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When is exclusion a valid design choice?

The difference between what you ’earn’ and what you’re owed

Cuphead - balloon boss with alligator-like enemy StudioMDHR Entertainment

Cuphead is a very challenging game, in ways one can argue are both good and bad. But let’s put that aside for a moment and ask another serious question that’s at the heart of the rather nasty conversation that has sprouted up again due to the game’s difficulty: Are you owed the act of finishing a game because you bought it?

It’s not as silly a question as it sounds at first. Video games are one of the only means of expression where you have to pass some sort of test before seeing the rest of what the experience has to offer. No one asks you to solve a logic problem before reading the last page of a book, nor are there many art galleries that ask you a quiz about the paintings that you saw in the last room before you can get to the next one.

But a game asks you to get good enough at whatever challenges it offers before you can see the whole thing. You will be tested, and only those who have “earned” the higher levels through completing those tests will ever see them.

Which is why so many “hardcore” gamers are aghast at the idea of games like Cuphead offering an easy mode or an option to skip the boss fights. The art is beautiful enough that seeing the next level is its own reward for mastering the game’s punishing bosses, or at least that’s the idea. If you’re not good enough to finish that level, you are not deserving to see the next one. There should be no shortcuts.

It’s a good thought, and a fair read on how some people think games work, but it demands a lot out of the game itself. And Cuphead sometimes falls short.

“The conclusion of Cuphead is, I fear, what the game has broadly been perceived as: a comically difficult, if not cruel, experience,” our review stated. “And that’s really a shame, because the lion’s share of Cuphead is a special formula that takes a notoriously challenging genre of the past and carefully and lovingly introduces it to the wider audience it deserves.”

And that’s the problem here, isn’t it? The difficulty will turn some people off, and those people will never get to see that art. They will never enjoy those animations. The design of the game itself keeps them out, when the addition of an easy mode or an option to skip the bosses would allow everyone to see as much or as little as they want.

So why are so many people against this idea? The question of letting everyone in to experience one aspect of the game, while putting the others aside, always leads to spirited debates.

“Because, the real nub of it is, it’s about exclusivity,” RockPaperShotgun wrote. “It’s about keeping the Thems, the riff-raff, the outsider, out. THIS section of the game, this is special to me and only those as great as I am! I DESERVE this bit of the game! Those weaklings do not! Gosh, it’s an ugly way of thinking, isn’t it? And so utterly idiotic too. Because it requires the mental gymnastics of somehow believing that one’s own isolated experience of a game is cheapened, lessened, impacted in any conceivable way, by the isolated experience of someone else playing that game.”

And yet the difficulty is part of the experience of playing Cuphead. Difficult games create an emotional reaction in the player, and that reaction might be the point of the difficulty. If every game is designed to make you feel something, Cuphead players may be feeling exactly how the developer hoped they’d feel, for good or ill.

“Every death takes you immediately back to the start, no loading required, and the tantalizing thought of completing the level is teased with the timeline tracking your progress,” the Verge wrote. “Figuring out the bosses’ mechanics on your own, applying them to the fight, and taking them down because you had the spacial awareness to avoid all the crap thrown at you is what the game is all about.”

So if a game is designed to be played a very particular way — and Cuphead asks you to treat failure as a chance to learn and rewards repetition and memorization — aren’t you subverting those goals by asking for a mode that removes that method of play? Museums may not quiz you between rooms, but they also don’t offer to let you choose the color palette of every painting depending on how you’d like to see them.

There’s a wonderful, although often contradictory, Twitter thread about these questions started by developer Rami Ismail, and there’s no easy or correct answers to be found.

There’s also the issue that games this difficult, with no option to turn down that difficulty or skip boss fights, can completely dismiss players without full motor control of one or both hands. Now we’re talking about museums that don’t offer things like wheelchair ramps and I think this metaphor has gotten away from me a bit.

If players decide the value of personal accomplishment in a game, and they do, why not let them also decide how they want to engage that game if it’s technically possible? You can skip right to the end of any episode of Game of Thrones if you’re watching on HBO’s app, and no one will stop you. Your enjoyment will be decreased, but I’m not sure anyone would argue that the value of the show itself is diminished because you have that option.

Game design can indicate where value should be, but it’s impossible to enforce those suggestions in any meaningful way once the game is out in the wild. And it’s hard to argue that those indications should be canonical due to authorial intent when they may keep someone from playing the game at all ... unless that was the entire point of their inclusion. Are you owed the final scene of a game if you buy it, regardless of your physical ability or mastery of what the game is trying to teach you? Can exclusion be a valid artistic goal?

Besides, there are some players who have mastered the game completely. You can see a perfect run of the game’s bosses below, in fact.

Whether or not you’re bothered by seeing boss fights you didn’t earn yourself is, of course, up to you.