weekend recap: well, that wasn’t so bad

January 28, 2013


Firstly, some necessary meta-news to report:  the aforementioned apartment drama might very well be resolved, which is, as you might imagine,  a HUGE weight off of my shoulders.  I’m reluctant to say anything further, as we haven’t actually signed any leases or anything, and I don’t want to jinx it.  But the point is that I’m pretty sure we’re OK, and that the logistics of the move itself would be the easiest and least costly move we could possibly undergo, short of actually not having to move at all.

And so, in the midst of continued purging of apartment stuff, and the various frantic callings and emailings and textings of assorted realtors and landlords and such, I found that I needed to blow off some steam.  And so I dabbled in a bunch of games.

First off:  I finished 1 playthrough of The Cave, Ron Gilbert’s long-awaited new adventure joint with DoubleFine.  (My playthrough was with the Knight, the Time Traveler, and the Adventurer.)  Considering the pedigree of those involved in its creation, I feel a little cheap reducing my opinion of it to a 7-word sentence, but what follows sums up the experience pretty accurately:  it is equal parts charming and tedious.  The writing is certainly humorous but very rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious; the puzzles are, for the most part, straightforward and free of old-school obtuseness, but they can be exceedingly tedious to execute, requiring you to move three characters independently, all of whom move just slowly enough for it to become annoying after a while, especially when a puzzle requires frequent backtracking.  I still found the experience worthwhile, and I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing the other characters’ individual stories, but it’s a hard package to heartily recommend.

On the console front, I played a few levels of Devil May Cry.  I don’t really know how to talk about it; I’ve never been much of a DmC fan, and I don’t really know anything about the franchise or the character or the legacy or how radically different this particular reboot is.  I’m not necessarily all that good at these kinds of games, either; I rented it purely based on the review scores, which have been, more or less, exceedingly positive.  But what I can say is that, if nothing else, it features some rather astonishing visual design – some of the levels seems straight out of a Terry Gilliam fever dream, and I mean that as one of the highest compliments I can bestow.   So while I don’t particularly give a shit about what’s going to happen next, I do very much want to see what happens next, if you know what I mean.

I also reconnected my PS3 to my living room TV* so that I could get some time in with Ni No Kuni and The Unfinished Swan, the latter of which is currently only $3 or $4 on PSN for Plus subscribers.

Ni No Kuni is very charming, very beautiful, and very much a JRPG, with all the good/bad that goes along with it – the bad, in this case, specifically referring to a certain pet peeve of mine.  Lots of Japanese games do this particular thing, by the way, not just JRPGs, but JRPGs do it the most – where every single movement of a character, no matter how arduous, is vocalized.  You can be climbing up a mountain, or simply running along a shady lane, but every step of the way is grunted and oomphed and aahed and it’s very distracting and weird.  That aside, the game is as lovely and charming as you might expect a Level 5 / Studio Ghibli collaboration to be.   I can’t yet tell if the battle system is overly complicated or not; there appear to be a lot of mechanics that you need to be paying attention to at any one time, but the game does a rather wonderful job of showing you how it works.  I’m only an hour or two into it, but I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time with it, especially during this pre-baby, slow-release-calendar window we’re currently in.

As for The Unfinished Swan, I’m not sure what to make of it.   It’s an astonishingly well executed visual trick, and I certainly appreciate the attempt at an engaging narrative.   That being said, I’m currently in the blueprint level, and I’m a bit stuck; the controls are kind of terrible, all of a sudden.  I wonder if it’s because I’m not using a Move controller; I certainly hope not, because up until this point the game was controlling just fine.

I’m also sort-of still dabbling in Hitman Absolution; I’ve started to figure out how the game is supposed to work, even though I still find myself getting impatient.  I also find the game rather distasteful; all the characters are horrible (on purpose), and the world is really seedy and disgusting, and it’s a hard world to want to stay engaged in.  I can really only play for, like, 10 or 20 minutes at a time before I need to turn it off and cleanse my palate.  It makes me feel unclean.

