Bahaha! Finally, a series of posts I actually managed to finish!

Hm.

Ideally I would written that exclamation after the post, as opposed to counting my gift horses before they’re hatched in the hand is worth two in the bush saves nine. Oh god what is – …

Difficulty!

So having rambled on about a few different aspects of gaming difficulty, I find myself up against a relatively novel approach to serving up piping hot bowls of challenge to the player. There are likely more examples of this, but I’ll stick to the one that I’m at least passing familiar with, Valve’s AI Director in the excellent zombie survival shoot-a-thon Left 4 Dead and its sequel.

The AI Director watches you silently, invisibly. It lurks somewhere in the background and keeps track of the players’ (this is a co-operative game, up to four hapless survivors) performance; their health, ammo, location, time spent in the level, and so forth. It gauges the players’ skill and doles out the appropriate mix of items and legions ravening zombie to keep the experience just terrifying enough. Does the group contain four dead-eye FPS veterans, mowing down wave after wave of infected? Well, say goodbye to a few item caches and hello to more special infected; long-tongued Smokers, sexy, sexy Boomers and nigh-unstoppable Tanks. Conversely, if the players aren’t quite up to snuff (wandering off, shooting each other, falling off ledges, lighting themselves on fire), the Director will take it easy on them… up to a point. The game is only so forgiving; it can only hold back the mindless zombie rage for so long.

The game still employs the traditional variety of game modes to give the Director parameters in which to operate, as well as simply ratcheting up the damage and durability of your undead foes on Hard and in so-called “Realism” mode. (I haven’t had the courage to try either of those out, so often do I find myself face-down under a pile of shambling corpses on Normal.)

Yet somehow this doesn’t feel like the game cheating. I’m not sure if its the subtlety and transparency with which the elements of the game are manipulated, or if just that I’m too busy holding back the hordes to feel like I’m being treated unfairly, but this treatment of challenge adds greatly to this remarkably cinematic, gripping, and thoroughly replayable experience.

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