How Hard Can It Be?

In Video Games on April 27, 2010 at 2:47 pm

An immutable facet of gaming is that of the challenge: the difficulty in acquiring or achieving the goals presented within the context of the game itself.  As an empathetic connection is formed through each successive obstacle — where we feel the same exultation in triumph or dread in becoming beset by further setbacks —an appropriate challenge becomes indelible.  When presented with an impossible task we should strive with every ounce of our effort and just barely cross the finish line, our avatars mirroring our exertion and sharing in the experience; when such monumental tasks are reduced to trivialities, our emotional investment is cheapened.  Likewise, when trivial tasks are insurmountable resentment is brewed and frustration simmers; our hate of the game is transferred to the plot and characters.  This may be lessened if it is assured we are facing the same challenges as the characters, rather than challenges imposed through a severe segregation of gameplay and justification.

Just how many games truly allow you to excel through your own merits, skill and talent?  As integral as challenge is to developing that empathetic connection, that allows us to transcend the boorish nature of manipulating our hand-held input devices in what only amounts to the illusion of a three-dimensional visage, you would naturally assume that success — and failure — is granted exclusively through your own efforts.  That you would not be bolstered through a severe separation of in-game advantages or crippled through a truly unfair, suspension-of-disbelief-shattering disadvantage?  Think on this: given our current limitations of interaction, the scope of your natural prowess is funneled narrowly through the limited defining of your physical and mental abilities: your hand eye coordination and reflexes; and your ability to absorb information, handle multiple variables and make sound tactical judgments.

Games may artificially — meaning outside the scope of your natural abilities — increase or reduce the margin by which your gameplay experience is affected by your own abilities.  This should be considered as separate from difficulty, and more along the lines of calibrating a game along the axis of genre and desired scope of gameplay; some games simply don’t want to be about certain things.  Your physical traits may be bolstered by something as simple as an aiming reticule, which is commonly accepted and expected in the interface of every shooter out there; even games with minimalist interfaces as Metro 2033 still use them.  You may be assisted by some degree of auto-aiming or lock-on capability, reducing the necessity for absolute accuracy or the need to track targets, as seen in most console shooters like Halo, but notably absent in the most recent Turok title.  “Bullet time” makes it easier to react quickly to new or multiple stimuli; you are not any faster than before, but the game has slowed to accommodate you.  Of course, many of these can be stylistic elements as well — Max Payne would be diminished without its slow-motion action sequences — consistent with the setting or tone, and not having them would make you feel like you aren’t quite allowed to walk the talk the game presents.

Mental capabilities are more difficult to gauge, but may be broken down into simply manipulating the flow of information.  On one side you must absorb and evaluate data, potentially from multiple sources in a myriad of formats, all towards making sound decisions and tactical judgments while allowing predictions for how such judgments will affect the game world to loop back around to merely providing additional data to consider — and so on and circularity.  In easing this burden, games should streamline their interface to facilitate data acquisition and management.  More aggressively, the game may have automatic processes designed to deal with certain data criterion which may or may not be set by players.  Then, the difficulty may be inflated or deflated through how well these processes act in the players’ stead, or to which degree they will accommodate and implement their tactical judgment.  These methods should be well familiar to fans of real-time strategy games, ramped up to eleven with cyclopean titles as Sins of a Solar Empire and Supreme Commander, as well as their more intriguing implementation in games like Final Fantasy XII, which stands out drastically when compared to its peers, and Demigod, which boils resource and army management down to how well you play a singular avatar.

Considering the above, whence comes difficulty?  Factor in luck and time investment and your answer shall be made apparent.  Luck, or more accurately that random factor well apart from any player-manageable aspect; and time investment, which simply states the game won’t let you truly play it unless it has been decided you have played enough.  MMOs are huge contenders for these factors, relying on an ever-increasing gradation of time investment to insure consistent subscriptions, with the time it takes to level and the random loot drops.  RPGs are also guilty of this; Persona 3 is a particularly egregious offender as while it has two-dozen characterization-based side quests, it still requires you to slog through a dungeon to level up at least once per in-game month, to say nothing of potentially losing hours of game time from randomly dying to an instant death spell.