 

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* Because my wife was a recent Fringe fan and needed to binge very quickly on the first 4 seasons to get caught up for the current (and last) season, we’d had to move the PS3 into the bedroom and our other Blu-Ray player over to the living room, as the other Blu-Ray player didn’t have a wi-fi connection.   Suffice it to say, I hadn’t really missed the PS3 in the interim until this week.

weekend recap: the stress

January 21, 2013


I don’t have many rules when it comes to maintaining this site, but I do try to adhere to two primary goals: (1) post on a regular basis, and (2) don’t get overly personal, if it can be avoided.  Rule 1 is mostly in place so that I can keep a consistent audience, even if it’s just a few people, but it’s also just so that I keep my chops (such as they are) from getting rusty.  And Rule 2 is there because, among other things, getting personal can mean getting lazy.  There’s a difference between keeping a personal voice and going over the deep end; that’s what personal blogs are for, and this is not one of them.

I bring this up because I’m going to be violating both of these rules over the next few months; I’m probably not going to be posting all that much, and whatever I do post is probably going to be personal.  It can’t be avoided.  My personal life was already going to be overwhelmed by the impending arrival of a newborn child; but now I have the added (and unforeseen) stress of trying to find a new place to live before the baby arrives, as the owner of our apartment has decided to sell.  (Without telling us, I might add; we found out by accident.)

We found this out on Saturday morning.  The baby’s due date is early April; it is now the second half of January.  The owner of our apartment has not yet found a buyer, but we’re obviously not being kept in the loop on how that’s all shaking out, and so we have to take matters into our own hands.  We would rather move before the baby’s born, so there’s not much time to work with.  We’ve spent the last 48 hours scouring Craigslist, calling brokers, following leads; we’ve already begun purging our clothes, books and DVDs in preparation for packing for an unscheduled move to an as yet unknown destination.

The beauty of New York City is that there are a thousand real estate agents ready and waiting to help us; the soul-crushing tragedy is that the Venn Diagram representing the type of place we want at the price we can afford yields a wafer-thin slice from which to choose, as well as a thousand other people looking at the same apartment.

This is all to say that posting here is going to be light.  You have to understand that any time I spend playing games is time I’m not spending actively trying to secure a new place to live, which makes me feel guilty; and all the stuff that I’d be playing if I weren’t going through this madness – like the stuff I bought during the Steam holiday sale – is all violent and stressful and not necessarily the kind of stuff that takes my mind off the stressful things I’m going through.

Frankly, the only thing I’ve been playing is the newly-released Temple Run 2 on my iPhone, because that’s about the extent of what my nervous system can handle.   And even that sucks, as my poor old iPhone 4 has a hard time running it without stuttering; I’d bet that at least 90% of my deaths are because the phone seized up and didn’t register my finger swipe.

Anyway.  You get the idea.

I will keep this blog updated as much as I can, but, well, the situation is what it is.  Hopefully we’ll find a place sooner rather than later, and we can get set up and unpacked and organized, and THEN have a baby, and then go through the normal, expected stress of being new parents.  That’s a stress that I’ll gladly welcome.  For now, though, it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride.

Thanks for bearing with me.

weekend recap: the transformation

January 14, 2013


I’ve been feeling weird this month.  A little disconnected, perhaps; a little bit untethered.  I haven’t been sleeping particularly well, and it’s entirely possible that my excitement about being a new dad is starting to turn itself into these late-night, staring-at-the-ceiling worry-fests about all the millions of things there are to worry about when you become a parent for the first time – am I making enough money?  Can we actually afford day care, even though we don’t really have a choice?  How much baby poop am I prepared to handle?  Am I going to be a good father?

Consequently, my brain has been all over the place.  My plan for this weekend was supposed to be focused on working on some songwriting for an upcoming project, but everything I did sounded terrible.  This happens, sometimes, and I try not to get too discouraged about it, but I also know that my window for indulging in shitty songwriting sessions is rapidly closing, and so I’m feeling a bit of pressure, now, to get my act together and make something happen.

