On difficult games, a when, how, and why.
In the first in the series I touched on a slightly different approach to challenge/reward. Now, it’s on to certain things I look for when I decide to tackle a real tough bastard.
Fooled into a sense of financial security by a Christmas bonus that was both novel and substantial, I picked up copies of Bayonetta and Darksiders at the start of January. I tackled Bayonetta first, and discovered a difficult game with a complex and interesting combat system, all wrapped up in a vivid Japanese acid trip. When it was finally time to give Darksiders at try, I assumed that the combat would be both easier and similar enough to Bayonetta’s that I could start the game on Apocalyptic instead of just plain ol’ Normal difficulty. It turns out that, while it was superficially similar, I was wrong, and this brings me to my first point.
If you’re making a game that’s going to be hard, it had better be technically flawless. I’m not talking about the overall quality of graphics (resolution, lighting, art direction, etc) but about consistently providing the player with the information they need to respond to the challenges presented. A stable, high frame rate, responsive controls, and a reliable camera are vital, because if a player fails at a challenge, be it getting mobbed by demons, placing last in a race, or falling down a hole, they have to know that it was because of a mistake they made and not because of a mistake the developer made. F’rinstance, in Darksiders, the defensive options provided by R1 are nowhere near responsive enough to provide a reliable defense (much like how the timing for jumping off ledges, something I know back to front, seemed laggy and just generally… off). But it was not simply a few technical foibles that made me restart the game on Normal. I persevere, I’m pushing through Bayonetta on Normal, due to the crushing shame of playing on Easy and despite a camera with occasional bouts of ADD.
I gave up on Darksiders hard mode because it (bear with me, this thought is new and uncongealed) felt that the focus of the game was not the combat. Though usually fairly satisfying, it felt like cleaving demons in twain with Chaoseater served as something to break up the exploration and puzzling. So, it struck me as odd that I would want to increase the game’s difficulty and spend more time coming to grips with some of its weaker aspects. Of course, having variable difficulty somehow complicate/augment puzzles or exploration is something that I can’t think of having ever seen in a game… and for good reason, as changing enemy damage/hit points is dead easy, and I can only begin to imagine how one might carry out the latter.
One last thing which half pertains to the challenge found in video games and half pertains to all video games in general. The game must abide by its own rules. I realize that the game, as an entity, calls the shots and it can’t truly cheat, but I can’t help but cry foul when it fails to abide by its own rules, or even seems to!
(Of course, this from the guy who was so convinced that the subway was leaving the station closest to his house right as he got there on purpose that he resorted to recording the state of the subway (arriving, leaving, there, not there) in a notebook to disprove his own insanity.) Rubber-banding in any sort of racing game is a fine example, whereby those who are doing poorly in the race are somehow given an advantage to get back into the game; it never mattered how badly you were trouncing the computer players in Mario Kart, you just couldn’t get away from Bowser. Puzzle Quest is guilty, or seemingly guilty, of this too. For those not familiar with it, it’s an RPG wherein you do battle by playing Bejeweled. Every 5+ chain that the computer seemed to give itself with just the right pieces falling in from the top of the screen drove me up the wall. There needs to be due diligence in providing a very convincing illusion that your opponent is playing by the same rules as you are, but is just plain better. For now!