Jon Morcom ruminates – not entirely seriously – on trying to overcome difficulty spikes in games.
“Slick, you dozy prick! How can you miss with a shotgun from point blank range?” I recently shocked myself by saying this rather too loudly at some pixels on my screen arranged into the shape of a nondescript bald man firing a gun very badly. I’d bought Wasteland 2 [official site] off the back of some good reviews and approached it with no real pre-conceptions. Shock, horror I’d never played the original Wasteland, only a few hours of genre stable-mate Fallout and Fallout 2 not at all; please forgive me hardcore gamers (in the interests of full disclosure I’ve also never rolled a hoop with a stick or flicked a juggling diabolo high into the air). But I make mention of my futile, out-loud admonishment of a party member who just happened to miss, as the combat dice rolls in Wasteland 2 will occasionally have him do, to exemplify the degree to which I’d invested in the game.
I had started with a team that lacked a designated medic and my cavalier attitude towards combat – more Douglas Haig than Sun Tzu – led to a few unfortunate casualties and a re-start within an hour. Choosing again, this time à la carte from inXile’s preset character list, I settled on Pills, Fade, Slick and Cold-Eye. And despite the aggregation of their names sounding like an album by the Happy Mondays, they all survived right through to the end, their efforts augmented by a few doughty followers who took their chance with my disparate bunch. I craved more of the game’s addictive mix of action, choice and cheaply-earned XP so another run-through followed with an all-woman squad as I happily exhausted all the content a second time.
Steam tells me I’ve now totalled 144 hours in the game and although it’s not quite as noble an undertaking as say, devoting six days helping fight Ebola in Africa or serving hot meals to the homeless at Christmas, I still regard it as time well spent. And yet I have something I feel the need to share, something that’s been nagging away at me and that, once vented, could be viewed as a ‘coming out’ of sorts but which may also provide succor to any other duffers out there: anticipating that I might struggle after the first abortive attempt, I played the whole bloody lot on Rookie difficulty. There, I’ve said it.
I opened with this little vignette to clumsily illustrate the point that for some years now, I’ve been wrestling with a form of gamer guilt. Not the sort that comes from having a Steam library full of sale-bought games that are untouched or getting a bit antsy and creatively sweary in the text talk at some 12 year-old who’s dominating you online but the type where you feel you’ve perhaps taken the easy option by checking a walkthrough or altering the difficulty settings to progress a game or finish off a troublesome boss.
As an older person I find myself increasingly invoking the simple three-word mantra ‘Life’s too short’ to justify my indifference to, or readiness to balk at, certain everyday things and I have to admit, at the risk of being plotted unfavourably on the Clarkson-Meldrew curmudgeon matrix, that attitude has frequently crossed over into my games-playing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no slouch and have had my share of successes and memorable moments over the years, including an unlikely-sounding 33 killstreak as a Sniper during a charmed 19-minute life in Team Fortress 2 and a level 70 account in Modern Warfare 2, created by playing Free-For-All mode all the way. No, the shooty things I can do, it’s boss fights and strategy where I tend to falter and lose patience, either because I’ve overlooked the need to execute some obscure tactic I dismissively skipped through during the tutorial many hours earlier or because I’m completely oblivious to any choreographed cues that are providing me with the openings I should be exploiting.
I realise I may be setting myself up for a hammering in any comments that may follow but the long and short of it is I’m a family man with a full-time job. My leisure time is no more or less precious than anyone else’s but if I’m playing a game, I don’t want to be rolling along happily at a good tempo then watch the screen dissolve to red and tell me “You have died” a few dozen times because the difficulty curve has suddenly soared skywards, a few degrees off vertical. I like a reasonable challenge and will nearly always start a game on normal, if only as a physical audit of my faculties, but if I get through unscathed and replay the game, it’s rare that I will attempt it on a higher difficulty. In fact I am far more likely to drop it down to Easy so I can take the scenic route through the game and give myself a chance to stop and smell the pixels, if you like; to maybe admire the artwork and have a good poke around each level without having to worry too much about pesky enemies trying to ruin my day.
In 1962 during a speech at Rice University in Houston, US President John F. Kennedy famously said:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”
Now I cannot seriously equate a monumental undertaking that saw nearly a million gallons of highly combustible fuel propel three men sitting atop a 360 foot-long aluminium tube 240,000 miles to the Earth’s only natural satellite with sitting in a comfy office chair and guiding an avatar around some beautifully rendered 3D environments for a few hours, but JFK’s words might resonate albeit trivially and on a significantly reduced scale with players of roguelikes. I’m guessing for such players the near-insurmountable difficulty is the principal attraction and I genuinely respect that, but frankly I’d sooner leave my daughter in the care of Liam Neeson than tackle something that boasts of being deliberately hard.
The article continues on page two.