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Is difficulty a good metric for quality?

Most of us had that conversation before and will have it again many times, whether it’s us criticizing something as “simple” or whether it’s someone else criticizing something we like as “easy”. I’ve had this conversation recently about music, movies, games, anything under the sun can fall into that category. For me, the answer is simple but the question is where things get muddy. Obviously, if a song is easy to play for musicians or amateurs alike, it makes no difference to its musical qualities, but the question rarely is “do you think a simple song can be good?”. More often, the debate is whether someone who dislikes the song is rightly criticizing it for being easy and therefore not worthy of their time or people who do like it have not heard of better songs and lack the knowledge to appreciate how good other songs are. I think – ironically – it is a simplification of a subjective and personal facet of opinions and criticism; if a simple song with simple lyrics and melodies and whatnot, fits the intended experience, then it’s a lot harder to justify why you like it while if it does not it’s a fairly strong point to make. I don’t like modern pop music, because lyrically it is about subjects that I cannot relate to like being rich or dissing someone or not having a care in the world and just wanting to have a good time, while musically, I just don’t like the modern beats and compositions being offered; however, that is also a simplification and a generalization of too many things. Do I not like all of the modern pop music and what even is pop music? Do I not like lyrics about having fun and not caring, because I have never done that and I find that hard to empathize with? Obviously no and musically/lyrically, I have liked those exact features in songs that I still listen to and love today. At the same time, songs that want to challenge you – whether its lyrics or music – are not always good, so is the difficulty of creation or execution or experience a good metric for how good that entertainment property will be?

For this article, I want to examine two games under this perspective. Both are some of the best experiences I’ve had all year and both are radically different in how they use the medium and their creators’ strengths to present experiences that are fitting to their initial goals and, thus, successful entertainment offerings. I want to start with “Impostor Factory”, the latest from Freebird Games makers of “To the moon” and “Finding Paradise”. “To the moon” is one of my favorite games of all time and my only issue – ironically, again – with that experience is how it forced sliding puzzles into an experience that didn’t really need them; they were there because this is a game and it needs something the players can interact with. “Impostor Factory” does away with that completely. You play as Quincy, a man who gets a mysterious invitation to a party in a secluded mansion where time-loops, murders, and a mischievous cat await him for our entertainment; in terms of gameplay, the only thing required of the player is to navigate the character to the next point of progression and interact with characters to get the story and progress through the level. There are no puzzles (besides one in the early game) and no thought is required in advancing the game. Contrast that to the other game I want to talk about for this article, “The Rewinder”, a game about a detective-priest-shaman character in Chinese mythology who can communicate with the Spirit Wardens and enter people’s memories to influence them. It is also a murder mystery with time manipulation elements (this time there’s a dog though and he’s not really mischievous), but it also offers some of the most interesting and devious logic puzzles of the year; everything from the mundane like abacus counting and the spinning wheel turned into puzzles, while supernatural elements offer logic puzzles that are satisfyingly difficult and approachable to complete.

Both of these games can stand at completely opposite sides of the debate; “Impostor Factory” for some will lack the interactivity they seek and will frustrate at its extremely linear nature; “The Rewinder” will make some lose patience or feel dumb at not understanding some aspects of the puzzles and will lessen the enjoyment they have of the narrative and the puzzles, but stick with it and you’ll find great enjoyment in figuring it out. Both are some of the best experiences with a game I’ve had all year long and the sole reason for that is both understand what experience they want to offer and find the most fitting way to deliver it. “Impostor Factory”, for example, had me laughing loudly the one moment and the next I was getting teary-eyed, only to have my jaw hit the ground the very next. It uses interactivity meaningfully because the story is (amongst other themes) about choice – sticking to decisions, making the best with what you have, being haunted by those decisions – but it is also about many other themes like living with a disease and allowing the player to explore that in their own pace. I could defend the lack of interactivity by reminding that the hardest thing to do in a story is getting the audience to care, but in gaming, all you really need is to control a character and have their perspective to initiate that process, however, I won’t. Art is hard to make and if a creator finds game creation to be the way that makes sense to them, then I judge the end product not how they used the medium or not.

On the flip side of that, “The Rewinder” had some of the most challenging puzzles of the year for me. That’s mostly because I suck at logic puzzles, but I pushed through them (except the abacus one, I looked that up on a guide) because I was seeking that challenge and the narrative reflected that. Yun, the eponymous rewinder, is on his first case and he does not have the experience nor the skills developed yet to solve the mysteries on his first go. Moreover, it switches up the puzzles constantly and allows for new ideas and mechanics to keep things interesting; from point & click gameplay, to environmental puzzles, QTEs, escape sequences, and more, there are a ton of ideas that the game tests the player with. Above all, those ideas are fitting with the experience; this is a constantly evolving case that gets more difficult and dangerous as it proceeds. The narrative also starts as something fairly simple and becomes something that is more emotional and meaningful than it seemed at first. Alongside the beautiful pixel art that mimics Chinese ink paintings and the excellent score, “The Rewinder” uses all of its great, individual components to create something that is excellent when whole.

What’s the point of this article then? First, both games are excellent and you should consider giving them a go if you are interested in them. For this article in particular though, I just wanted to showcase how games (and art in general) don’t need to be the most technically advanced, complicated designs, and deeply challenging narratives, to be excellent. “Impostor Factory” looks like something made in an easy-to-use engine like RPG maker and with no real mechanics to speak of, it’s easy to assume that it would take some months to put it together. Obviously, that is wrong as it took years for the team at Freebird to release it and a lot of that may have been perfecting the main focus of the game (the narrative), but they also did a great job at depicting locations that I recognize and relate to immediately; for example, that university library just feels so much like my own or the library of other universities I’ve been to. Not in its layout or the objects, just the general vibe of it feels like the story was taking place next to me while I was toiling away at my dissertation or reading up on Foucault. “The Rewinder” is something that I can see how hard it was to make; just imagine how much effort was required to capture Chinese ink paintings with pixel art, then create a compelling narrative and game mechanics. Both have their own difficulties; however, both have used their best qualities and talents to create experiences that matter and are fascinating in their own ways; one is easy to complete and the other a challenge; one seems to have been “easier” in some aspects of its creation while the other “harder”. The end result is that both are excellent experiences and worked through any difficulties to deliver exactly what was needed for those experiences to be realized, and both games deserve all the praise they are getting. Point being, don’t judge art by how hard it is to experience or create; judge it by how it makes you feel.  

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