Victory Over the Hardcore: The Valuable Proper Use of Difficulty in Games

Punishing difficulty has been a part of games since the heyday of arcades, often a method of eking out more money from consumers to keep plugging at their favourite games without starting over. Then games consoles were introduced to homes, a luxury expensive for many, meaning games had to last to feel like a worthwhile product. Difficulty was the easiest way to make games feel longer with data storage at the time limiting the scope of the game. Making games difficult was the easiest way to keep people playing for longer for better product satisfaction.

Nowadays, many people have no problem polishing off most major video game releases, especially with their tailorable difficulty options. Games known for being difficult are kind of lumped together in a niche under the umbrella term of “hardcore”. Dark Souls, ARMA, Super Meat Boy, Ikaruga, and Darkest Dungeon are all games which thrive on their hardcore status, each requiring a mixture of skill, precision, strategy, and determination to prevail.

Going into a difficult game gives you a kind of mentality; you steel yourself, and start to adopt the way you look at the challenges the game throws at you: the environment, the enemies, your inventory. It draws you into the experience, and gives you an appreciation for the world. But it’s very, very important to maintain the fine balance between a dangerous environment and unfair odds. This is part of why when difficulty feels forced, unfair, or artificial, it’s so frustrating; we want to immerse ourselves in a world, a character, and a purpose. When the world breaks character and obstructs our character’s purpose in the name of challenge, that immersion is broken and it’s difficult to placate an embittered player. Despite the positive uses for punishing difficulty, not all difficult games are good, and not all good games are difficult; it’s all about how the game makes use of its challenge.

Immersion-breaking difficulty is widely known as “artificial”, because the tasks the game throws at you aren’t intrinsically any more difficult; the system is stacked against you, and it feels like the game is breaking character to make itself harder. Imagine a section in which you need to dodge obstacles to progress, but the speed of the oncoming objects is such that you basically have to guess when to dodge, and in which direction. This is artificial challenge because you can’t overcome it with skill, only a mixture of luck and tenacity, and can be found in the final boss to Super Meat Boy- a game whose challenge is otherwise fair.

Late in some games, the challenge can feel artificial in cases where the developers just buff the enemies’ health while your damage tolerance and output remain the same. Not only does this stretch out late game encounters to potentially tiring lengths, it can also kill the sense of momentum of combat that the game has established which can be very jarring. Imagine learning over the course of an FPS that it takes about half a magazine of ammunition to kill a certain enemy class, but towards the late game they can suddenly soak up three-quarters to a whole magazine to do the same job. It’d throw you off-balance, reminding you that you’re in a game where NPCs’ stats can be buffed at the will of the designers.

This can be countered with adaptive difficulty systems, like in Skyrim where enclosed areas are scaled to your character as you enter them, populating them with higher-level enemy types as you grow in power yourself. This way, you can come across underpowered and overpowered enemies in the open world, but quests can tailor themselves to your character’s strength. I’m also a fan of games like Fallout 4 and Dragon’s Dogma, where open worlds have areas populated with enemies that might take out an under-levelled character with a single hit in the early game, but can be tackled or even crushed later on. This gives you a real sense of satisfaction when you return to an area you’ve feared for hours but can now breeze through. The difficulty of the original encounter sticks in your mind, and throws down a gauntlet to your avatar, and by extension you.

Another style of difficulty that lots of people find frustrating is a steep difficulty curve that means the player has to spend some time repetitively grinding to buff their stats enough to match or at the very least brute-force their way past a difficult boss (this is mostly concerning the JRPG genre, but can be applicable to RPGs in general). However this can be used to persuade a player to engage with the game world, seeking out side quests to gain levels and learn a little bit about the world as they go. I don’t mind this so much, but it understandably leaves a lot of people cold, especially if repetitively grinding enemies in the world is the only option. That can kill the pace of a good narrative- you’ve been doing okay up until now, so why throw up a wall as we reach the natural mini-climax of a section with a boss?

