What Makes A Game Unfair?

One glance at the content available on Youtube and we see a player getting hit. They quickly retort “there was nothing I could do” followed by “man that was unfair. This quick judgement is more and more public these days, making the term ‘unfair’ have a meaning that is slowly going out of control. Go to any gaming-forum and you’ll find a topic stating how that one boss breaks the rules or how that one scenario is impossible. But is this a case of them blaming the game for their own shortcomings, or is it really stacking the deck against them? It is worth considering: when is a game truly unfair, what makes it so and should a game even be fair to begin with? To do this we’ll mostly focus on three more modern titles; Vanquish, Nioh and the Souls games.

The first element that plays a role in unfair-design is the expectation of the game going in. A title like Ninja Gaiden is known for its difficulty, but a game like Yakuza: Kiwami is not - if the latter is just as hard as the former the expectation can quickly lead to frustrations. The same goes for games that sport a random factor like Fire Emblem or the classical board game Monopoly; going in one knows that a dice roll can change the face of the earth so when it doesn’t go your way the frustration isn’t nearly as bad as if it happens in a game like Dark Souls. This takes a step further if a singular element in one title breaks the expected mold. Take the Lost Sinner boss from Dark Souls II for instance, which - unlike most encounters in previous entries - tracks player movements and even reads inputs. While not a sin in its own right, it being in a Souls title - a series that prides it on not using such cheap tactics - sticks out and can lead to players shouting that infamous word: “unfair”!

Other games try to up the challenge too much by adding lots of enemies or increase the visual appeal via particle effects, not realizing it slows the title down. Having a game lag at a key moment or have an input dropped can result in the death of the player outside of his control, just like a simple camera motion which suddenly disorients the player and has him run right into that explosion. The same is true when talking about human reaction times and the personal limitations each individual is faced with every day. On average a human can react to a visual stimuli in about 7/60’th of a second and somewhat faster if it is based on sound. Having enemies attack with an animation faster than that will result in an impossible to dodge move - at least on reaction - and needs experience in the fight to avoid. Experience in general plays a big role as some situations can change based on how much the player has played the title. Knowing that a boss has a grab with a 2 frame start-up makes for a different play-field compared to fighting him for the first time and constantly getting grabbed. You now know of its existence and can actively avoid the attack by avoiding situations in which it can occur. Though this requires memorization and active thinking of the player it can quickly change an unfair encounter into a fair one with a simple change in mindset and strategy.

All the above is meaningless when confronted with an impossible scenario however. Take Demon’s Souls boss Allant, this old king has the ability to thrust his sword into the ground generating an explosion which cannot be blocked. Now imagine you fighting him and getting pushed in a corner, he stands in front of you can starts channeling the explosion - you cannot roll away or avoid it as he is blocking your exit. You will get hit, it cannot be avoided. As you die one exclaims: “I couldn’t avoid it, that was so unfair! I had him too”! And this is where the most important aspect of fair and unfair comes into play: personality and where one draws the line. Some may experience the situation above and see it as unfair, yet another player might think that he “shouldn’t have gotten pushed into a corner, need to remember that” and moves on to try again. This aspect of where one draws the line can go on infinitely and take on all manner of complexity. Take Vanquish’s infamous Dual Bogey fight: you take a sniper shot to the chest making your suit overheat, which takes away your slow-mo, boost and dodge as a punishment. Immediately after both bosses channel their strongest attack simultaneously, there is no cover nearby and you are out of EMP grenades to stun them: the situation cannot be avoided, you are going to die. “So unfair,” is the response of one player, even a very skilled one. “Unlucky,” might be another retort. But somewhere one player will take note that he wasn’t near cover and lacked EMP grenades to get out of a hairy situation should it arise, two factors within his control, and adapt.

This difference in behavior is universal and no one person will look at a situation the same way, but it does stem from a view on life that carries over to this hobby of ours. One will be quick to save face by blaming the game while another might look at the situation objectively and how the loss could’ve been avoided. And in that, some might look back one step and others ten or even more - it all depends on the type of person you are.

All of Nioh's Dragon of the North bosses change the gameplay in one or two ways.

