So what is fake difficulty, exactly? What differentiates one kind of difficulty as more fair than another kind? And what counts as a player just complaining about losing?
Generally speaking, a game with a difficulty curve should strive to be hard but still fun, and always make the player’s game-play decisions feel meaningful to the outcome they receive. If the player loses, they should more often than not feel that they made an error, not that the game cheated them.
Fake Difficulty, as explained in more detail and with examples here on TvTropes, is when the player suffers because the game is designed in a way that hinders them in an unfair way. It makes their skill useless, or a mechanic in the game itself is programmed wrong or not well designed. This could be a badly chosen camera angle that makes things hard to see, a really difficult to judge jump in a platformer, withholding information that the player would logically need to succeed in a quest or mission, or sometimes just outright having more information than the player is given and abusing it.
One type of fake difficulty I’d like to explore in this post is Trial and Error Gameplay. And the most familiar kind that I’ve seen is when I play some Fire Emblem games.
Not every game in the series does this horribly, but it does have a lot of instances where the player is often not warned about events that later happen, and suffer because of it. Like… reinforcements. Fire Emblem is a tactical RPG game, and whenever a unit loses all its HP, it will permanently be lost on the usual default setting (Classic Mode for the newest games). So when you make a move, you study the map carefully and do your best to think of every potential attack the enemy can make.
Enemy reinforcements are expected, but in some games on certain difficulties, they will come with zero warning. And then move in the same turn they arrive on the map, after you’ve already ended your own. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch an archer or other unit who isn’t very defensive die because they were unfortunate enough to be standing in just the wrong place to be stabbed by a cavalier that wasn’t there before.
You could have been playing perfectly up until that point, but you are punished simply because you didn’t have the turn the reinforcements arrived memorized. It’s also impossible to predict on your first play-through, so the map because pure luck. Ironically enough, the games will often warn you through a dialogue cue that reinforcements are coming, so this mechanic is even more painful.
This kind of difficulty is only unfair because it does not give the player vital information beforehand, and so they may reset the game or have to press on with the death that wasn’t even their fault. This is not tactical, and so it feels fake compared to the actual difficulty the game already provides with smart enemy positioning and map design.
This difficulty tactic in Fire Emblem is the one I hate the most in terms of Trial and Error game-play, but there are even more kinds of fake difficulty to explore in other games.