The Escapist: Hard Times

It's not on the PC. But it's on the PC monitor.

The Escapist runs my article on the future of inaccessible and difficult videogames. Where now for men who like to feel pain? basically. I start like this…

“The Pickford brothers were completely bewildered. What Rare had asked was unprecedented, strange and curious. They’d never heard anything like it. Who’d make such a request?”

And ramble off, as always. And since I quoted Ste Pickford, he’s done a quick response to something I’ve overlooked – which is a subtle and true point regarding narrative. Also, in the editing, a misunderstanding crept in, which will hopefully be fixed in a bit. If there’s a bit which makes you go “huh?”… well, I’ll explain it in the comments thread rather than messing up the permanent RPS record. It’s the DXIW/KOTOR bit. I know. They’re not hard. That was the point.


  1. Kieron Gillen says:

    The DXIW/KOTOR thing is actually me saying that Entryism – as in, trying to move an inaccessible game type more towards the mainstream – has had mixed results. KOTOR and DXIW are both examples of that sort of thing, but their relative critical standing says much about their success in pulling it off.


  2. Chris Evans says:

    I love that comparison with 80s Metal, that really made the article for me. Great writing KG!

  3. mrrobsa says:

    Any post which involves the superb yet often overlooked God Hand is made of win, however I disagree with the statement made about there being ‘no point to putting yourself through a tougher experience if the end result is the same’.
    The player who chooses a difficulty which is challenging but not impossible for them, should have a more rewarding play experience as their abilities were just enough to earn the gold/defeat the boss/burn the rope, giving the achievement more weight. Surely half the fun is in the playing/journey, not in the ending/destination? Or maybe I’ve misinterpreted what you were saying there.

  4. Kieron Gillen says:

    Most of the article is me analysing other people’s responses rather than my own. There’s enough people who look at Bioshock in those terms, certainly.


  5. Epic Wanderer says:

    As a kid I was never into arcade\point-scoring type games since I was so utterly useless at them. I preferred to play my lucasarts games and Civ II where I could set my own pace. About the only game I can remember playing that was really hard was the original GTA. I managed to unlock the final level which required zen-like concentration and leaving my PC on pause for hours when I was at college.

    Although, Guitar Hero is modern mainstream game that encourages high scores and pure skill and I like that.

  6. Grant Gould says:

    I’m confused by the article’s characterization of DXIW as hard — I blew through it in a single play, and I’m an egregiously crap gamer in most respects. Actually, I think that’s why I found it so unmemorable — there was no part of the game that really made me work, look around, use the setting to my advantage. It was all a matter of picking the right loadout, finding a good vantage point, and clicky-clicky-clicky. The final battle was one of the easiest I have ever encountered, and there are plenty of games whose final battles I’ve quit long before beating.

    I think that that is perhaps the missing axis of all of this — difficulty variance. Some games (Tetris, eg) are about equally difficult for all players of a given level of experience. Some games (Thief, eg) are drastically more difficult for some players than for others even among equally experienced gamers. Some games (Deus Ex, eg) try to flatten this out by providing multiple diverse paths (and generally fail — one strategy almost always ends up dominating). Other games (Deus Ex: IW, eg) say, screw that, we’ll put in multiple paths, but they’ll all basically end up the same, because testing and balancing too much diversity is a pain.

    (This is not just macro-diversity of the twitch players versus the stealth players versus the diplomatic players, but micro diversity of the twitch-players-who-are-good-at-jumping versus twitch-players-who-suck-at-jumping versus twitch-players-who-macro-the-jump-key)

    The greater the difficulty variance, the more some gamers will feel bitter and cheated by narratives because they didn’t get the ending that their peers got; that works directly against decent storylines and multiple endings in games. It becomes that much easier for a developer to make the story nothing special and then let that 50% abandon guilt-free. Storylines need good balancing not just of different skill levels but of different skill types and approaches if they’re to avoid pissing off players.

  7. Lu-Tze says:

    I’m still holding out hope that Ninja Gaiden 2 will give me that same elation of battering the bosses after many failed attempts that the original did.

    “Normal” for a Ninja Gaiden should bust your balls the first time around, so that you end up being given the pussy wussy option of being handheld through the game by a chick with pink hair after admitting you were a lowly dog.

    I think the worst design decision they made with Ninja Gaiden (and others) is blocking off the harder/hardest difficulty from you at the start of the game. There’s no reason to hide difficulty levels like they were an unlockable game feature, because a veteran player might be starting over and doesn’t want to suffer through Normal and Hard before they can play it on their favourite, ULTRANAILS difficulty mode.

    As far as increased reward for increased difficulty… mostly it’s bragging rights at the end of the day. Alternate/extended endings are too readily available to everyone these days, and the feeling of self fulfilment hardly counters the number of times you hated yourself and the game and the world when you died.

