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Are Difficulty Settings Necessary?

The pursuit of a challenge can be a driving force in life. The accomplishment of something thought to be unobtainable has a certain allure which some find irresistible. Game designers tend to play off of this concept, creating challenges that seem insurmountable in the context of the game world. Typically there will be an option for the player to affect the likelihood of beating the odds through game difficulty. As a designer, the proper implementation of difficulty, in my opinion, is instituting a learning curve and building from there. Once the player has gleaned the knowledge the game has presented, the designer is free to introduce complex obstacles that utilize this knowledge in varying ways. Approaching the difficulty question from this angle allows designers to create more involving situations during the progression of the game. This concept of “learning in order to succeed” seems to eradicate the necessity of a difficulty option altogether.

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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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Right in Front of Your Face

Elitism still is the big divide. It’s the biggest obstacle facing games today. Elitism is the belief that some individuals, who form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views are the only ones that matter.

We are that elite.

Many of my friends resented when Nintendo positioned itself as a beacon to attract non-gamers (including some of my non-gamer friends, interestingly enough). Now, after piling them with shovelware for years, we see our dusted Wiis and state “The Wii Is Dead” in a dismissive tone that implies “See, we were right all along. You shouldn’t have abandoned us. We are the ones that get it, not them”.

Because (OMG!) gaming is art. And we are (obviously) the only ones who can see it.
Some pieces of art are difficult to understand or appreciate. That’s why the elite is the elite; and have Bach playing on the background as they discuss the peasant situation. The thing is that while there is only schooling and experience in the way of turning the Average Joe into H. E. Pennypacker, for gaming there is also the issue of skill. How can grandpa even start to appreciate games when just comprehending the controls is bound to take more spasmodic accidents than his patience and time could afford?

Yes, folks, this is my Omnitopic entry!

No matter how unapproachable a book or a movie may be, one can always get through it. The same is not true for gaming, as the skills it requires are primarily related to manual dexterity – which is not a trivial thing to acquire. It’s mostly an aptitude after all. Gaming is built on progression and not matter whether this progression if linear or open ended, the plot is not. One cannot skip to world 8-8 if one cannot even pass world 1-1 (and the first warp zone is hidden in the world 1-2, mind you). This is troublesome. It’s like buying a movie without knowing how to read it.

I find this unfair, especially now games are maturing into a narrative driven medium. Read the rest of this entry

Surviving The Horror: Dead Space 2’s Hard Core Difficulty

When humans get scared, our bodies prepare to take action. Adrenaline courses through our systems, our heart rates skyrocket, and certain bodily functions like digestion get suspended entirely. This is commonly known as the body’s “fight or flight” response. But while “fight or flight” may have a nice ring to it, the terms suggest a simple duality that doesn’t quite mesh with the reality: our fear response covers not just fight OR flight, but every combination of the two. Furthermore, the fear response varies between people. How you react to something scary may not be how I react to it.

Horror game developers are aware of this range of response, and they design their titles to fit a certain segment of it. Some horror fans prefer games that trigger their “fight” reaction. Others prefer games that trigger their “flight” response. Neither is a more valid horror experience than the other, and, contrary to popular belief, titles like Resident Evil 5 and Amnesia can occupy the same market space.

Enter the Dead Space series. The first game appealed to both “fight” and “flight” enthusiasts with its mix of extreme player vulnerability and engaging dismemberment. The second game ramped up the intensity in all respects. The hero, Isaac Clarke, is faster and deadlier, but so are the bladed undead necromorphs he faces. With added environmental hazards, the player is thrust into situations that constantly challenge him or her. Despite all these new features, the developers at Visceral knew they needed something extra to combat the greatest enemy of fear: familiarity. As the second game in the series, Dead Space 2 would automatically start off in a weaker position. Thus, a new difficulty was included. Hard Core mode would give the player only three saves for the entire game. Checkpoints would be disabled, and death would return the player to his last save, regardless if that was 5 chapters ago.

Hard Core offers players quite a different experience than usual. The cost of failure is not a few rooms’ worth of progress, but rather, entire chapters and multiple hours of gameplay. Similar difficulty modes have appeared in other games, but it’s particularly suited to the survival horror genre. The player is already used to being extra careful about enemy encounters, and the more serious consequences serve to heighten the tension. All this is just fluffy theory until you actually screw up, however.

Then the game changes.

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The Complexity of SeeD

The trend in gaming has been to simplify, simplify, simplify. If games are easier, more people will want to play them. If games are less complex, fewer people will quit them midway through, and the more people who beat games, the more people will play more games, more sequels.

Simpler games mean more money, put simply.

