Alright, so this month’s roundtable is about those games that make us brake our controllers and keyboards and set them on fire while chanting for the developer’s blood. Hard games are not as common as they once were, because over time the industry started to replace cheap difficulty with substance. Now we have more things to do, more challenges and more rewards than ever before but we still pretend that a hard game would loose substance if it were “easier”. Why? Repeating the same mission over and over and over again does not add substance in any way, it only extends artificially the time spent on the game. Granted, overcoming a difficult challenge does cause fiero to the player, so the more hardcore players will derive pleasure from the experience.
Difficult games will never seize to exist because there will always be that hardcore niche seeking their next challenge. These people have played so many games, they are walking game design encyclopedias. These guys take a game, and in the first minute they recognize the mechanics, analyze them and learn them, whereas a normal person would spend the whole game learning and deriving joy from that process. They expect challenge, they will go through the game as fast as they can to finish it and then complain on how easy or short it was.
They are an overrepresented niche because they form 80% (number pulled out of thin air I may add) of the game reviewers population, affecting drastically the metacritic score. And guess what, developers get payed more for better metacritic scores, not for selling more games or for hearing their audience instead of their professional reviewers. Although this might not be the case for every company, it certainly looks like it eschews difficulty on a grand scale.
Now that the probably paranoid thought is out of the way, let’s analyze a concrete example that showcases cheap and fair difficulty: Hitman 2.
Hitman 2 is a game with difficulty options that range from easy to normal to hard. Throughout, there are always different ways of completing all the missions: I can poison my target, I can sneak in and strangle him, I can even bust the door open and start shooting everybody. There are set paths to take for each mission so there’s not much overall freedom but it sure beats having only one solution to every problem.
In easy and normal the game has a fairly enjoyable difficulty curve with a considerable bump in the middle due to a horribly designed sniper mission. You can choose the difficulty exclusively at the beginning, begging the question: WHY? For the love of god why can’t I change that setting before every mission? It would have doubled the amount of replayability and the cost for implementing it is negligible!.
Anyways, the “space” between easy and normal is well balanced with only some adjustments like limiting the saves to a fair amount and buffing up enemies, making the “shoot everybody” option much harder to pull off. However the space between normal and hard is like the Grand Canyon. Normal enemies suddenly become bullet proof, Agent 47 changes from a sponge of bullets to a comatose lettuce, the always handy radar is gone and the most infuriating part of it all, saves become more scarce than water in a desert in the middle of hell (and the sand replaced by salt).
A part of me just hates this lazy design. The difference between easy and hard revolves around limiting the player. A little change in this variable here, another little change over theere aaand presto! Everything is harder, be a good boy and beat the game again.
The sad thing is, there’s another part of me that just loves to be challenged, no matter how broken the design is. I can’t say no to a harder difficulty, it’s like I’m a masochist eagerly waiting for the next slap. A little dominatrix would appear on my left shoulder whispering in my ear: “Look! It’s mocking you! You are too weak to beat this game and there’s nothing you can do about it!”. My reasoning get’s clouded, my will stronger and my hours of sleep scarcer. That is until I reach my breaking point and my civilized part kicks in, telling me that 4 in the morning is not a normal time to go to sleep.
I jump through hoops, bark when ordered and roll over happily, even though I know fully well there’s something painful bound to happen in a matter of seconds. But then it stops, I win, I finally conquer my dominatrix and free myself from my shackles, somehow happier than I was when this all started.
Why do I keep hitting myself with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.
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