when the going gets tough, turn on God mode

A challenge, issued from Critical Distance’s “Blogs of the Round Table”:

“The past few years have seen a resurgence of challenging games: Dark SoulsSpelunkyFTL: Faster Than LightXCOM: Enemy Unknown to name but a few. Do you think videogames have more value in providing a stern challenge for the player to overcome, or does difficulty serve to alienate and deter potential players, impeding their potential for inclusiveness?”

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The EASY way to answer this question is to simply say:  “It depends”, and then leave it at that.

The HARD way to answer this question is to get into an analysis of what difficulty actually means; and then figure out what a given game’s intent is and how that aligns with the player’s expectations; determine what the player actually wants to achieve; explore different kinds of challenges in games (i.e., how many bullets will it take to kill this enemy, what kind of il/logical thinking is required to solve this puzzle, is my hand/eye coordination quick and accurate enough to get me past this area); and then, once enough context has been established, ultimately form some sort of conclusion that more or less says “It depends.”

The way I’m going to answer this question, though, is to start by admitting up front that I am maybe the wrong person to give this question its proper due.  The games listed in the question above – alongside other notoriously difficult games I could mention, like Ninja Gaiden and Super Meat Boy – have never tickled my particular fancy.  I’ve played them, of course – I am enough of a consumer whore that if a game (regardless of genre) gets universally good word-of-mouth, I will more often than not play it – but I’ve never finished them.  I’ll do as much as I can do, but once the going gets tough, I either get a walkthrough, or turn the difficulty down, or move on to something else.

I guess the thing about this question that makes it tricky – at least for me – is that I don’t necessarily play games because of the challenge.   I tend to gravitate towards single-player open-world adventures like the Elder Scrolls games and Grand Theft Auto, and my favorite parts of those games aren’t the story missions, or even the actual gameplay mechanics – but, rather, when the game lets me do whatever I want, free of consequence (though not necessarily from danger).   If I’m enjoying a game’s story and characters and atmosphere but the game is suddenly throwing too many enemies at me (like, say, Uncharted), I’ve got no problem with turning the difficulty down just so I can get past that stuff and get on with the adventure.  The endorphin rush, for me, is simply tied to winning.

I love Civilization V, for example, but I’ve never played it on anything other than the easiest difficulty setting.  It’s still difficult for me, though, because there’s a part of me that, on a fundamental level, doesn’t get strategy games.  I don’t possess the inherent vocabulary; I feel like I’m always messing up.  Therefore, if I manage to win a single-player campaign in Civ V on the easiest difficulty setting, it’s a remarkable accomplishment for me regardless of the perceived level of challenge.

That being said, sometimes I do need a little bit of a challenge in order to stay interested.  I play lots of puzzle games on my iPhone, and the key to keeping me engaged is that the challenge must always feel fresh.  Right now I’m playing Poker Knight, a neat little RPG-ish puzzle game where you create poker hands to deal out damage.  While I’m always a sucker for getting RPG (chocolate) in my puzzle (peanut butter), my character has become so powerful that most of my battles end in less than 3 hands, without me even taking a scratch, and so finishing a level is now rather tedious, since there’s tons of enemies to fight but very little challenge.  But in other iOS puzzle games like Chip Chain and Pixel Defenders Puzzle, there is always a difficulty curve, regardless of how good you might be at the mechanics, and so the challenge there is to try to do better than you did the last time out. 

Let me switch gears for a moment, if I may.  A year or two ago, I was starting to work on a novel.  My protagonist was, among other things, a struggling crossword puzzle author.  (I’ve been into crosswords since I was a little kid, but I’m not a hard-core crossword puzzle solver, by any means – when I’m at my best, I can whip through a Monday NYT in 5 or 6 minutes, and can solve 90% of  a Wednesday or Thursday in around 20-30 before petering out.  Fridays are usually too hard for me, and so I don’t really bother with them.)   When I was attempting to develop his character, it was important for me to determine what kind of puzzles he wrote, what kinds of newspapers he was hoping to get published in, and what kind of audience he was hoping to attract.   While I never actually got around to building a grid of my own, I wanted his puzzles to be reminiscent of Brendan Emmett Quigley, one of my favorite grid authors.  BEQ’s puzzles in the AV Club were often very witty, opted for popular culture references instead of obscure trivia, and – most importantly – were compulsively solvable.  If I ever got stumped on one of his clues, I never felt that the clue was unfair; I just needed to think a little differently and come at it from a different (literal) direction.   The point, though, is that I could solve his puzzles while being pleasantly challenged, and that’s what gave me the endorphin rush.

I don’t necessarily mind difficult games, as long as I feel that the game is teaching me something – or, rather, that with every defeat, I’m learning something.   The Portal games are great examples where the later stages are fiendishly clever in their design, but they’re never unfair.  Especially since the game goes to great length to teach you how to play it, and also to give you ample opportunity to figure it out without feeling punished or pressured.  If you engage with the commentary tracks in either of the 2 games, they talk about the extensive playtesting they do to make sure that the player is never without the proper tools; they don’t mind if you’re stumped, but they want to make sure that you’ve been given enough information – whether through literal tutorials on mechanics or more subtle things like specific lighting to guide your eye – to figure out the solution.)