Complexity in games is certainly different from difficulty, the subject of this month’s omnitopic, though the two are often related. The earliest games were extremely difficult, but most featured two buttons and few had even the most rudimentary concepts of player progression and development. In Super Mario Brothers the only way to get better was through trial and error, and the tutorial was the first goomba, walking at you. In Final Fantasy, you improved by leveling up, but the concept of leveling up was not much more complex that killing enough monsters to get more hit points. It was Mario’s trial and error codified into a straight, simple progression, mostly because you couldn’t get much better at hitting the attack button. Contrast this to modern games, where tutorials are all consuming but the games themselves are easier than ever. In fact, they are designed so anyone can complete them.

During the Super Nintendo days, when all games came out of Japan, none of the truly complicated ones ever made it over to America. People look at me funny when I say the SNES had some brilliantly complicated games, and they remember Mario World, Super Metroid, and Final Fantasy VI*. My first reaction to this is always to claim Final Fantasy VI is secretly a very complicated game, with arcane, unexplained mechanics that allow you to completely break your party, but then they retort by saying they never understood any of them and still beat the game. Fine, I respond, and list off a string of titles: Final Fantasy V, Bahamut Lagoon, Romancing SaGa, Shin Megami Tensei. All very complicated games.

All very Japan only, too.
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So! We have that one thing we call the Omnitopic (which you should all enter, because there are prizes!) going on here at Nightmare Mode, and…this would be the first entry. But Patricia, you might ask, what in the world does this have to do with difficulty? Why, I speak about my difficulty adjusting to PC gaming, of course!

Rumble. It’s a feature I never knew I appreciated until I acquired my first gaming PC last February. Since then, I’ve been spending more and more time playing games on it than my consoles, and, despite enjoying the many benefits of PC gaming–lower price points, better graphics, etc–there’s something that’s been nagging me this entire time. Something unspeakably eerie to me about standard (ie, normal mouse + keyboard) PC gaming experience.

It feels disembodied.

Hell, I’d go so far as to say that it feels downright unnatural. I can’t feel anything, my ‘body’ is denied legibility. I can’t situate myself. Where before sticking to cover produced a dull thud; where every step before jumping off a ledge was palpable; where sliding down a mountain produced an earthy rasp; now, there is nothing but nothingness itself.

In its place was this cold efficiency that the prosthesis of a mouse and keyboard provide, the result of taking my body out-of-the-way. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The future that we see in science fiction points to the same thing. The age of protein-based life forms is ending, to be replaced by silicon-based forms; that human consciousness can, hopefully, be downloaded onto a computer; that the humanity and subjectivity is the mind and not the body; that if our essence can be transported into the digital space, as it often is, that perhaps we can become immortal.

And yet, if there if there is anything which is inherently “natural” about the human being it is his body. We experience everything we do in the way that we do precisely because we are embodied beings.

Yes, PC gaming isn’t completely disembodied–I can see, I can hear. But the most basic thing to me, the thing that bridges a gap between myself and the game–the visceral ability to feel–is currently missing.

Omnitopic: Difficulty

(The imaginatively named Omnitopic is our attempt at community; bow before the might of community, petty mortals! It is a collection of posts circling around a specific topic, floating like a boxer and stinging like a nail through the forearm. It is a combination of opinions into a collection of packages.)

The month of May makes me think of flowers, showers and absurdly difficult games.

What makes a game difficult? There’s no central criteria. Difficulty comes in many forms. Some of these forms are as hard as trying to beat Mega Man 2 as a five year old. Others are games you positively cannot get into, that you try and try to enjoy and eventually find your way in to a new favorite. Some are complicated and arcane, not especially challenging but presenting a difficult front to keep out casual gamers.

And others? Others are just plain easy.

Difficulty in games is a heady topic, one which has spawned countless casual vs. hardcore debates, heated rants, and broken controllers. So this makes it a fantastic pick to revive our long dormant collaborative post series, dead since last May, because it’s a topic with so many avenues of access. Easy and hard are just one of many: complexity, obtuseness, and intense player communities are definite options, and even ones I haven’t thought of in my very limited wisdom.

We will be posting our responses as the month goes along, but we also want to open it up to the community, too. So! Here’s the deal. We’re going to open up the Omnitopic to you, the readers. Submit your own responses to the Omnitopic this month to us via email at nightmaremode AT, and the best response will not only get published, but the author will also get his or her choice from the following games via Steam: Capsized, Yar’s Revenge or Anomaly: Warzone Earth. The only stipulations are that you are not currently a writer at Nightmare Mode, and that the entry is at least 3 paragraphs long.

So good hunting, everyone, and don’t let the difficulty get you down.