In any event, I’ve been spending more time in my music room, which is also where my gaming PC happens to be; and, well, it turns out that I’ve turned into a PC gamer.  I haven’t turned my Xbox on since Christmas, when I plowed through the DLC for Mass Effect 3.  My ever-increasing bounty from the winter Steam sale means that I’ve got a ton of great stuff to play, and so I’ve been kinda playing all of it.

Well, that’s not entirely true, I suppose.  FTL intimidates the shit out of me; even the tutorial feels overwhelming.  I suppose I’m glad that I bought it, if only to support the indie developer, but I don’t think I’ll be playing it.

Also, I ended up buying Hitman Absolution even though I said I wasn’t going to; Steam sales trump the weak-willed, even when the weak-willed are taking principled stands on abhorrent marketing campaigns.  I’ve played through the first few levels, and my experience is largely similar to my previous experiences playing the earlier Hitman games; the first tutorial level holds my hand while showing me all my different options and paths to my objective, and everything makes sense; and then I get to my first open-ended mission and suddenly everything goes to hell immediately.  I get suspicious looks from people 50 yards away; bodies that I thought I’d disposed of are found by people who couldn’t possibly have been looking for them; my disguises are largely useless.  I do appreciate that the missions are designed to be played multiple times, trying different tactics and experimenting with different methods, but in my multiple fail-throughs of these missions I do try alternate tactics and methods and I still get found out.  It’s all very frustrating.  (Ironically, the stand-alone Sniper Challenge is a lot more enjoyable, even though it’s only one mission that can be finished in under 3 minutes.  I played that for around an hour or so, finishing a bunch of meta-challenges and killing henchmen in increasingly bizarre ways.)

So, instead, I’ve been playing through a bunch of stuff that I’ve already played through.  I finished Batman: Arkham City again, including the DLC, and I may continue to nibble away at various Riddler challenges over the coming months. I’ve also been replaying Mark of the Ninja, and MAN that game continues to impress.  (It also looks phenomenal on my PC.)  I’ve been giving Bastion another look; I bought it for the iPad a few months back, too, but I’m not crazy about the touch controls.  That game works with a controller; it is what it is.  I’ve been trying out Borderlands 2 as a Gunzerker, though I haven’t yet unlocked his special ability, so I haven’t yet noticed a difference.  And last night I tried Darksiders 2 again; the PC port feels a bit janky, unfortunately – I don’t recall the camera being quite so terrible on the 360.

On the iPhone, I’ve been playing the shit out of Joe Danger Touch, which might be the best version of that game on any platform.  It looks fantastic and utilizes touch controls perfectly – because you’re no longer worried about speed, you can simply focus on obstacle avoidance and stunts, and it just works beautifully.  Also – Hundreds, which has been getting lots of buzz of late.  Word of advice – if you have the option, play it on an iPad; the iPhone’s screen is too small and makes some of the puzzles a lot harder than they need to be.  (Maybe it’s a little easier on the iPhone 5’s wider screen; I’m still rocking an iPhone 4, though.)

You can maybe start to appreciate how weird I’ve been feeling lately by seeing how much different stuff I’ve been playing; I feel like I’m unable to focus on any one particular game.  Or, maybe, I’m anticipating not being able to play anything once the baby arrives, and so I’m trying to play everything?

Daddy needs some sleep.

call of duty, in a nutshell

January 10, 2013


I feel like it’s been pretty quiet here of late, which I suppose is understandable; there’s no new games to talk about, and pretty much everything I am playing is old and already talked about.  (I will get around to discussing that Steam box, though there are still some details that need to be disclosed (i.e., price, form factor, etc.) before getting fully invested.)

Still, I feel the need to liven the place up, and so I present this gif I found on Tumblr that more or less embodies my experience when playing shooters online.

 

(source)

The Books I Read in 2012

January 8, 2013


I just finished a great book last night – “The Way of Kings”, by Brandon Sanderson.*  And it occurs to me that I’ve read a lot of good stuff of late, and this is as good a time as any to cover what I read last year.