The impact of this can be lessened in a number of ways. The boss or section in question absolutely must be escapable for struggling players. Locking a player into a scenario for which they are under levelled is only going to make them scream as they throw themselves up against a brick wall again and again. When they decide that they’re not yet ready to beat the section, they need to be able to quickly and easily backtrack to a location ripe for the grind. When they get there, they should know, or be easily be able to find out, readily available options to get themselves levelled up to scratch. These options need to be varied, and ideally offer their own small narrative threads to satisfy the player’s need for narrative payoff while their main story progress is halted. Lastly, the combat (or whatever mechanics you’re using to grind XP) needs to be intrinsically enjoyable, or else being forced to go through it for a little while is going to grate; subpar battle systems might be ignored when you’re following a good story, but the lack of substantial narrative payoff can sully your experience when you’re only experiencing combat for a grind. Even non-gameplay factors need to be considered, like repetitive battle music or lengthy loading or transition times that can get on your player’s nerves.

Some games are challenging because of a poor design or an oversight from the developers. Poor control over your character’s movement, unclear jump distance and landing detection in platformers, and hitboxes that extend beyond your avatar’s bodily bounds are examples of poor game design that can make a game frustratingly difficult to play through. In the case of adventure games, puzzles may be unintuitive or require dreaded pixel hunting. This more often encourages recklessly clicking the screen rather than actually engaging with environmental details, which I can only assume is the intention.

While many games opt to provide multiple difficulty options for players, I’m personally a fan of games which simply are the difficulty that they are, for instance Dark Souls. This forces a developer to really look at how they teach a player the mechanics and rules of the game. There aren’t any menu options to reduce difficulty, so the player knows that there’s an alternative approach to adopt if they get stuck. And the game world feels more cohesive to me if I know I’m playing through the “true” version of the game, rather than one version of the game that’s arbitrarily harder or easier than another. I understand that developers want their game to be enjoyed by a range of consumers with different skill levels, but I admire those games that take risks to adhere to the vision of a world and how we should interact with it.

The Souls series is, to me, a paragon of how to make a game challenging without sacrificing fairness. The game world, NPCs, and player character all follow the rules of the game without deviation. You control your avatar with an absolute sense of space within the game world; swing your sword, and a small clip registers as a hit. Likewise with enemies’ attacks on your person. It’s this dedication to inch-perfect precision in both Souls’ design and expectation of its players that the game builds its unshakeable sense of place. Dangers can always be seen early enough if you’re cautious and keen-eyed, and even the most relentless of aggressors have weaknesses to exploit if you can keep a cool head and observe them. The game never breaks its own rules, so it feels fair when you die, and often you respawn with a good idea of what you did wrong.

Difficulty is not only useful for providing that all-important sensation of satisfaction, but also in helping us relate to our avatar and the world they inhabit. Our avatar’s epic tasks of heroism become ours when we work a little bit harder for them; we can relate to our avatar’s struggle because victories are hard-won for us, too. When it’s firm but fair, a challenging game raises the stakes and makes us more invested in the world, the characters, and the story being told. That’s not to say that games that are easy to complete don’t have their own form of difficulty; just try keeping everyone alive in your first run of Until Dawn, or getting 100% of the collectables in Yoshi’s Wooly World. Ask anyone about their early hours of Minecraft, and you’ll no doubt trigger a flood of tales about the improvised shelter in the terrifying first night, and fending off creepers from their delicate first hovel. But tying a game’s progression to a demanding challenge can do wonderful things for the immersive quality of a game, and handling that challenge should be one of the factors at the forefront of the developers’ mind when they design the experience.

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The Top 10 Games of 2015, According To Me

2015 was an unquestionably strong year for video games. We’ve been ridiculously, surprisingly spoiled, to the point that several of the following games would have easily earned a top spot on almost anyone’s list any other year. But even in the midst of such quality, for me these games have risen above the rest. Here are my personal top 10 games of 2015.

10- Rise of the Tomb Raider

Most sequels are content to simply grasp dangling plot threads from the previous game and run the same gauntlet again in new locations with a handful of new abilities, but not Rise of the Tomb Raider. Rise is the rare game that’s been created with all of the issues of its predecessor clearly in mind. Lara is now a somewhat seasoned survivalist, and is far more believable in both her willingness and ability to murder threats to her life. The eponymous tombs have returned, this time fully optional and providing the series’ pedigree environment puzzles that were conspicuously light in the last game. And the semi-open environments of the first game have evolved into a more expansive affair, offering more interesting optional diversions than before. The core game itself is just as well written, and action is just as solid, and the characters and environments are just as beautifully realised aesthetically now as in its predecessor, but Rise of the Tomb Raider has made big improvements where it counts, and deserves a spot among the best games of the year.

