Turning up the difficulty

In my last column I talked about mindless games and whether such a concept actually makes sense. Today, we talk about something else that stems from this debate. Usually when I read a review of a “mindless” game that I myself have played, the first thing to come to me is not “they’re kind of right” or “they’re kind of wrong”. The question on my mind is “did they play it on hard?”

When I was a kid I didn’t play games on any sort of difficulty – few NES games actually had a difficulty setting; you played against whatever they threw at you. When difficulties did start popping up, it was always Easy mode for me. This was because I only got two, maybe three new games a year, so there was no concept of being stuck and putting it away. When I got my first job I simply wanted to get my hard earned money’s worth. I was a sucker for easy, and it never seemed like a problem. I got to enjoy the game from beginning to end, and I rarely had to deal with being stuck.

Somewhere along the line I graduated to Normal, which seemed even better. Easy had become unchallenging, and as I began to review games, it seemed fairer to asses them at their default settings. This didn’t last for very long. As I became a cynical, curmudgeonly gamer, my habits changed again, and now I play on nothing but Hard.

The point of all of this is not to bore you with my life story. Looking back to how I graduated from successful levels of difficulty, I can say quite confidently that what mode you play on is crucial, so crucial that it can and has affected the scores/opinions we give to a game.

I just finished playing Criterion’s shooter Black on Xbox. The reviews for this one would believe it is nothing more than a fancy tech demo and a shooting gallery. These are both accurate to some extent, but these descriptions make it sound like Black is an easy game, which just isn’t the case – if you play it on hard. On hard mode, enemies will cut you to ribbons if you stand out in the open. I found that the best way to win was to treat the game half like a military sim, half like an 80’s action movie. I used the destructible environments wisely to maximize my kill count, opened fire from behind a variety of cover points, and used all the guns and ROF modes I had available. Other times I stood out in the open unloading seven RPG rounds, or running up to a bunker under all sorts of fire to drop in a grenade.

On the hardest difficulty, the trees are alive (with the sound of music).

It was a healthy mix of planning, careful movement and maniac bravado, and it made Black on hard more enjoyable than frustrating. It also allowed me to appreciate the wide open and carefully planned environments, as well as curse the horribly broken hitboxes that enemies often have. I saw how the game worked, both for good and bad, once I had to take stock in what was going on around me. Black is certainly a repetitive game, mostly because the last few levels are poorly designed, but certainly not because it is a cakewalk.

Unless you play it on easy, that is. I didn’t actually try it, but I can imagine it takes Black’s well rendered firearms and makes them unholy tools of destruction. If a shooter allows you to take out an enemy several yards away with two shots while moving, the firefights are going to be a lot different than when you have to methodically sweep and clear a building. We can’t expect everyone to play Black on hard, but those that didn’t might have played a much different game than I did. If that is the case, then how do we approach the reviews?

Halo is an even better example of what difficulty can do. How much I have warmed up to the game over the years is directly proportional to how much I’ve played it on Legendary. These days I refuse to play it on any other setting, even if I can’t beat a damn level. Legendary changed the way I played the game, making me find uses for every weapon and helping me discover things like canceling reload animations. I’m still not good at Halo, but let’s just say I’m good enough that on the other difficulties I take out most Elites with melee rather than headshots. It’s a much more boring game this way, and if my only experience with Halo was Heroic I’d still be cursing its name today.

Simply put, difficulty is sometimes necessary for a game. It often forces the player to think for themselves in what might normally be considered to be a “mindless” game. It can help us understand the game’s rules and design as we’re forced to use every tool available. To play on easy isn’t exactly cheating, but it can make things so simple that you can ignore a great deal of stuff that the game might really want you to see.

Conversely, there are many times when Harder difficulties are perfectly and legitimately avoidable. If you’ve ever played a game with bad rubber band AI or bots with an unfair advantage, you know what I mean. I suppose some players take on these challenges to prove the victor in “man vs. machine”, but more often than not these unfair challenges are about finding your own exploits and cheap strategies to use against the game in an attempt to fight fire with fire. I don’t often encounter these kinds of games anymore, but those that exist can easily turn off players from stepping up to the next level.

Ultimately, cranking up the difficulty is something every gamer should at least try. And no, I don’t think it is a valid excuse to tell me you “play games for the story.” These are still video games, and most games imply some sort of challenge. If you can’t overcome them all, no worries. Neither can I. But to burn through games on Easy so you can watch some cutscenes seems pointless. The state of interactive fiction, where you actually make a difference in the narrative, is horrible right now. There are many better stories to see in other forms of media. If you aren’t coming into a game with an interest in the challenges it presents, I have to wonder why you are playing.

Go play your favorite game on Hard. If it challenges you, try to challenge it back. Think it out, play it out, and realize that practice makes perfect. You never know what new things it might show you.

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