First: the stuff I didn’t finish.

  • Elizabeth Kostova, “The Historian.”  I tried my best; it just seemed to take forever to get where it was going, and I think I just grew impatient.
  • Tom Bissell, “Magic Hours.”  Tom’s one of my favorite writers – I’ve linked to him extensively here in the past – and I picked this up specifically because a short piece he wrote about David Foster Wallace.  The book itself is a collection of non-fiction pieces, and I’ve read about half of them so far – the one about “The Room” is terrific.
  • Sergio de la Pava, “A Naked Singularity.”  I’m normally a huge fan of dense, difficult avant-garde-ish fiction, but this one was a particularly tough nut to crack.  I’d like to get back into it; at the time, though, I was too easily frustrated and was content to pick up something easier instead.
  • Umberto Eco, “The Prague Cemetery”.  Second year in a row I’ve tried and failed to get into this one.  I’m hit or miss with Eco; I adore Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, but couldn’t get into Baudolino and a few others that I’m forgetting the titles of.  Will probably abandon.
  • Ariel Winter, “The Twenty Year Death.”  I picked this up on some relatively decent word-of-mouth, and also because I was thinking about writing some sort of pulp mystery thing and thought this might make for a worthwhile read for research purposes.  I made it through the first third but couldn’t keep myself interested.
  • Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl.”  Sometimes I’ll be reading a book, and at some point I’ll have to put it down because of something else.  I usually only have a one or two-week window in which to get back into the book before I lose the thread completely.  My biggest regret of the year was putting this down (I don’t even know why, at this point) and being away from it long enough to be totally disengaged from it, and so it’s on my must-read list for 2013.
  •  David Foster Wallace, “Both Flesh And Not.”  I’d already read some of the pieces in here, for one thing; for another, D.T. Max’s biography (which I’ll get to in a bit) re-broke my heart a little bit, and so I found re-reading DFW a bit more uncomfortable than I’d like.  Will definitely get to in 2013; this is a no-brainer.
  • George Saunders, “Pastoralia.”  There was a point this summer where I bought, like, 5 or 6 books all at once, and I couldn’t decide which one to start.  I’m actually about to start his new book, “Tenth of December”, which just came out today, and assuming that goes well I’ll be diving back into this one again.

And as for the stuff I did read, here it is, listed in the order in which I read them.

Alan Lightman, “Einstein’s Dreams”.  Don’t quite remember why I picked this up; I’d heard about it for a long time, and I guess I was finally in the mood to give it a go.  Each chapter is, essentially, a re-imagining of linear time.  As someone who was obsessed with the concept of linear/nonlinear/relative time back in college, this is very interesting subject matter, and it’s written well enough to get the points across.  But it also feels a bit slight and ethereal, and not in a good way.  Still, an interesting read if you’re into that sort of thinking.  7/10

Stephen King, “11/22/1963”.  He’s still got it, man.  And while he still has certain mannerisms and tics that are incredibly distracting, which is odd considering that they’re in every single goddamned book he’s ever written, and I’ve read most of them and so I should be used to them by now – like how every town in every city has vaguely racist, misspelled signage along its main street – he’s still knows how to tell a great story.  This was a ton of fun to read.  8/10

Hugh Howey, “Wool (Omnibus Edition)”.  My wife got hooked on these books and finally convinced me to jump on board, and I’m glad I did; they’re remarkably well written and relentless in their tension and pacing.  He is the golden boy of DIY publishing, and with good reason; he’s a naturally gifted storyteller.   We had the pleasure of meeting him at an author meet-up earlier this year, and he couldn’t have been a nicer guy.   9/10

John Sullivan, “Pulphead”.   I’m having a bit of trouble remembering this one at the moment.  But here’s my quick reminder to myself after I finished it:  “pretty well done, although some essays are better than others.  8/10”  That’s a high grade for what seems like a lukewarm review, but I meant it at the time, so it stays.

