But it doesn't have to be like this! If everyone plays Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV, the world might be mended.
There's a sequence in VVVVVV that deserves to be famous. Everyone who plays the game will remember it; Kieron Gillen already wrote about it. It's the titular sequence of rooms called Veni, Vidi, Vici!*, and in it you learn how to play games again.
In VVVVVV, you use a simple gravity-flipping mechanic (no jumping) to progress through various snappy platforming challenges, packaged as individual rooms. Checkpoints appear in nearly every room and you respawn fast; Quintin Smith probably said it best by saying that VVVVVV's checkpoints "allow players to exist forever in the scorching heat of insurmountable challenges."
The main plot, rescuing stranded members of your crew, is tough; the VVV rooms themselves are an optional challenge. They're a crazy dare you can't help but accept, because you'll always remember that you couldn't do it if you don't do it.
Like every good dare, they start with a taunt. You stand on a platform on the first screen, "Doing Things The Hard Way" (every room in the game is named something), separated from the extra credit bauble by a waist-high barrier. Damn your non-vaulting legs! It's a mark of the designer's wit that he begins this notorious segment with a literal stumbling block.
The only thing to do, then, is fall up, speeding through 6 screens bristling with spikes, flashing by quickly enough that the lurid solid colors conspire to give you a seizure. The 6th screen (Getting Here Is Half the Fun) lets you rest on a dissolving platform for about half a second before you head all the way back down. Going back is the hard part.
This sequence is the heart of the game, and while it may not be the heart of gaming itself, it is one of several hearts keeping the monster that is gaming alive.
The VVV rooms are pure memory. You come untethered from a checkpoint for probably the longest period anywhere in the game. You only need to press the left and right keys, and the action key, once, in the 6th room, at the peak/nadir of your jump/fall. Completing the sequence seems impossible at first, but as you fall through these screens you learn them literally forward and backwards; you find yourself getting just a bit farther, miraculously, with most attempts. You learn the exact amount of pressure to apply on the Left arrow when exiting Vidi to place yourself in the center of the narrow path between Vici!'s walls of spikes. You teach yourself to move precisely.
In player input, the challenge resembles outracing the Quick Man lasers in Mega Man 2, which also required a precise, memorized series of left and right taps from the player, who evaded death beams by falling as they emerged from the sides of the screen. Players had to commit the sequence of platforms below to memory to scramble off them in time to avoid the beams. This famously difficult setpiece could be avoided if players had acquired the Time Stop ability, but where was the fun in that?
VVVVVVV's memory challenge is harder than Mega Man's (I know because I just replayed the Quick Man stage, piece of cake) but it also isolates the hard section by installing a checkpoint right at the base of it; Mega Man 2's killer sequence arrives in the middle of a level full of other difficulties. Cavanagh removes every complication, every concern beyond the task at hand, leaving only a test of memory and performance.
Memorization isn't often a glamorous activity, but it's one of gaming's essential pleasures. In any difficult platformer (and I can't name a satisfying easy platformer), you will encounter a group of obstacles that seem impossible to overcome; you will invent a plan, or trick, to handle each of these individual obstacles in turn; you will learn to execute this plan perfectly; you will feel very good when it finally works.
You might remember part of level 5 of Castlevania where you can push an axe-throwing knight off the screen, which is easier than trying to kill him. Or you remember a part of Ninja Gaiden 6-2 where it is safer to jump over a bird than kill it (because killing it would cause it to respawn near the platform you're trying to reach, but if you leave it alive the NES won't be able to draw two birds at once, and will have to wait until the first exits the screen). There are hundreds of tiny strategies that led to your victories over these levels and their bosses. You might not even remember that you know them.
The best moments of GameCenter CX, a Japanese show where comedian Shinya Arino attempts to beat infamous classic games, focus on his plans for breaking down the toughest levels. He often resorts to pausing the game and consulting with his "assistant" (who is apparently an expert gamer) as they illustrate their plan of action on a whiteboard. Sometimes the show even presents an map of the level that Arino is breaking down, with arrows demonstrating the correct path, like a sportscaster illustrating a replay via light pen. From an episode on Solomon's Key:
Episode subtitled by TV-Nihon.
In VVVVVV, the form of the plan is obvious: moderate right while rising through Veni, hard left in Vidi (with taps to adjust at the top to position yourself for the middle of the path of Vici! during screen transition), prepare to head right at the top of Vici!, straight halfway through Easy Mode, then a moderate right, etc. As you make incremental improvements each time, you really do learn it; once you've done the sequence once, it's not so hard to do it again.
The victory screen. I had to beat it twice because I forgot to take a goddamn screenshot the first time.
When you finally beat the thing, you feel a massive wave of -- relief? Delight? Enlightenment? You realize that you can beat anything, if you commit to it; that there's nothing truly hard about gaming. I can't translate the message without losing the power that the game has when it teaches you this in gaming's original tongue. For all the posturing by elitists in the gaming community, there's no skill to games but patience. That's the lesson of VVVVVV.
And once you've learned that you can complete this challenge, platform gaming at its most elemental, you see that all the games you once gave up on are doable. Alien Soldier, Contra, one of the NES Castlevanias, whatever it is -- if you learned the Veni Vidi Vici pattern, what's stopping you from learning the paths to beat those games?
Secretly, VVVVVV is not just a didactic game, but also a nice game. You don't notice until you take a good look; then you see, in the victory shot above, that once you get to the right of the stumbling block and collect the token, there's a (relatively) safe little passage for you on the underside of the platform, leading you back to the checkpoint. (A truly cruel game would make you go all the way through the Veni Vidi Vici chambers again, backwards, to save your progress.)