  8. Lars Balker Rasmussen says:

    I used to play shooters at hard/hardest because I like the challenge – but I’ve stopped doing that, precisely because of spikes. Most shooters these days have a last stand level, where I tend to die and die and die, and I hates them. HL2’s prison section, CoD4’s ferris wheel, etc. Removes any desire for me to play through the game again (tried to take on CoD4 again, but stopped after another death). The only recent game that seems have done this right is HL2:Ep2’s Aliens-rip off. I want it to be HARD, but not guess-which-tactic-the-developer-wants-you-to-use frustrating.

  9. Gylfi says:

    Kotor and DXIW are difficult?

    You gotta be joking.
    Try damn Steel Panthers from SSI.

  10. Kieron Gillen says:

    The KOTOR/DXIW bit is the “Huh?” bit.

    I’m going to have to put that in the original post.


  11. Arnulf says:

    I think Blizzard has it nailed with their games’ philosophy: easy to learn, difficult to master.

    Many good games are like that. You want a challenge? Try this or that in our game and see if you can survive! And I see people doing it all the time. Example: in FFXII the biggest, baddest, bad-ass dragon in the game is absolutely not essential to finish the story line. But still people try him with the lowest character-level possible (can range from 1 to 99). Yet still ignoring all the different challenges in the game and just pursuing the story gives a pretty good feeling of closure. At least it did for me.

  12. eyemessiah says:

    I too used to play on Hardest, but now play on normal. I used to enjoy the thrill of REALLY finishing the game, but now I am more aware that really punishing difficulty levels can turn games from entertainment into punishment. I never go back and replay games on harder difficulty modes. I also can’t think of a single game that I thought was too easy!

    Generally speaking most of the time when I die in FPSs, for example, its due to some unpredictable scripted event, that the player only knows to avoid “the second time round”. To my mind these are not skill tests, they are just obstacles thrown in to pad out the playtime.

    Whatever happened to auto-adjusting difficulty? I read a Megadrive magazine article in 199something that assured me that this was going to be the next big thing! Damn journalists.

  13. Geoff says:

    How has nobody mentioned multiplayer?

    That’s where all the challenge went. Now that everyone has Intertubes hooked up to their consoles and PCs and refrigerators, multiplayer is mainstream home gaming.

    Single player games are almost like movies, they’re a pleasant experience to be had at one’s own pace, not a competition. The competitive types find all the difficulty they want online. I love RTS, and on Normal difficulty have never had any difficulty with the campaigns of any of them, ever since the expansion to Starcraft. But when I pop online, man, I get rushed and annihilated constantly.

    Yeah, Bioshock may have gone a little too far with handing out the goodies – hearing that I’ve maxed out my cash actually did take some of the fun out – but if you’re really seeking a more challenging game, then why are you picking the easy difficulty? The difficult options are there, and you’re ignoring what you claim to want…

  14. Phil says:

    For me, the game that nailed difficulty juuuuusst right was Elite Beat Agents – the easy mode was a gentle hill that allowed you enjoy the pleasant scenery of the perfectly realised surrealist stories. The hardest mode defied conscious thought and forced you to ingrain the music into your very soul – problematic for Cher’s Believe.

    God Hand (or Guitar Heroes for a slightly more apt comparision), lovely as they are, offered neither the gentle hand guiding through the initial stages or transcental opportunity to truly forget what your hands were doing and enter the oft mentioned ‘zone’ – do you beliveeeeee….. etc.

  15. CrashT says:

    I must be the only person who never experienced and abundance of stuff in BioShock. I’ve played it twice now and I’ve never once maxed out my Cash and only rarely maxed out on ammo for one of my weapons and even then it didn’t last.

  16. Pidesco says:

    I left behind a large chunk of the ammo and money that Bioshock threw at me. I reached the final boss with everything maxed out. I also left a bunch of vending machines with loads of bought items lying in front of them. And I did this practically without using the vitae chambers. Bioshock’s gameplay was generally dire.

  17. Cooper says:

    IWBTG anyone?

    I think the changing difficulty level is just an indication of growing diversity in gaming?

    I’m glad, that the mainstream has largely moved on from that. Research with young children has shown that they much more prefer to explore a game world, and make their own challenges, than meet set tasks by trying again and again. It can only be a good thing that Lego games, the Sims and the like are providing that.

    I loved SS2 because of how difficult, stubborn, mocking and unforgiving it was. I love Stalker for the same reasons, and Blood Money scratches that ‘beat the game itch’.

    But it’s not hard to see how those approaches are just not possible in an expanding industry, and where games can now actually tell a story. However, this might be because the game insustry has adopted narrative techniques from films. I’d be pissed if I had to read the same chapter, or see the same scene 3-4 times each before I got to the end.

    I don’t think punishing difficulty is antithetic to narrative. See Stalker, at least in the early stages. But straight-repetition is.

    I love a bit of those arcade style challenges, which are a differing form of difficulty and challenge than online or SS2/stalker-esque difficulties. I’m especially a sucker for shmups. I’m also very glad this has been left largely in the hands of ‘indies’, who cater for more niche tastes.