10- Rise of the Tomb Raider

9- Rocket League

It turns out that to reinvigorate interest in sports and racing games in an industry tired with both, all you need is a little rocket fuel. Rocket League is a physics-driven football game with teams of rocket-enhanced cars. It’s as beautifully simple as that. The first time you intercept the ball with a rocket- assisted bash and watch it sail between those goalposts, you’ll be hard-pressed to restrain your elation. Instantly fun, easy to comprehend and packed with nuance as you learn how to play more effectively, Rocket League is pure, effortless fun. What’s not to love when you can drive your enemies up the wall this literally?

9- Rocket League

8- Splatoon

The first new Nintendo IP in what feels like forever, Splatoon is a fresh and exciting take on competitive online play. In reply to the landscape of grim and gritty military shooters, Nintendo has delivered a game where you literally brighten up the world to win in a paintball battle to cover the map in your team’s colours. Ablaze with bright and cheerful colour, Splatoon’s presentation doubles up as a clever visual indicator of how well you team is doing, and where you’re needed most. See a big patch of enemy ink in a quiet part of the map? Hose the place with your ink to score lots of points for you and your team! The flow of the match is even tied to your coverage of the map, since you can only effectively move about as kid and squid in areas covered in your team’s ink, while enemy ink slows and damaged you. Awash with a grand variety of weapons from fast- firing paintball guns to far reaching paint rifles and even big paint rollers to spread your team’s ink and dispatch enemies, Splatoon allows for a variety of playstyles. It’s also one of the more viable multiplayer-focused titles released this year due to continuing support in the form of a steady stream of new maps and modes to keep players interested, making Splatoon a shining example of games-as-service.

8- Splatoon

7- Undertale

Undertale is the rare example of a completely unknown entity rocketing to complete success, riding a wave of praise from fans bordering on fanatical. I’m still baffled that a small release blending old school, Earthbound-style JRPG with bursts of combat using bullet hell mechanics can attain such widespread acclaim. Nevertheless, Undertale is all heart. Undertale’s selling point is that you don’t have to kill a single being on your journey through the world of monsters. Each new opponent is a little puzzle exercise, and it’s here that the game really shines (if you don’t fall in love with the game when you’ve experienced Lesser Dog, you don’t have a heart). Every new and bizarre character is a singular delight to experience, and if you haven’t played Undertale then I don’t want to spoil a single detail. Wonderfully expressive with its bright, retro art style and punctuated with perhaps the best soundtrack of the year, Undertale is a pack of wonderful surprises. 

7- Undertale

6- Life Is Strange

Dontnod Entertainment’s episodic game, Life Is Strange, is the first of two Telltale Games- style adventure games on this list. The gameplay itself is almost identical to the Telltale Games’ tried- and- tested formula, with the important distinction that the protagonist, Max, can rewind time. This is both paired with dialogue challenges where you must rewind some conversations with future knowledge to bring about what you think is the most favourable option. Where Life Is Strange excels, though, is in its exploration of player agency and choice. At many points in the game, I was presented with a choice between two different actions. I could see the immediate repercussions of each decision, but I could only guess at the farther-reaching consequences. This left me indecisive for several minutes, on several occasions, terrified that I might make a choice I might regret. Of course, none of this would be effective without a compelling cast of characters, and Life Is Strange knocks it out of the park with a delightful band of personalities (Chloe might be my favourite character this year). Wrap this up with an ending that feels both earned and appropriate based on the game’s emphasis on player agency, and we have ourselves a belter of a game.

