Thursday, 28 February 2013

What Doesn't Kill You...

Why you should man up and face the pain.

The Master Chief huddles, foetal, behind a rock barely large enough to shield his overly-armored behind. Alarmed at what he knows is ahead, he stares, wide-eyed, watching bullets slam into trees, branches, turf some way off. 

They’re trying to frighten me, the Chief thinks. And it’s working. His vehicular steed - a Warthog, barely holding itself together - is hit by some stray lasers, exploding into a dull grey firework of shrapnel and ash. 

The chief tenses, curls closer into the side of the rock. Now, it’s just him and a couple of plasmas up against several dozen aliens probably wanting to utilize his MJOLNR helm as a tea cosy or a pair of nifty ski goggles.

They’re getting closer, Chief thinks. I need to make a move before they move in on me. He’s been in situations like this before, but now something feels different, wrong. Still, he’s out of time; out of choices. Our hero tenses, counts to three - with a frenzied war cry, he charges into the fray for one final, desperate push.

He’s rather surprised, then, by what he sees. It’s true - he’s far outnumbered by invader forces, each loaded to the neckline with fearsome weapons designed to maximize pain in ideally pain-free regions. 

The army, though, doesn’t seem all that interested in engaging with the foe. 

Elites are grouped together in a circle, discussing the political reforms of their platoon. “I just don’t see”, one whines, “Why I have to sleep on the bottom bunk now. My teeth get keep getting caught in the ladder...” About a hundred yards off, some grunts are playing piggie-in-the-middle with a disabled frag. At the crest of a nearby hill, some Brutes are making daisy chains for each other. The few who actually seem intent on engaging the Chief are still emptying their barrels furiously somewhere into the trees, the branches, the turf - all some way off from where out friendly neighbourhood Spartan stands radioing in:

“UNSC? Yeah, it’s the MC. They’ve turned the difficulty down again. Any emergency tea-and-digestive caches nearby?"

"Halo? Anyone out there?" (I'm so sorry)

It’s a bit extreme, but the above demonstrates the point I’m about to start word-flailing about. For gaming, hard difficulty should be the norm, not the exception. 

And no. I’m not, at this point, going to wistfully reflect on the halcyon ‘golden days of gaming’ when things were as they should’ve stayed - namely, because I highly doubt there ever was such a gaming Eden. Each generation of platforms has its own highs and pitfalls.

Also, I wasn’t really into existing when the golden days were apparently having their heyday. Not much reflecting to be done by me.

What I am going to do, though, is underline three aspects (I’m getting Baptisty again) that go partway into explaining why I think games are - generally - better on the harder difficulty modes. 

Firstly, satisfaction (have at you sir): this is really what I was trying to get at earlier. It just seems to me that overcoming odds that are actually odds is ultimately less frustrating than the the developers condescendingly holding your hand through the levels.

 Case in point - Dark Souls. Many of the millions who bought that 60-hour sojourn of pain crumpled under its crushing one-way difficulty. This is a game that exists for you to hate, while it goes on not really caring about you - there are probably some characters in virtual purgatory, watching the opening bonfire lick their mottled hands. With Dark Souls, not everyone made it. 

Dark Souls - where enemies are only slightly easier to kill in real life

Knowing this means that every grueling victory is hard earned. When you stand victorious over a fallen foe, bloodied, clutching onto your last threads of health like the last few paragraphs of a good book - you feel more victorious than that time you blithely carved up a frost dragon with a couple of lazy broadsword strokes.

This is why when people say ‘I play games on easy because I want to feel like a badass’, I just don’t understand. On easy modes, I can almost hear the developers crooning ‘aww, wook at doe wittle baybee’, and virtually gracing me with a wee cuddle.

First point, satisfaction. Second point, atmosphere. I’ll be briefer here. A game like Batman: Arkham (insert preference here) or Dead Space (you don’t get to prefer the sequels here) benefit from a more challenging mode because the creative team have set up a situation where you want to feel vulnerable. Batman shouldn’t be able to take a shotgun to the abs. If Isaac’s strolling down corridors blithely humming Sinatra, something’s awry. With these kinds of games, hard difficulty puts your experience on LSD.

Probably. I don’t think I’d handle LSD very well.

Of course, the idea that difficulty modes can undercut the experience of a game is double edged, which is why I want to stress that games are ‘generally’ better on harder modes. It would be ridiculous to launch into Ratchet and Clank prepared for a minecart ride into hell. I’ve personally found, though, that easy modes are more likely to detract from an atmosphere than the latter. 

"Wait a second, did I leave the gas on?"

Third point - level design. Do you ever hear someone say ‘that game has fantastic design’,  and agree, nodding blandly at how good the Emperor's new digs look? Personally, I find it a lot easier to identify what makes a game better than another on a harder difficulty because you’re forced to take everything in. If it’s a shooter, you have to utilise that cover system effectively or you’re just a bloody track mark for the next guy. If it’s RPGs that’re your thing, you’d better make sure you’re comparing all those numbers on two near-identical slippers. 

I mean gauntlets. Gauntlets seem manlier.

So, those are my thrown-together thoughts. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

Or not. I’m like Dark Souls in that regard - your feelings are arbitrary.

Inspired by *this* Youtube video - search for 'Douglby' - I’ve recently been playing games on ‘Ironman’ mode.

What is Ironman mode? If your hero dies in-game, your story ends. A misjudged jump; an unforeseen arrow (phonetics are a grand thing); a failed tussle with an overpowered Gerbil and you stop playing. We don’t reload, we don’t pick up from where we’ve left off. Here, death means that you die.

Sounds familiar, that.

Anyway, in an effort to take self-indulgence to bold new heights, I’d be willing to jot down my experience from game to game, trying each on steroid-fueled difficulty endeavours.

I mean, if you want me to. Don’t listen to that guy above. I care about you, man.

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