One of the stages in the middle of the VVV sequence is called Easy Mode Unlocked. It's a joke, like most of the room names. It's a joke about the games that do tell you when you've died too many times and should switch to easy mode; these are often the same games that make reviewers bitch and moan about difficulty spikes, as if games was only allowed to be challenging on the very last level, and probably not even then, because the focus group didn't like that.
"Easy Mode Unlocked" is the most insulting thing you could ever tell the player -- "since you're not good enough for the game as it was meant to be played, why not try it with training wheels on?" Why not take the easy way out, instead of learning or improving? But Cavanagh's joke here is a reassurance that his game doesn't roll like that. VVVVVV would never insult you by cutting you a break.
Beating the Veni Vidi Vici! chambers is far from the hardest task in gaming, but that the sequence distills something essential about effort and reward structures. It's much more effective than something like IWBTG, a clumsy, ugly game made with the single goal of being quite hard.
Without the frustrating difficulty, there would be little fun in this sequence. No matter how much artists and scripters may dress up a platformer, there's no joy in playing unless the game takes practice to overcome. Without a buildup, payoffs don't work. A game will present a diegetic story, aping the Hollywood structure, about a man (in games, almost always a man) defeating or bypassing a series of obstacles; but the experience of a game is also the story of what happened to you as you played, of the obstacles that you overcame. If a game never works to get you stuck or overwhelmed or enraged, if there are no real obstacles to your success, then that second narrative fails, and you might as well be watching a movie.
Maybe everyone thinks everyone knows about this second, crucial narrative; paying attention to it might be the foundation of New Games Journalism anyway. Why, then, do developers and game writers act like they forgot (or never learned) the reason for making games hard? Why do you see articles like this one, which claims that "an increasing amount of data"  says games should be easier**. Games should tone down the challenges that might frighten customers away; developers need to child-proof all these dangerous edges! Never mind that hard games are already becoming rare. What data is being referred to, how was it collected, and what games are these stats were drawn from? Davison cites "telemetry data," which I know is pretty impressive, because MI6 sent me to retrieve it from a silo in Goldeneye.
Here's a funny story you might know already: did you hear why Demon's Souls was released by Atlus in the US? 1UP claims SCEA passed on it, figuring that it would only sell "15,000 copies" in its initial run, due to "unorthodox design and unrelenting difficulty." This turned out to be a huge mistake; it sold half a million copies, the majority of them in the US. Hard games can sell. I'm guessing the people Davison talked to were relying on the same kinds of market research that told SCEA that Demon's Souls would never be a hit. (I don't actually know who Davison was talking to, or what research they used, because he never cites any evidence.)
If you want a test case for an easy, short game, coast through the 5-hour Splinter Cell: Conviction some time. The story of that game ended for me the minute I figured out that when I crouched behind a crate and began shooting every enemy in the area, I was playing a shooter that was easier than Gears of War. Sure, I half-heartedly stealthed my way through the rest of the game, but I had already seen the rigging behind the stage; I could never really believe in it again. Even as I sat through the arcane horseshit of the game's cutscenes, I was painfully aware that Sam's enemies were not really black ops motherfuckers, but a gang of half-blind screamers who couldn't shoot straight. I couldn't lose; I was much better at aiming for the head than they were.
Developers should stop thinking of difficulty as a rough patch to be smoothed out. It's a narrative device. If you want gamers to feel they've triumphed against insurmountable odds, actually pit them against something overwhelming. Require some effort before you heap up rewards. We're all wise to fake scripted scares, "urgent situations" that aren't actually timed, and a whole bag of tricks used by developers to disguise situations that are truly tame. Create difficulty spikes, difficulty hills, whatever, as long as it fits the plot. If you want players to beat your game, make it worth beating.
*I assume Veni vidi vici is the titular phrase, and not Vi veri veniversum vivus vici, which is short a V anyway.
**I didn't want to write an entire post about Davison's piece, but here are a few ideas:
1. Maybe consumer buying habits aren't motivated by the amount of time they will actually play a game, but rather the amount of time they imagine they could play it? If that was true, then developers would still have an incentive to make longer games. I often buy games that promise many hours of gameplay, but I tend to rent or borrow games that are 5 hours or shorter.
2. Most people play only the first four or five hours of a game? Maybe someone should tell them to buy fewer games. (Just messing with you, video game industry!)
3. I heard the "90% of people only play the first few hours of a game" line at least 5 years ago, and I never saw a citation for it then, either. But, assuming it's true, it's not a new issue.
4. Davison makes an interesting point about making games more modular. However, DLC is almost always poorly conceived, poorly balanced, buggy, and well below the standard set by the original title. So, I would suggest that developers start making their games much harder and simultaneously ramp up the production of game-breaking superweapons and items as launch-day DLC. Companies that follow this strategy will be able to seed feelings of helplessness and inadequacy in players, then convert that weakness into cold hard cash.
5. Do games that attach significant bonuses to their "game completed" Achievements coax more playtime out of people than games that don't? ME2 had a lot of end-related bonuses, but the game was pretty damn easy as well.
6. Finally, a "won't someone think of the art" plea: if studios begin capping the possible length of their games as a matter of policy, they also limit the variety of stories they can tell. One of Red Dead Redemption's best storytelling tricks comes from its willingness to tell a story that goes on and on. A film can only be around three hours long before they start getting impractical to show in theaters (owners want to show a film as many times per day as they can). Games can be much, much longer, and their scope can be as great as a serial format TV show. If every game shrinks to 5 hours, they'll probably all imitate blockbusters, and be the worse for it.
Mega Man 2 image taken from the Somethingawful.com forums. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org