Not long ago, we had a discussion about difficulty within games on the Limit Cast, and, as often happens with this kind of discussion, my mind carried on ticking over long after the podcast had finished.
The subject is still wide enough that we may go back to it on the podcast one day, but until then, allow me to regale you with the bizarre workings of my mind as I discuss more areas relating to difficulty in games, and how that can affect your gaming experience.
It seems these days that the hardest choice in a game is the first one you are asked to make. The difficulty.
Are you at the bottom of the ladder, playing at easy? Super Easy? Rookie? Beginner? Are you punching above your weight by playing at hardcore? Legendary? Insanity? Somehow, you’re expected to know how hard the game is before you’ve revved your first engine, or fired your first bullet.
Recent years have seen a new tactic in games such as Need for Speed: Shift and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The first level acts as a skill barometer, testing what level it deems you fit to compete at. But is that really fair?
The first time you fire up a new game, of course you’re going to be rusty as you pick up the controls. It’s rare in these situations that people actually stick to what they have been given, and instead alter it to the setting they think they should be playing at.
Perhaps the future is in dynamic difficulty. Wonderful buzz words aside, this means that the game adjusts itself to your performance. Left 4 Dead‘s director is a great example of this, staging a variety of action and an increment of difficulty depending on how well the survivors are doing. It seems a perfect example, except for one glaring oversight. You still have a selection of difficulties, and as such the director merely works in parameters of each setting.
A better example comes in the form of the plastic instrument-friendly Guitar Hero 5. The game comes equipped with a unique ‘momentum’ mode, starting you out at the lower difficulties and boosting you up to higher peaks of gaming challenges as you perform well, or knocking you down a peg when you fail.
Then again, when looking at the topic of difficulty in games, it does almost beg the question, “Is a difficulty setting needed?”
Many games pave the straight and narrow with a slight learning curve, and offer an extra challenge for those who want to go off the beaten path. Burnout: Revenge allowed the player to progress through each stage of challenges by earning stars. Why, even a casual gamer could do that. The hardcore challenges lay in getting that bright and shiny status symbol of five stars, no matter how tricky the level got. Likewise, in JRPGs, the hardest parts are there for the players to discover as they lose themselves in the world. Anyone who has sought the GF Eden in Final Fantasy 8 can attest to that, I’m sure.
Whilst that may work in a RPG, with the freedom to allow the player to explore the world and find the challenges dotted around, not all games can afford that luxury. For those that can’t rely on exploration, some have already been using a great tool to enhance the gaming experience with various levels of intricacy, without having to turn the dial up to 11.
Achievements. I will admit that sometimes these are used horrendously, and when I see a title offering me a gamerscore-boosting glory by simply using every special move with every character in every level, I start to cry. When I see an achievement asking for the 100% collection of every item in the game, frankly, I’d rather go and make myself a sandwich.
This isn’t the case with every achievement, I am glad to say; some genuinely enhance the game they have been crammed into.
Take a look at Mirror’s Edge‘s “Test of Faith”, in which you must complete the game without shooting an enemy, or Bioshock‘s “Brass Balls”, where you must complete the game on hard mode without using a vita-chamber. Then there’s the down right ludicrous “Little Rocket Man” of Half Life 2, which will see you carrying a plucky garden gnome across your Earth-saving escapades.
Each one of these, and I’m sure there are many more out there, add a layer to the game by making you play games in the same crazy way that I’m sure we all used to do growing up. We put these restrictions upon ourselves not because we had to, but because it added another layer to the game. To me, that is where the distinction of difficulty needs to be. A game must be open to all, but let us get a little bit crazy some times.