The truly special thing about the Portal games, though – at least for me – is that although you only get that Eureka moment once, the games are still enjoyable to play even after you know the solutions; the solutions themselves are elegant and are uniquely pleasurable in their execution, and the world of each game is rich with extraneous things that keep you entertained as you explore.

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The games cited in the challenge at the top of this post offer very different kinds of difficulty.  I’ve dabbled in three of the named games, but haven’t finished any of them.  My impressions of them are as follows:

  • Dark Souls is difficult in almost every sense of the word.  Death is punished severely.  Mistakes in combat are very costly.  Valuable information about the world is withheld from the player – or not even withheld, as that implies that it’s available to be found somewhere if you look hard enough.  That being said, as long as you remain patient and don’t act impulsively, the game doesn’t act unfairly; if you die, it’s your fault for not paying attention.
  • I’ve only completed the tutorial for FTL; my initial impression is that it’s very complicated, that there’s a lot of information to keep track of, and that the controls aren’t terribly intuitive.  I imagine that if I kept with it, I’d get a bit more comfortable with them; but I’m also under the impression that the game throws tons of challenges at you and that it can be stressful to manage everything successfully.
  • Of the listed games, I’ve gotten the farthest in XCOM, but I’m playing on the easiest difficulty, and even then I haven’t come close to finishing it.  The game requires an over-abundance of caution, possibly even more so than in Dark Souls; one false step of bravado will get your entire squad killed.  The game also gives the enemies a number of advantages that the player doesn’t have; this can feel unfair, but I think that’s an intentional part of the game’s design – you’re up against alien forces that are far more powerful than you, so of course it’s going to feel unfair.  Of course, a lot of your success in a level will depend on your dice rolls, and there’s not much you can do about that.  Even on the easiest difficulty, a bad roll can wipe out your team.

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To get back to the actual question posed in the challenge – for me, personally, I’d prefer a game to be as accessible as possible.  I know a lot of people are freaking out about an “easy mode” for Dark Souls 2 and are equivocating such a change to blasphemy.  My answer to those people would be: (a) calm down, and (b) don’t play it on easy mode.  The truth of the matter is that game design is a business, and if more people buy Dark Souls 2 because of an easy mode (like me, for example), then that makes it much easier to develop Dark Souls 3.  I’m fully aware that there are millions of gamers out there who prefer harder difficulty levels – they’ll only play shooters on the hardest mode, they’ll avoid single-player entirely to play multiplayer (which is generally much harder than single-player anyway), etc.  I don’t begrudge them their tastes, and I tend to stay out of their way.  

In the late 90s, I worked as a receptionist at an internet company; I was given a relatively powerful laptop for the time, and my friends in the IT department would hook me up with games.  At the time, I’d had very little experience playing shooters – I’d played bits of Doom in college on other people’s computers, and whenever I was home from school I’d play Duke Nukem 3D on my brother’s PC, but that was pretty much it.  In any event, I remember being somewhat obsessed with Quake 2 because it looked absolutely incredible – leaps and bounds over Doom and Duke - but I wasn’t very good at it.*  It was then that I found out about God Mode.  God Mode removed the challenge entirely, which meant I was free to explore every nook and cranny of the world without fear of being blindsided by enemy rockets - which was all that I wanted to do in the first place.

Here’s the point, though – God Mode existed for a reason.  And while that reason may very well have been legitimate – i.e., it might’ve been an easy way for developers to show off the game without getting killed, or to squash bugs, or other such game… building… stuff… - it was available and accessible for retail consumers, too, and it was a popular feature to have.  It filled a need that some of us craved.  I wasn’t necessarily using it to cheat – I was using it to explore.  I play shooters but most of the time I get bored with the actual shooting, and so this was a way for me to get past the boring stuff and get on with the rest of it.  Maybe that’s not the pure experience I’m supposed to have, but I still had a fulfilling experience; I got my money’s worth.

To answer the question of “value” as it applies to difficulty… well, that’s tricky.  If a game is difficult because it’s designed poorly – i.e., it has a broken checkpoint system, or it breaks its own rules, or if its rubber-band AI is so atrociously unbalanced that it feels like the game is cheating (and here I’m looking squarely at you, Need For Speed Most Wanted), then that just feels like a waste of time and money on everybody’s part – both the consumer and the developer.

But if a game is difficult on purpose, and is advertised as such, it will attract a certain kind of player, and I imagine that the players of those games will feel like their money was well spent.  And perhaps those games aren’t meant for wide audiences, just as certain films and books and music aren’t intended for wide audiences, either.  There’s nothing wrong with that; there’s no obligation for a game designer to please every potential customer, and such an effort would be impossible anyway.  Does it mean that I, personally, will enjoy it?  No, probably not.  But like I said before, I’m not necessarily in it for the challenge.

 

 

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* I guess I’ve always been a graphics whore.  The difference between my Atari 2600 and my younger brother’s Sega Genesis was profound enough to make me angry at the universe for being born in 1975 as opposed to 1982.

 

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