You might’ve noticed it’s been a bit quiet ‘round these parts lately. Well, yeah. I’ve got a pile of deadlines and unannounced projects that’re eating up precious time. But, I promise they’re worth the wait—especially if you’re a fan of Fight, Magic, Items. *hint hint*
This week two of those projects came to life as I made my debut on Vulture. Accompanying their massive “The 100 Hardest Video-Game Levels of All Time” feature, I spoke with a handful of game developers about the ethos of difficulty, how they crafted the challenging levels that appeared in the Top 100 list, and how to balance challenge and accessibility.
“Into the Breach’s Final Level Is Hard Without Breaking the Rules”
The first piece is a Q&A with Subset Game’s Matthew Davis, co-designer and programmer of 2018 indie hit Into the Breach. We discuss what it takes to make a gruelling-but-beatable final level, and how interesting decisions lie at the heart of satisfying video game experiences.
Imagine chess, but instead of knights and pawns, you’ve got combat mechs and techno beetles. You build a team of pieces to suit your strengths and counter your opponent’s strategies, all in the service of defending cities scattered about the board — alongside mountains, rivers, ice fields, and more — from a violent alien race.
What you’re envisioning is essentially the 2018 Subset Games hit Into the Breach, a turn-based strategic puzzler in which you move your customized team of mechs around a small board-game-like grid as you try to defeat your alien opponents. In the game’s tough final mission, the Last Stand, you’re up against a relentless army of invaders that is far too large and powerful to defeat outright. But you’re not trying to win. Not conventionally. Instead, your goal is to protect the enormous Renfield Bomb long enough for it to detonate and destroy the alien threat for good.
It’s a punishingly difficult finale and one that Matthew Davis, Into the Breach co-designer and programmer, says was influenced by the 2012 game FTL: Faster Than Light, the breakout title developed by his team at Subset Games. “FTL had an excessively difficult boss that broke a lot of the core rules of the game,” he explains. “With Into the Breach, we wanted the Last Stand to reflect a challenge similar to what the player had already encountered but thematically more exciting.”
“The Dead Cells Toxic Sewers Level Is Hard (But It Doesn’t, Er, Stink)”
My second piece for Vulture is an interview with Evil Empire's Arthur DeCamp, Game Designer and Creative Director on Dead Cells. On deck is a discussion of why sewer levels are always a pain in the ass, how Dead Cells handles difficulty and accessibility, and why it’s important players don’t just skip the game’s notoriously challenging Toxic Sewers in favour of an easier level.
Of all the traits that sewer levels in video games share with real-life sewers, the most pronounced is that they’re deeply unpleasant places to spend time. Video-game sewers tend to be labyrinthine, full of poisonous enemies, and they sap your life away before you’ve even gotten started. The 2018 side-scrolling action game Dead Cells lets players start from one of four biomes when they begin the game, but Toxic Sewers is by far the most unrelenting. Any player who was feeling confident after beating the Dilapidated Arboretum, Promenade of the Condemned, or Castle’s Outskirts will have that bluster flushed away when they enter the Toxic Sewers.
“This biome is accessible really early in the game and looks like a logical next step right after you acquire the first upgrade, as you need it to reach the Sewers,” explains game designer Arthur Decamp. “There, you face a bunch of new dangers that can be a lot for new Dead Cells players when appearing all at once: hidden enemies popping from the ground, ‘revenge’ monsters that drop bombs upon their death, poison pools, claustrophobic corridors, and more.”