In the Souls series and Bloodborne, the player is challenged by a punishing combat system with harsh penalties and demanding requirements of knowledge, agility, and timing to achieve victory. The glimmer of hope is that enemy patterns can be learned and the combat system can be mastered to consistently defeat lesser foes and great bosses.
In FTL: Faster Than Light, the player is challenged by a system based upon the inter-play of collectible stat-based attributes (represented by spaceships, weapons, and support systems) and a crucial random number generator which can make or break any single run through of the game’s campaign. The glimmer of hope is the player’s ability to meaningfully evaluate comparisons between potential attributes and maneuver himself to take advantage of low risk opportunities while hedging against high risk opportunities.
The Souls games are famously brutal and I love them dearly. FTL is perhaps the most popular roguelike of the last decade, in large part due to its demanding challenge, and is one of my all-time favorite strategy games. And yet neither game can hold a candle to what’s in store for the poor souls who decide to take on Tharsis. I don’t know if there is any valid way to quantitatively measure “video game difficulty,” but by the standard of a sheer win-to-loss ratio, Tharsis is currently, and may very well end up being, the most difficult game I have ever played for any significant length of time. After all, I have beaten every Souls game and Bloodborne numerous times and have won a round of FTL with 23 out of 25 ships on normal difficulty, but I have been defeated 22 times and have quit probably ten other rounds in Tharsis without achieving a single victory.
Unlike the above games, Tharsis’s challenge and glimmer of hope are uniquely produced by a single, blinding attribute of the game. An attribute which is well known by all to one degree or another.
Playing Tharsis is basically a form gambling.
Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Tharsis isn’t just gambling, it’s actually somewhat like FTL in that it is a roguelike in which the player has no direct control over important events, but can strategically position himself to catch benefits and mitigate risks. However, given the immense role of the random number generator in Tharsis, it may as well be a form of gambling, or at least it sure as hell feels like it when I get on my knees in front of my computer and pray to the Elder Gods for at least three of my four dice to roll sixes so I can survive just one more turn.
In Tharsis the player guides a four-man crew trying to stay alive and keep a space ship together over the span of ten weeks after it suffers a catastrophic disaster. Every turn is a week during which a few new problems arise across the ship’s seven sectors, and the player must assign crew members to fix the problems, use the sectors’ abilities, use personnel abilities, or do research for extra benefits. If the player can keep all of the crew members alive and the ship in one piece for ten turns, he wins.
Tharsis has this incredibly stress-inducing dynamic where there are about twenty different things you need to maintain at all times, but the player will only have the resources to deal with one tenth of them per turn. So in a typical game the player will constantly be putting out fires while the crew and ship slowly get weaker, all the while a random number generator can easily topple the house of cards at any moment.
Before playing Tharsis for the first time, I knew the gameplay was heavily effected by a random number generator, but I didn’t realize that the game was literally played with dice. As in, the player rolls digital dice on screen and then drags each die into slots which provide benefits. At first, I thought this was a rather clunky interface to put over the thrilling backdrop of treacherous space travel, but it didn’t take long for me to see the appeal. Plenty of roguelikes use random number generators behind the scenes to induce outcomes, often through a mini-adventure text interface (ie. FTL, Convoy, Sunless Sea), but somehow rolling a dice to decide outcomes feels more visceral since the player can actually see his fate bounce before his eyes. In that sense, the use of dice in Tharsis is a strange but effective example of visual/audio contextualization making a player action more interesting.
What makes Tharsis so hard isn’t simply that much of the player’s success in a given round is dependent upon chance, but rather that it seems to be dependent upon an extremely high degree of luck. There is undoubtedly a lot of strategy involved in where to commit crewmembers each turn and allocate dice, but even if a player has great judgement, the odds of victory in a single game are extremely low. A player simply needs a whole lot of dice rolls to go his way to keep crew members alive and the ship intact. When I play I tend to restart my playthrough during the first turn three or four times before progressing so I can start with low damages to my ship, but even when I do well in the first half of the game, my luck inevitably turns around somewhere near the mid-point and I usually lose in turn 6 or 7. It’s crazy how many times I’ve lost a precious crew member and started an inevitable slide towards defeat because I happened to be unlucky and get the worst possible roll in a given situation.
