A few years ago British comedian Dave Spikey made what I thought was an amusing quip about Sudoku puzzles. Of their perceived difficulty he said “Just fill in the numbers. No-one checks them, do they?” And l immediately thought that advice had some relevance to my own attitude to gaming. Does it really matter if I drop back the difficulty level to progress in a game? Will anyone really care if I take a sneaky peek on You Tube to get a hint at how to complete chamber 17 in Portal? Should I live in fear of auditors from Firaxis hammering loudly at my door in the dead of night, demanding to examine my save files of XCOM: Enemy Unknown? And that they might find out that I completed that game on Easy?
Of course sometimes even the base-line starting point can be challenging enough. Harking back a few years now, Gears of War’s lowest difficulty was Casual, which even then left me replaying the final boss fight with General RAAM scores of times before I managed to put enough lead in him to trigger the cutscene. That said, I was so obsessed with Gears at the time, I actually did try a run-through on Hardcore and had protagonist Marcus Fenix complete it with his hairy arse pressed up against concrete barriers throughout, catching piles and blind-firing his way to glory. In fact I only managed to finish off RAAM that time because the benevolent Gods of Glitch decreed he should get snagged on a plinth and sportingly lower his Troika.
Let me provide as a more recent example of my frustration, the QTE hell that is the Kayran fight in The Witcher 2 [official site], a battle I personally found extremely hard even allowing for that game’s inverted difficulty curve. The objective was clear enough to me but I was getting more and more exasperated watching Geralt’s health bar ebb away time after time. My hands were cramping up as I mashed the keys and tensely worked the mouse; every time Geralt perished, a little part of me died inside too. It got to the point where I started composing an email in my head to the developers. Dear CD Projekt Red, I wish to congratulate you on your fine achievement with The Witcher 2, a handsome and engaging game that I was very much enjoying up until the point I had to fight the Kayran. Was there really any need to make this fight so tricky? You do know I’ve only got four fingers and one opposed digit on each hand, don’t you? Anyway, I have uninstalled the game and hereby apply for a refund for the pro rata value of the remaining 60% I am now unable to finish. I hope you’re happy with yourselves. Jon.
It got worse. Despite deploying my Yrden, my Quen and a considerable amount of Swearen, Geralt kept getting knocked onto his arse. So implementing what I now call ‘Spikey’s Law’, I eventually lowered the difficulty and defeated that Kayran and do you know what? I never quite got around to pushing the difficulty back up to normal again and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the rest of the game one bit. I’ve found that a bit of invincibility – be it conferred on a genetically enhanced monster-botherer with a ‘Croydon Facelift’ hairstyle, a quartet of Desert Rangers in maxi dresses or a ‘multinational’ squad of alien hunters who all still somehow speak with American accents – can add to the enjoyment. I’ve never been one to thrill at having a character’s last sliver of health hang by a thread.
While my own particular bête-noire genre and difficulty-wise is RTS games, I am quite happy with the turn-based stuff and adore Civ although as you may have already guessed, I will usually play on Settler or Chieftain setting, which is plenty challenging enough for me. Additionally, I will bend over backwards to accommodate the AI. You’re offering incense and horses and want eight gold per turn? No problem. You think I should break off all trade with the vile Dutch? Good idea, who do they think they are with their progressive thinking and enlightened attitudes towards recreational substance use and sex? Anything to avoid a confrontation and a humiliating obliteration of my forces. Before Civ V put an end to stacking, I have never felt more impotent than when sitting in front of a well-developed game of Civ IV, watching the AI produce hitherto non-existent units from some unseen cyber-arse which then proceed to noisily decimate the forces I have lovingly built up over the previous 250 turns. God only knows how you’d beat it on Deity.
So the next time you find yourself floundering in a fun vacuum, when some developer somewhere has decided that you will only succeed by identifying a hitbox the size of a gnat’s cloaca, when some arbitrary set of fail conditions are hijacking the happy endorphin in your brain destined for Enjoyment Central and re-routing them to Rage HQ, seriously consider escaping into the options screen and dialing down the difficulty. Remember, there’s no exam and as I keep trying to convince myself, life’s too short.