    Like my love for broken game-boy techno, I would be very surprised if the mainstream turned out to be just as masochistic…

  18. BrokenSymmetry says:

    Completely agree with what Geoff has said above. All players who want a serious challenge have moved online. Beating real people will always be more satisfying than beating even the hardest or smartest AI.

  19. James T says:

    I left behind a large chunk of the ammo and money that Bioshock threw at me. I reached the final boss with everything maxed out. I also left a bunch of vending machines with loads of bought items lying in front of them. And I did this practically without using the vitae chambers. Bioshock’s gameplay was generally dire.

    I think the term I’d use would be… ‘punishingly easy’.

    Meanwhile, The Escapist have been long established in my mind as being a hell of a lot more verbose than it is smart, but I never expected they were so damned foolish that they’d decide putting an unremovable banner ad (which opens in the same screen and interrupts the video, seemingly irretrievably) over the top of a video is acceptable? I know bandwidth doesn’t pay for itself, but what impetus do I have to actually go to The Escapist and read ZP if they’re going to obscure the bottom half? At least your IGN-type sites with preliminary/afterward ad clips allow you to watch the ad, get past it, and view what you’re supposed to be viewing without obfuscation.

  20. Grant Gould says:

    Beating real people will always be more satisfying than beating even the hardest or smartest AI.

    Yeah, but the AI generally won’t be as much of a dick about it. I’d rather beat a silent AI than play a properly difficult game against a dozen halfwit twelve-year-olds with no vocabulary beyond the word “gay.”

    Also, you can put a single-player game on pause when the baby wakes up or the phone rings.

  21. calabi says:

    God hand, that is a great game. I’m mostly fed up with these games that give you no reason to play them except to experience the highly original, exciting story. I loved the games which gave you a reason to try on a harder level to unlock the cool stuff.

    Surely the whole concept of a game is for it to contain some kind of challenge. I vote for anything that doesnt, to be reclassified with some kind of derogatory term, perhaps “Nearly Interactive Movie” or “Watch it on Youtube”.

  22. GhaleonQ says:

    Ste’s right on, and as a champion of that sort of thing (I’d prefer interactive stories to electronic games), I hope that the balance remains mostly in my favor.

  23. Freelancepolice says:

    Great article, I love god hand. Truly and forever.

    I tend to find strategy games are the most consistently hard games. FPS struggle to be hard without being unfair, since often you’re pitted against multiple enemies who technically should have the same skills as you (i.e not seeing through walls or being alerted to your presence) especially in ww2 shooters.

    Maybe as AI develops we’ll be given a more fair hard experience, a shooter crossed with god hand….. hmmm I guess that would be something along the lines of serious sam?

  24. AndrewC says:

    This Ste is seperating the story from the gameplay, so living in a world where stories were just in the cutscenes in between levels.

    He’s arguing that the gameplay has no effect on the story. But if a character is, say, a baddie, and in-game he is extraordinarily hard, you will see him as ‘more’ bad, more scary. The hardness contributes to characterisation.

    Or if you need a long test of skill to reach an area (say, a last island, or a girlfriend’s bed, or a new guild or whatever), that achievement of reaching it becomes sweeter, it has more value, it becomes a ‘better’ place, one worth defending and so on and so on.

    Challenge feeds in to narrative too. All gameplay does. Imagine Stalker but with a superhard space marine in the lead role. The feel, and the story, will be different. Certainly less scary and atmospheric.

    Challenge is another game design tool, to be used as the game and narrative sees fit.

  25. malkav11 says:

    There are a lot of different sorts of hard. Games in the olden days were hard, in large part, because they were cheap and frustrating, not because they had a lovely, precise balance that demanded the best out of you. That sort of hard can go die in a corner for all I care.

    God Hand, on the other hand…while frequently cheap, it most purely offers the sort of continuous, limit-pushing brutality that forces you to really be on your game. And when you *are*, you can achieve amazing things. I can’t handle it, myself, but I’m watching a friend play my copy from time to time and it’s a thing to behold, that’s for sure. I’d still rather have most games follow the Bioshock accessibility mold, but the occasional God Hand or Ninja Gaiden would definitely be welcome.

  26. Weylund says:

    @Lars: Me too. I basically attempt to play on the hardest most realistic level for every FPS (I loved Vietcong in particular, where the hardest levels took away quite a bit), and have recently given up.

    I found that CoD4 fell apart for me at the (SPOILER?) arcadey helicopter mission. I switched to a lower difficulty and finished it – it was WELL worth it.

    Speaking of which, I’ve found STALKER to be very uneven. Even on the hardest difficulty level some sections are unbearably easy and some are quite the opposite. The (SPOILER again?) crazy psychic monsters that do the line-of-sight attack add a great deal to the narrative with their presence – sort of like a cliff that you CAN climb, but the question is what does it mean to you?

    I didn’t finish BioShock, but what I did play was hard play-wise but very easy resource-wise.