6- Life Is Strange

5- Until Dawn

Quantic Dream and Telltale Games redefined adventure games for the modern era of gaming with a purer focus on great storytelling, and Supermassive Games has achieved perhaps the biggest sleeper hit of the year with their run at that formula. Until Dawn sets itself up in the most cliche of horror trappings- teenagers partying in a cabin in the woods on the anniversary of a horrible disaster. It’s jour job to guide your characters through the story as events jackknife between lots of horror archetypes, keeping the player on their toes and constantly guessing what’s going on until the whole story wraps together in a very satisfying way. It’s mighty good fun to replay the game several times, feeling out ways to direct the events to shape the characters’ lives, and it can be surprising how differently any two different playthroughs can play out (each of the game’s characters may die or survive until the end). The game excels in driving the player through curiosity and tension to keep as many characters as possible alive… until dawn. (I’m so sorry)

5- Until Dawn

4- Fallout 4

For better or for worse, Fallout 4 is yet another Bethesda Open World Game, with all of the joys and trappings that come with the pedigree. It seems to be the price of worlds with such depth and scope; Fallout 4 is plagued by a multitude of bugs both harmless and serious, and the choice to feature a fully voiced lead character has forced a more streamlined dialogue system that actually serves to limit and cheapen the NPC interaction that the series is so loved for. With such glaring and serious issues as these, how is the game so high up on my list? Because no one else makes worlds like Bethesda. Yes, the game is hampered by technical issues and limitations, but there’s still something so magical about Bethesda’s nothing-nailed-down worlds, and Fallout 4’s Commonwealth is packed with memorable locations, characters, stories and that special Fallout brand of quirky humour. Fallout 4 is a flawed diamond.

4- Fallout 4

3- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

If I judged this list based purely on the merits of gameplay, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain would probably sit on the top spot. It’s a testament to its merits that even with its many problems, MGS5 might have taken that number one spot any other year. Hampered by a story that feels rushed and unfinished and an over reliance on repetitive mission types, the game might well be a casualty of its own ambition. What we do have, though, is core gameplay that’s inimitably outstanding on a molecular level. The vast environments Venom Snake sneaks or storms his way through set the stage for the player to approach objectives with unparalleled freedom. The game offers a simply vast array of lethal and non-lethal ways of carrying out your missions, and each and every potential avenue feels fully developed and fleshed out to perfection. You can get a dog with an eye patch, shoot a rocket fist for a long range punch, and fulton-extract a bear. Any game that lets me knock out a bear before attaching a parachute to it and watching it sail towards the heavens wins both its name as a Metal Gear game, and my heart.


2- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game defined in the strength of its world. Drawing from and building upon the lore from Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels, the game is CD Projekt Red’s first attempt to bring The Witcher series to an open world, and by God do they surpass the challenge. A keen eye for artistic detail brings the world to life, depicting harsh mountains, swamps and forests punctuated with settlements from tiny villages to grand cities. Populating these environments are an extensive cast of distinct and unforgettable characters, gloriously fleshed out in missions and side missions which provide a level of depth and storytelling ability that’s almost unrivalled. The gameplay itself is solid enough, boasting a satisfying combat system that juggles swordplay and magic to great affect, and matures as the game progresses and you unlock more abilities. This is bolstered with a layer of strategy which requires you to drastically change your approach based on the kind of foe (human or monster) that you face. Make no mistake, though; this is a game of stories, and will leave you with dozens of memories. The cherry on top is the excellent post-release support that CD Projekt Red has given the game, with extensive patches and a slew of free DLC which makes The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt perhaps the best advocate for games-as-service alongside Splatoon.

2- Witcher 3

1- Bloodborne

Bloodborne provides, in my opinion, the best gameplay experience of the year. Mixing up the challenging but fair combat of the Souls games, Bloodborne speeds up the action without sacrificing the careful planning and forethought that From Software’s offerings so often require, resulting in more explosive skirmishes rife with risk and reward. Bloodborne features incredible art design, assaulting the senses with imagery that’s built from both classic Gothic and Lovecraft-esque horror to create its own unique aesthetic in a way only From Software could pull off. This world doesn’t just live, it roils and churns around you as you press forward on your hunt through the city of Yharnam, and the sheer quality of design and variety of the monsters you’ll face is near unprecedented. As the story unfolds, the careful and observant player is rewarded with the fascinating tale of Yharnam as told through subtle details and item descriptions found in the world. All these details add up until you have a game that manages that rare feat of truly immersing you into its fantasy through seamless integration of gameplay, story, and world design. There’s a fair argument for each of the top three games on this list to have the number one spot, but in my eyes Bloodborne wins the top spot.