I feel a great sense of accomplishment in games that allow me to succeed based primarily on my own capabilities; this feeling may be enhanced by increasing the game’s specifically delineated “difficulty level.”  In good games this will bring the enemies up to my skill level, reacting more quickly and more accurately, or responding more appropriately or more aggressively to my own actions.  In less good games, they simply have more health or do more damage, or become psychic outright and gain truly unfair advantages.  Early games had to utilize the latter as it was actually impossible to have enemies that operated within the confines of the game rules; today this should be less acceptable, but all the same the player was, and is, still allowed to win through the sweat on their own brow.

It is when games severely limit your capabilities or present inordinate reliance upon random factors or time investment do I begin to feel truly cheated, that the game is hiding its shallow nature through an obfuscating curtain of artificial difficulty.  When I’m really just playing a game for its story, this becomes unbearable as I’m forced to replay whole segments due to an inconvenient game over.  In cases such as these, I feel truly justified in lowering the difficulty, essentially opting out of the gameplay portion of the game, to experience the plot or have the experience adjusted down to actually feel like I’m playing capable individuals overcoming obstacles instead of being obliterated by them.  Likewise, this may sooth my irritation at an overly severe segregation between the game’s play and the justification presented in-game for why it must be so.  In both cases, I am allowed to enjoy the plot once more, or even bring the game down to enjoyable levels.

Does this make me less of a gamer?  I do not know what stigma may be attached to riding out on lesser difficulties; I don’t think it is something oft discussed in gaming communities.  There certainly are bragging rights for higher difficulties, and I do recall being told, in no uncertain terms, that I had not done anything but waste my time in abstaining from Halo’s legendary difficulty level.  All the same, no gamer would think for a moment that Doom’s nightmare difficulty represents anything but grim determination; the game itself proudly proclaims it isn’t even remotely fair.  Yet more gamers use unfair settings to acquire a challenge where the AI may falter, as in Supreme Commander’s specific “cheating” AIs that have resource and build-time advantages over the player.

Some gamers may bristle at this, but many games simply do not take much actual skill from the player, due to the degree by which they reduce the effectiveness of the player’s ability, or if they simply do not offer an avenue by which these abilities may affect the game.  Many, many RPGs fall into this, requiring no hand-eye coordination at all and minimizing tactical considerations through not providing enough information to act upon; else, you may simply lack the appropriate avenue to act upon such information.  Outside of these considerations, the difficulty may be lessened in all respects by simply leveling up a bit more.  Some games are harsher about this than others: World of Warcraft has what players call “gear checks” : encounters with timers or periods of focused activity that, regardless of actual player skill, will be met with failure unless the participants have acquired gear of sufficient quality.  To solve this, simply invest sufficient time in a dungeon more suited to your gear level to acquire better gear.

This all may show some bias; given all of the above, it can easily be seen that shooters and strategy games require the most skill to best, and both genres are more well represented on the PC, rather than consoles.  Compare this to the standard mouse and keyboard vs. gamepad debate and you might see where I’m coming from when I segregate my platform of choice along genre boundaries.  Once again and as always, in matters of taste, even for difficulty and skill, there is no argument.

  1. Good piece here. Game difficulty is something I have devoted some ammount of time to debating. I have heard others comment “Well I set it on hard, of course.” I have never said that, i take nothing for granted and fully believe that some games are better on easy.
    Ghostbusters and Wolverine are two awesome games…as long as played on easy. If the difficulty is increased past that it simply takes too long to kill an enemy to be considered fun. If hundreds of bad men are going to assualt me I don’t have the time to spend several minutes stopping just one, I have adamantium claws and a healing factor, a native with a machette should stand no chance no matter how “hard” the game is.
    Another game I played on easy was Mass Effect 2, I found the game more difficult then I was enjoying and very nearly returned the game to the shop at one point due to frustration over one stupid battle.
    Am I a poor gamer because I play several games on easy? I don’t think so, I play for fun, and agree that repeated dyings are not much fun.
    And for those casting doubt on my skills even now, a Resident Evil game doesn’t exist that I can’t beat using only a pistol.

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