While that might seem like the end of the article, there is one last element that needs some special care and attention, and that is developers breaking the rules. Nioh’s first expansion Dragon of the North contains the perfect example in its final boss: Maria. Up until then all enemies in Nioh operated under the same rules as you, in that you use Ki for nearly all your abilities. Attacking, dodging, blocking; it all costs that valuable resource. Yet Maria doesn’t need Ki nor loses it and becomes very powerful as a result - being able to rush down any and all players mercilessly. This can temporarily turn the game upside down and invalidate a lot of prominent tactics and gameplans players might’ve had. While this could be considered ‘unfair’ the lesson we can can take from it is that unfair is not always a bad thing. Giving Maria near infinite Ki made for a unique encounter not found anywhere else in the title and all it needed was flipping a single switch. Stack the deck against the player and they some will feel urged to beat it, to have the feeling that they beat all odds and still came out swinging. That feeling alone, and those experiences surrounding those engagements will forever stay with those players, only because the designers chose to bend one simple rule for one encounter.

In the end fairness is both in the hands of the designers and those who play it. As we play we govern our own rules, expectations and opinions on what the game should do and how it should handle. How it performs compared to those terms, and how we react to that and adapt, or not, is up to non-other than:


postscript notes
  • This article came forth from a forum discussion on our official Stinger Magazine forums, link is in the sources tab. Another inspiration was the hate on the Nioh boards at Gamefaqs which, at times, had some pretty hilarious accusations on what was unfair and not. Sometimes going as far as to note that being hit was unfair to the player.
  • It was really hard not to think of Darksydephil - DSP for short - when writing the infamous youtuber-quotes.
  • The mathematical aspect of a fair game, such as the equation that resulted in white being superior in Chess, was omitted as it detracted more from the core message that within a singleplayer title you are in control and fairness is in your hands.
  • Unlike most times, when I focused on one article at a time, this article was worked on in conjunction with nearly ten others.



  1. Your unfair Roy, your unfair! ;)

    1. I find that statement to really unbalanced and need of a patch ;p

  2. King Allant's AOE attack is so slow to come out that you literally *can't* get trapped in the corner by it. The wind-up is so slow that it gives you enough time to run all the way to the opposite side of the lengthy arena before it activates, at which point if you still get hit by it, it was because you failed to respond to a clearly presented challenge, not because you got trapped and could do nothing. Off the top of my head, I believe you have between 4 and 6 seconds to start running away. It's probably the slowest attack in the entire game(and maybe even the series?).
    Also, I do think that the fairness of a combat game can be objectivley measured. In general, I think it's objectively unfair to take damage from something that you couldn't respond to. I mean, a genuine challenge is like a question, and the player must respond to it with the correct answer. The question could be something like "a fireball is coming your way, what are you going to do about it?", and that's awesome, that's a genuine challenge. The question "What are you going to do about it?" lies at the heart of every genuine challenge. It's like a conversation between the designer and the player. Unfairness occurs when you skip the question and punish the player with something that they couldn't respond to because they couldn't see it; at that point it's not a question or a conversation with the designer, it's just something that happens to the player.

    1. To note, it is just a generic example to highlight a point. But I admit looking back I could've chosen a different one, I choose this one since I felt I didn't mention the Souls games enough. Just to showcase that some would not think past their mistake and thus cry foul. Just like with the Vanquish example where one player thinks in many more steps back into the past, while another just looks at the last 3 seconds for a mistake.

      About the objective/subjective part, what about games like Ninja Gaiden II or Vanquish where taking damage is guaranteed? To me the question then becomes managing that damage and evaluating if eating that blow is worth it to get that other win (lose the battle, win the war...but on a much more micro-scale).

      But yeah, I can see your point. To me though it is still up to the player, there is no factual 'fairness' even by the game's rules. Devil May Cry's combat wasn't built around players canceling Killer Bee's, nor was Metal Gear Rising made with Phasing in mind. Is using those things being unfair to the game? You see this mentality a lot too in the fighting gaming community with players calling out others, for using certain moves too much or certain tactics which the games weren't built around (wavedashing in Melee for instance, or Custom Combos in Alpha). What is your take on those points?

      Your notion of 'what are you going to do about it' opens a good discussion. Is an unfair game bad? To me it turns games boring. Dark Souls is quite dull for me to play now outside of challenge runs (and even then it tends to just make fights longer, not more challenging) because you know the exact outcome the second the fight starts unless you make a mistake. A completely fair game can only be replayed to some degree, while an unfair game (like Ninja Gaiden II) is always interesting to play since it is always different (since the combat is so chaotic). But that's more personal I admit.

      The article's goal was mostly to showcase that when you think something is unfair, it doesn't necesarrily mean it is unfair or that that is a bad thing. I hope that came over correctly, if not I'll add it to the list of edits.


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