1- Bloodborne

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Permadeath- Taking Games to the Next Level

As those of you who have read my Until Dawn review will know, I really dug it. I think that what made it really fun in that first play through was the sense of tension that came from knowing that any of my characters might die from any misstep. Decisions had to be made carefully and QTEs heeded, or else boom: character gone. No checkpoints, no take-backs. Playing the first time through trying in vain to keep everyone alive, it struck me that the potential sudden and permanent death of any of my characters hung over me sword of Damocles- like, essential to the experience and tension.

Not that permadeath is a new concept at all. Until Dawn plays very much like a David Cage game, and Heavy Rain featured multiple POV characters who could die. There’s a good argument to be made that any game that boots you to the start after losing all of your lives counts as a kind of permadeath game, although classically the term applies to games that don’t even give you multiple lives, like hardcore mode Diablo or The Binding of Isaac (or any number of roguelikes, for that matter).

It’s fairly obvious why permadeath adds so much tension to a game. While checkpoints allow you to endlessly reload the game to try again, permanent death kicks you right to the start of the game, which can be a real kick in the teeth if you’re a few hours in. This gives the player a mechanically-driven dread of the punishment death, which leads to a deeper connection with the player-character as the will to keep them alive grows stronger.

The sheer frustration of permadeath is often illustrated in the length of games which utilise it- The Binding of Isaac, FTL, and Rogue Legacy can be completed in around an hour. Obviously Diablo’s hardcore mode is something of an outlier in terms of game length, but it’s a game in which you can more reliably gear up as you go along, while the roguelikes employ some level of randomness to upgrade drops.

Perhaps the key to effective permadeath is to be one of two games, then- either be a short, eminently repayable game with a degree of difference between playthroughs, with differing levels and upgrade pickups a’la roguelikes, or a longer, meatier experience with an emphasis on careful approach to gameplay and preparation, a’la Diablo. However, Until Dawn and Heavy Rain are somewhat outside these two classifications, because they’re a decent length at 10-15 hours each, with fairly stable (albiet branching) sequences of events.

Despite its length, I think Until Dawn is very well designed to be played multiple times to experience the story in different ways, with different characters dying and surviving. The permadeath drives the tension in the first playthrough, but keeps you on your toes on subsequent playthroughs- don’t mess up, or Character Y will die again and you won’t get to see how they play into That Thing Later On! I think that if it were slightly shorter, say 5-6 hours, the story wouldn’t have been as satisfyingly twisty, although I would very much like to see a game in the same vein with a simpler story and more emphasis on branching storylines based off what happens to the characters. Like a kind of mix between Until Dawn and The Stanley Parable.

But what of longer games? A brilliant use of permadeath is used in Fire Emblem and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as well as Mass Effect 2. These games feature casts of characters that you can learn to love, or at least appreciate, as you spend time with them and level them up. While the permanent death of a character in these games won’t remove your ability to finish the game, these characters are either useful (in the case of XCom), or have been around for long enough that you’ll find them endearing as characters and want to see them live through adversity. I remember being so shocked and dismayed at a character’s death in Mass Effect 3, that I had to walk away from the game to refrain from reloading my save rather than living with my decisions.

Permadeath might be rarely implemented, but I think that it really sets apart games that make use of the mechanic. It really does add something to the gaming experience; a sense of panic and accountability for your actions. It’s always an interesting option to play with, and I’d like to see how developers can develop the concept further. Perhaps a game that when you die, you become a ghost for the rest of the game? Or one where you go to hell and the story changes to being about avoiding Satan’s lava hot tub party? Or one where you have to sit through five hours of footage of your own father disapprovingly berating you?

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Until Dawn Review: Top Notch Horror/ Adventure

UD Review 1

Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Format: PS4
Released: 26 August 2015
Copy purchased

Until Dawn is a horror/adventure game which plays like something akin to a Telltale or Quantic Dream game. Supermassive Games, previously known for developing downloadable content for LittleBigPlanet and a small selection of augmented reality games, has crafted a tight and satisfying experience where your choices really matter.

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