Rich Walls, “Standby Chicago”.  One of the cool things about that Hugh Howey author meet-up I mentioned is that, in addition to Hugh being a super-nice guy, every one of the fans who showed up was also super cool.  I’m friends with a few of them on Xbox Live and Steam now, and while Rich isn’t a gamer, he is a rather accomplished author in his own right.  This is a very sweet, delicate, sincere novella, and I found it engaging.  (Also found it hard to relate to, if only because I’ve never had so many strangers talk to me ever in my life.)   7/10

Hugh Howey, “Wool 6”.  A prequel to the Omnibus Edition; this actually raises a few more questions than it answers.  Required reading if you’re at all invested in the Wool series; it won’t mean as much to you if you come to it fresh.  8/10

Chad Harbach, “The Art of Fielding”.   Beautiful, heartbreaking.  Takes a startling turn at a certain point; I thought it was going to be the origin story of a mythic baseball prodigy, and it turned out to be something else entirely.  Well worth the journey.  8/10

China Meveille, “The City & The City”.   I tried to read another one of his books a few years ago – “Perdido Street Station” – and found it impenetrable and, for lack of a better word, un-fun.  This was a lot more my speed – a multi-dimensional murder mystery. I still find his writing style a bit annoying, but he’s unquestionably one of the most imaginative authors out there.   8/10

Patrick Somerville, “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature”.  A marvelous collection of short stories that are all sort-of interwoven.  Inspiring and brilliantly written.  Very much looking forward to reading more of this guy.  9/10

Erik Larson, “The Devil in the White City”.  My GoogleDoc comments:  “thrilling, gripping, depressing.”  It’s an interesting read, even if the two stories that he attempts to tie together aren’t quite as evenly balanced as I’d anticipated.  8/10

Tana French, “Broken Harbor”.  The fourth in the Dublin Murder Squad series; this one was not quite as good as the previous three.  Still bleak and depressing as all hell, of course.  GoogleDoc comment:  “might be the first time that the lack of a proper ending was a good thing.”  7/10

D.T. Max, “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story”.  After DFW’s death, D.T. Max wrote a beautiful celebration of his life and work in the New Yorker, and it seemed logical for him to follow that piece up with a full biography.  I’m not sure how this book would read to someone who isn’t a hard-core Infinite Jest fan; but I am a hard-core Infinite Jest fan, and so this book revealed a lot of interesting information about the creation and inspiration behind that particular work.  The ending is a bit sudden, but then, it was in real life, too.  8/10

Iain M. Banks, “The Hydrogen Sonata”.   I’m a big big fan of the Culture novels – I’ve been wanting a videogame adaptation of that universe for a long time.  As far as those books go, though, this is a minor entry at best, and made for a disappointing read. 6/10

Robin Sloan, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore”.  I flew through this one in about 3 or 4 hours, which is why I’m not rating it higher; it feels too slim and it winds up too quickly.  But I loved everything else about it; it was fun and smart and did a lot of the things that I’d hoped “Ready Player One” would do, but didn’t.  7/10

Justin Cronin, “The Passage”.   I re-read this to prepare for The Twelve, and it was even better the second time around.  An absolute gem.  9/10

Justin Cronin, “The Twelve”.  I’m glad that I read these two back-to-back; I felt very much on top of things when the second book got started.  It must be said, however, that Cronin is not nearly as good at action scenes as he is with everything else, and there’s a lot of action in this book that just kinda falls flat.  This is the middle book in a trilogy, and I must say that I have absolutely no idea where the third book can possibly go; the ending of this one ties up about 90% of the loose ends.  7/10

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* No, I haven’t read any of the Wheel of Time stuff, and I’m not planning to, either – this particular book came recommended specifically on its own merits, and since it’s the first volume of a projected 10-volume project, I’ll be more than happy to stick with this for the foreseeable future.

when the going gets tough, turn on God mode

January 3, 2013


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.

*     *     *     *     *

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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