While strategy is undoubtedly a prerequisite to victory in Tharsis, it’s likely to only take the player a small part of the way to ultimate success. Based on my current loss rate, and the frustrated reviews of a lot of Steam users, it seems like 95% of a player’s ability to win a given round is based on getting good dice rolls far more often than not. Only 5% is based on good decision making once you have a basic understand of how the game works.
However, I must confess that my analysis of Tharsis’s difficulty may well be entirely dependent upon my ineptitude in math. Tharsis is like Blackjack in that the entire game can be reduced to a series of probabilistic investments. While there is a far greater degree of complexity in Tharsis than blackjack due to all of its moving parts, mathematically inclined individuals could undoubtedly build models to always make the optimal decision at every turn and movement in the entire game.
Usually when I have to deal with probability in games, I can eyeball it and make judgments based on my intangible sense of risk with what I assume is a decent level of skill. But approaching Tharsis with that mindset quickly leads to disaster. Even with my sub-par math skills I’ve picked up on a few basic principles to help me make decisions within the game. It may seem obvious to some, but conceptualizing that the average value of a die is 3.5 and that the odds of rolling doubles of any number with two dice is 1/6, did quite a bit to clarify the risks I was taking each turn.
But based on my experiences with Tharsis, I would estimate that mathematically optimizing playthroughs couldn’t possibly bump up win percentages passed the 20-30% range, but there are YouTube Let’s Plays with quite lengthy alleged win streaks (one is 29 wins straight). I haven’t actually watched these videos to see if they are real or if the players just got astronomically lucky, but I am quite skeptical of their supposed achievements.
Based on my description of Tharsis above, it probably sounds like I dislike the game overall, but I don’t. In regard to 2013’s Don’t Starve, Shamus Young commented, “like all good roguelikes, I loved the game slightly more than I hated it,” and that aptly described my feelings towards Tharsis. Clearly I cannot stop playing the damn game, even after it has kicked my ass about thirty times over the course of 10 hours without rewarding me with a single victory. For every time I’ve been devastated by a bad dice roll, I’ve pumped my fist and held back a triumphant yell five times after a good dice roll. The problem is that I need to raise that ratio from 5:1 to 20:1 if I’m ever going to beat Tharsis.
It’s because I’m so helplessly addicted to the game despite the frustration it has caused me that I quite admire the design philosophy behind Tharsis. It was a daring move by the developers to design a game which was intended to never be beaten by the vast majority of its players. Nothing in the core system of the game demanded such a punishing level of difficulty; I’m sure some modders could create an “easy mode” with more generous bonuses and weaker penalties if they wanted to. But the developers went in a different direction, and carefully infused the game with that precious glimmer of hope to keep defeated players coming back for more.
A lot of Tharsis’s addictive appeal probably has to do with its well-made interface. The game is pretty to look at and has a great soundtrack to boot. I’d guess that a significant chunk of the development budget went towards the surprisingly crisp visuals which perfectly capture the complexity of a crumbling spaceship and the panicked crew members trying to hold it together. The soundtrack may only consist of a few looped songs, but the simple techno jams provide a wonderful sense of flow to carry players through yet another disastrous playthrough.
The chance-based mechanics and smooth presentation combine to form a small, tightly-made package which sells for $15 on Steam. That price may be a bit high for some players who play it a few times, get frustrated, and never play it again, but for those who catch the Tharsis bug, it’s an adequate price. Anyone who likes any of the notoriously difficult games listed above, or any heavily random number generator-based games like XCOM or Massive Chalice should give Tharsis a try. It will give you a well-condensed form of punishing gameplay that you won’t be able to get enough of.