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A Matter of Strife and Death

How good are you at video games? It’s not a question that can be answered specifically in one word, as we all have our strengths and weakness based on varying factors: genre, age, level of intoxication and so on. This question, however, is posed to us at the start of most video games. How would you like your experience to be today? Cakewalk easy or spirit-crushingly hard? After your decision is made, doubt begins to creep into your mind. What if they’ve dumbed this game down too far and it becomes boring? What if they’ve included unfair difficulty spikes and I get stuck? All these questions and I’ve not even seen the opening movie yet.

The age-old question posed by a difficulty selection screen can only be answered though the gamer’s past experience. Everyone can recount at least one instance of restarting a game having bitten off more than they can chew. Do you question your ability as a gamer if you give up on something when it becomes too hard, or do you stoically soldier on, determination etched on your brow and sweat collecting in your palms? Does the game over screen fill you with dread or taunt you into masochistically hitting the restart icon, returning you to the fray?

Past experience has led us to understand the tropes and expectations we endure having selected a more challenging difficulty setting. Less health, more enemies, more objectives, the list goes on. The challenge put down to you is one of mastery. You must master the control system. You must memorise weak spots. You must learn the layout of each and every level until you can draw a map of it blindfolded and drunk. Sometimes, however, developers use these expectations to their advantage. Having decided to undertake PS1 classic, Metal Gear Solid on a more challenging difficulty, I was rendered immobile due to the lack of my soliton radar. Having completed the game several times on the easy setting, I had become entirely dependent upon this nifty bit of kit. Now I was having to play an entirely different game, crouching inside boxes, nervously shuffling forward and listening for enemy footsteps. It was an intoxicating experience, but not one I massively enjoyed. I had become a true stealth master, but I was a shivering, nervous wreck. I could recount all the enemy patrol routes and was viewing life though my night vision goggles, invisible to the untrained eye. Even I couldn’t find me!

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There are those games that fall back on difficulty settings as merely a way to extend the life of an otherwise short campaign. The Call of Duty franchise has always pandered to the idea that an increase in difficulty means simply giving you less health, more accurate enemy fire and (somewhat frustratingly) an unending stream of grenades to dodge. Many of us have attempted at least one of these games on the hardest setting as a means of unlocking trophies or achievements. Personally I feel the techniques one adopts to counteract the insurmountable odds which face you, tend to reveal otherwise hidden cracks in the games design. Spawn points become noticeable. Issues arise with loops in enemy A.I. Unfair gaps in checkpoints are all the more confounding. Perhaps this is the whinging of someone not as good at games as he wants to be, but it strikes me as lazy programming when something that can be used to add depth and texture, feels like a tired afterthought.

These are only two examples of an issue that must plague developers. Many see this as an opportunity to better their software. Platinum’s Bayonetta goes from one extreme to the other, giving players the chance to test themselves against one of the most challenging games of recent times. A game which at one end of the spectrum can only be completed by true mastery of an increasingly complex control system, split second timing and vision which boarders on second sight; to a game which can be completed with one hand tied behind your back, literally. In Criterion’s Black, players are given lists of extra items and documents to recover as the difficulty rises. These items are usually found by either blowing up structures, shooting down dry walls or generally causing more havoc, destruction and noise than would be otherwise necessary. This, as you would expect, alerts more guards to your location thus allowing the game to do what it does best – gunfire and explosions.

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We’ve seen how programmers have used difficulty settings to both their advantage and to their detriment. What then of the games that choose to shun the inclusion of difficulty selection altogether? Why would developers decide against something that can have such a positive effect on a player? The Japanese RPG genre rarely has any form of difficulty setting. Any tricky sections in a Final Fantasy game can be remedied with grinding though a series of identical random battles for half a day to get characters up to speed. Whilst this is not a particularly satisfying conclusion to the problem, it certainly does traverses the need for lengthening measures.

Some strange entries to the list of games that have spurned difficulty settings, are many of the titles produced by Rockstar. The Grand Theft Auto franchise, Bully and Red Dead Redemption all have a set level for difficulty, meaning everyone has had a shared experience of the game. This decision creates a flow and rhythm to these titles that does not result in endless repetition of short passages of play. By making the game less repetitious the developer has been able to create a (marginally) more realistic environment in which to unfurl its narrative. In these examples, story has been at the core of the games design. In a game such as Heavy Rain, although it does have a difficulty setting, it is impossible not to complete the game and see the conclusion of the story. In Pac Man, however, whilst the tale of our heroic, pill-popping, yellow circle is gripping; the developer is aware that the player is more concerned with beating their friends high score than reaching a satisfying conclusion to the narrative.

Heavy Rain and Pac Man are obviously very different titles with different agendas. They do, however, sit at either end of the same spectrum. Heavy Rain is culmination of advanced technology and the desire to move the medium into more cinematic territory. With the creation of full motion capture and one to one facial recognition, as we have seen in Rockstar’s own L.A Noir, it is becoming apparent that gamers want a level of immersion that one would usually find in the cinema. This decision has meant the challenge of the game has been left to one side, as developers increasingly want the player to see the game through to conclusion. Where then does that leave the masochistic control pad destroyers among us?

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As video games have shown us in the past, if there is a market for it, somebody will make it. Be it the next instalment of the Call of Duty franchise, or a pony grooming simulation game, developers will always manage to seek out new markets to saturate. More than anything this highlights the flexibility of the medium. Difficulty settings are a way to test our prowess at competitive games. Training in difficult campaign modes before you show your skills to the World via online matches has always been the norm, and it is set to continue. It is in our nature to compete against one another, be it in online death-matches or comparing achievements and trophies with our friends.

Due to the nature of certain genres within the medium, difficulty levels will always be present in one form or another. As story driven games become more complex and expensive to produce, developers will want gamers to get the full experience from the fruits of their labour. As this happens, many developers will take Rockstar’s lead and begin to phase out the notion of difficulty settings, favouring a more singular experience for their audience. On the other hand, our thirst for competition will always be quenched by the challenge of a difficult game. The joy that accompanies the destruction of a final boss, infinitely heightened due to the fact the game is on the hardest setting. The euphoria that accompanies this achievement is what many of us gamers strive for from our hobby. All the frustration has been worth it. The pile of broken controllers are a reminder of your toil. It’s a very personal feeling. An internal, warming, glow of self-satisfaction that makes you smile broadly. We’ve all felt it, and, as the human condition to test and push ourselves continues, we are all set to feel it for a long time to come. All I ask is that developers regard difficulty settings as a tool to enhance the experience, not just to create the illusion of longevity. That and more durable control pads. Sometimes I forget my own strength!

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011. Get in touch on Twitter @RichJimMurph.

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