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The Difference Between “Hard” and “Frustrating”

I would like to preface this by saying I love hard games. I love Demon’s Souls and most Atlus games. I play Touhou, though I have only beaten one of them and only on easy mode. I measure difficulty in ‘Megamans’. I do not believe those who play easier games are lesser or inferior, I just like hard games. The thing is, “hard” is an ambiguous word. A game can be hard for a lot of reasons, but as far as I am concerned, there are two kinds of difficult games: those that are “hard” and those that are “frustrating.” As a final preface note, unless stated otherwise, everything discussed in this article is set to the “normal” difficulty.

“Hard” games are deliberately hard. They are designed to be difficult, and make you work to complete a level, to get an item, to win a fight or complete a puzzle. They are games like Super Meat Boy that kill you a lot but keep death a quick thing and don’t make a big deal about it, or games like Persona or Megaman that are simply difficult. They are nothing short of challenging, and despite the difficulty I rarely find myself frustrated when playing them. Dying a lot, for example, does not have to be a source of frustration, especially when handled correctly. Demon’s Souls is a great example of this. Death is so frequent it is actually part of the narrative and, more importantly, it is quick. There is no long game over upon death. The character simply falls over and respawns at the beginning of the level. All you lose are your “souls,” the sort of all-purpose currency/experience you have on hand, and you can always go back to where you died and recollect them.

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Why Fight When You Can Run?

It is an idea that most games discourage, to say the least. Combat, hitting things, shooting things, cutting things, breaking things, slaying monsters, just fighting seems to be the big focus of most of the more well known, popular games on the market. I am not going to say “it is a bad message” or “it gives games a bad name” or any of that nonsense, because frankly doing something like cutting down massive monsters with even bigger weapons is nothing short of satisfying. The point is that fighting is the focus of too many games, so much so that even most commercially available game engines are pre-built to handle some kind of combat, and the mass media has developed the stereotype that games are inherently violent. It is a pity, really since there are so many great games I would rather play about making things or blooming flowers or running and jumping.

mirror's edge town

Best start running

I recently got my hands on a copy of Mirror’s Edge, and while not a perfect game to be sure, I found I thoroughly enjoyed it. Its name is pretty well known nowadays, but for those unacquainted with it, Mirror’s Edge is a game about running, or rather moving without stopping. While there is combat, within which you are able to take guns out of enemy hands and go FPS, the game itself discourages it. For one, it is not easy for an unarmed person to approach a group of armed gunmen and take a weapon without taking a few bullets, but more than that stopping to fight breaks your momentum. Perhaps it is because the combat is imperfect, to put it lightly, but regardless of the reason, in a game about momentum slowing down is the last thing you want to do.

It is for just this reason that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Combat exists, but in most of the game, all modes included, it is almost entirely avoidable and unnecessary. In fact, the enemies are more obstacles to your momentum than targets to eliminate. There was something refreshing about playing a game that just wants players to run. Outside of the combat bits in story mode, there is no tension from fear of death, just the desire to go keep moving and never slow down, looking for anything in the surroundings that can be used to move the next rooftop. While players do not one-man-army a swarm of baddies or topple a foe twenty times their own size, doing something like, say, running up a wall to jump across a chasm between two buildings and sprinting through, above, and below a maze of obstacles all ending with a wall-run to a zipline is just as satisfying–some of the more absurd times can be easily found on youtube and are beyond believable.  It is reminiscent of older times before plots gained complexity and graphics started mattering as much as they do now, when all you had was a goal as simple and pure as “get here and do it really fast.” No, it is not the first game with such a premise, but despite its shortcomings Mirror’s Edge is a great momentum game.

sonic screenshot

The original fast runner

In more recent times, less combat-oriented games are not as infrequent or doomed to obscurity as they used to be. If anything I can think of more games that I have played in the last week without combat than with, but when it came out Mirror’s Edge got a lot of attention because it is the first first-person parkour game, and a genuine first is a beautiful sight. I could have used Minecraft or Don’t Take it Personally or something even more detached from combat, but the inclusion and discouragement from combat in the game is one of the main things that inspired this little string of thought.

In Praise of Being Praised

It all began in the confessionary. Graham was telling us how he almost stopped playing videogames forever (I don’t think he would though) when we started debating about how to algebraically measure a game. It eventually came down to issues related to in-game grinding, which led to issues related to grinding for achievement points. I love to make fun of Graham’s inexplicable (well, to me (and everybody else) at least) gaming tastes. With this debate I might just have just given him the ammo he so longed for to fight back.

I’m an Achievement Whore.

Pretty obvious, right? After all, I am the guy who posts fictional achievement messages into his own stuff. Coincidentally, I am also the leading writer in terms of Nightmare Mode’s “writerscore”. Also important: who cares? Well, I do. That’s more than enough for me to keep posting these things. And….. ooooops! I did it again!

I don’t have a Gold membership for Xbox Live. I tried playing Gears of War online only once and discovered that I suck at it. Nevertheless, I have finished both games at the “Insane” difficulty. Why? Because of the “Suicide Missionary” 150 G Achievement, that’s why. It is a pretty sweet felling to receive that little badge after all that work I’ve had defeating the lambent Brumak (well, the Brumak itself was pretty easy, but who cares? I’m trying to make a point here!). That little badge is now added to my gamer profile. By comparing my profile with Patricia’s, I can see that – despite being able to kick my ass online – she hasn’t finished the game on Insane yet. I feel a bit of pride because of that.

Receiving virtual Achievement Points for virtual accomplishments is probably one of the biggest innovations of this generation. It’s even bigger than motion sensing and 3D graphics, because the concept of granting achievements can be applied to the real-world accomplishments as well (they ARE an incentive system, after all). They are more than a mere incentive system though. Read the rest of this entry