Speaking of games that are difficult (and tedious), I recently reviewed Nintendo DS title Lost in Blue 2, for an upcoming issue of Paste. It wasn't the easiest review to do, because Lost in Blue 2 is maybe the most brutally difficult game I've played in some time.
The first three or four hours I spent on this game were sheer, absolute misery. Your character washes up on a deserted island with another teenager, and she can't find her ass even with a map. If the player doesn't feed, water and rest the kids constantly, they bite it, and fast. Not only are you responsible for the survival of the beatific bimbo you control via the stylus (you can choose to play as the boy or the girl), but your slightly whinier partner is as dependent as a naked babe, too. You start with a cave for shelter, a fire pit, and a slab of stone to cook on, and that's about it. Quick, scrounge like, fifty coconuts and pound them all day long or game over. Go!
If it doesn't sound like much fun, it isn't. This game brings rewards only for the very persistent-- I'm almost tempted to swing by GameStop and ask the staff just how many copies were returned a few days after purchase. It is so difficult that, nearly a month after its release, there is not one walkthrough on GameFaqs-- only one guide, on how to complete your picture book, has been uploaded to date. But then, you've gotta think-- if you're going to make a deserted-island survival sim, why not go all-out?
Lost in Blue is so hard because of its realism. Lighting a fire by tapping the touch screen can take an entire minute of persistent frication (more, if you drop the stick), and a few lungsful of air (for smokers like me, at least) to puff your little spark into life. Your characters are starving and cold and you're watching the gauge anxiously, tension creeping into the back of your neck as you struggle to create life-giving fire. As irritating as it is, I'd say that the game takes advantage of the intuitive capabilities of the touch screen to make things pretty lifelike.
If I'd just picked this game up for my own entertainment and not a review, I probably might have put it right back down. But in the name of fairness, I stuck with it-- and then found that I couldn't put it down, even after the review was finished.
The funny thing is, I still wasn't enjoying it.
But I'd eked out small gains-- I'd figured out how to trap small animals for food, I'd built more restful beds, I'd discovered a new area to explore. Each miniscule victory made the game only very marginally easier, and only slightly more fun-- but was immensely rewarding for how jaw-clenchingly hard-won it was.
I think at this point I've at last fatigued of the constant uphill battle, and have returned gratefully to the peaceable pride and joy of my Harvest Moon farm, where all it really takes to make a better life is enough money, and food doesn't spoil in my rucksack no matter how long I hang onto it. But I continue to mull over a question that I can't quite figure out the answer to-- do I hate Lost in Blue 2, or do I love it?
After all, survival is supposed to be tedious, difficult, exhausting and frustrating. It isn't meant to be a sequence of stress-free, fun minigames. With that in mind, the difficulty level and the tedium is appropriate. Maybe it's working hard not to die on an island that I hate, not the game that provides a crack approximation of such a scenario. Of course, a game like this begs the all-important question-- I grind all day in the workaday world, fulfilling menial tasks just to get by, only to start all over again tomorrow. Shouldn't my games be an escape from that? Or should games be a lifelike rendering of another world, even if that world sucks-- making Lost in Blue 2 a categorical success?
Is a game like this too hard, or hard enough? Is "fun" always supposed to feel good, or is real frustration required to create a meaningful, reinforcing reward?