Difficulty is as difficulty does?
I've only played Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance for a handful of hours. Admittedly those hours have been a blast, and judging from what I've been reading online I'm hardly the only person enjoying the experience. However, there has been an undercurrent in many of the reviews and statements that has gotten me curious. One particular line of thinking that seems to be summed up in the following statement: "this is a real game".
To me, the statement seems somewhat silly; after all, there are some basic factors that decide what is and isn't a game. Of course, in this case the phrase "a real game" is referring to the fact that Metal Gear Rising is actually challenging to what is assumed to be the average game player. I know that at the close of the year I talked a little of the idea that games that can be made more accessible should be, regardless of whether that means adding in newer, more forgiving difficulty levels. My conclusion from that point in time to now hasn't really changed.
The thing is though that I can actually see a point to be made about difficulty in current gaming, at least in some cases.
In the past two months and a handful of days, I have mourned the loss of Devil May Cry, exalted in the delight of Metal Gear Rising, dabbled in the hardcore league of Path of Exile and come to the conclusion that wanting to be challenged and then actually being so is infinitely better than expecting to be challenged and instead being let down.
This isn't a call for every game to be mindnumblingly hard a la Battletoads or anything, but I think that when you look around you do tend to see a lot more of "game as specticle" rather than "game as game". There's a sense of the developers wanting to shuffle you as the player from moment to moment, setpiece to setpiece, without much in the way of difficulty or interference. I felt mostly that way when I played the original God of War (except for Hades, whoever made that can die as painfully as possible, okay? Thanks). The setpiece battles were amazingly cool, but the rest of the game just felt like a conveyor belt, going from point A to point B so you could go "wow, neat" and then step on the next conveyor.
Games are built on neat experiences. However, they aren't supposed to be entirely built on them. And getting those neat experiences is all the more gratifying when you actually have to work for them. Much like a dinner that consists completely of dessert courses sounds like a good idea on paper, but quickly gets old in application.
At the same time of course, if things get too difficult then you risk the problem of alienating the audience and having no one but a handful of people enjoy the content that you've put so much hard work into.
Difficulty isn't the only aspect of games, and it isn't what determines whether a game is good or bad. It is, however, something that can determine whether people will be satisfied by your experience, or if they'll even be able to engage in it in the first place. I just find myself wishing that people in the industry would take better measure of such things when trying to make titles.