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.
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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.