Just Breezing Through: The Joys of Difficulty

I don’t actually like gold. I don’t like the color; in fact I think it’s tacky. As a metal it’s too soft to be useful, and it doesn’t have the understated elegance that silver has. But gold is difficult to obtain. It’s rarer – and so it has more value – and becomes desirable, before you know it it’s driving the world’s economy. It’s a simple ethos, tougher to obtain, higher value. It’s no different in video games.

I was recently playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and was tasked with killing and retrieving a particularly nasty beast. The reward for this was money, of course, but also some new armour pieces. A set which I don’t think looks as good, or suits Geralt as much, as the standard set given to me at the games outset. Nevertheless, I wore that new armour for the next few hours, proud of what I’d accomplished. I started the game on the hardest difficulty. This meant having to utilise every advantage the game offered me: alchemy, spells, the right mutagen, and the complete understanding combat, defensive primarily, and sensing natural openings. This methodical approach takes a lot longer, it results in the necessity for a lot of tactical quick saving, and it slows the game down. But I can honestly say that I get more of the game played this way. I was speaking with a friend of mine who, playing through on the normal difficulty, just mashed the attack button, cast a shield spell, soaked up a lot of damage but crucially dealt out a lot more. They got the armour quicker than I did, and it was stashed in their inventory, I never saw them wear it.

I think I played a better version of the same game than my friend did. I played a game in which I had to truly become a witcher, stalking my prey, and taking every precaution before meticulously planning and finally riding into battle, ready to fight smart. The reward was sweeter, but moreover the fight was more fun.

witcher difficulty

Doing It the Right Way

Difficulty is only really a good thing when it is utilized well. Narrative-driven games that focus heavily on story, and in telling that story at a particular pace, rely on the player moving at a speed that matches the author’s. Depending on the game there may not really be much in the way of tangible gameplay. Looking at the uprising of the now juggernaut Telltale Games; there is movement and exploration of course, and there is a simple interaction with the environment and the puzzles therein. Much like the classic point-and-click adventure games that Telltale stands on the shoulders of: their games are rich in a dialogue and characterization. But rather unlike the very best of the classic adventure games, there isn’t much in the way of challenge. Now this is understandable because the focus here is on story, but in a game where there are devilishly difficult puzzles, and out of the box solutions, for my money the story is savored that much more.

Challenge can have just as much a place in narrative-driven experiences as it can elsewhere. Grim Fandango for instance, one of the all-time great adventure games was difficult, but the challenging puzzles meant treasuring one’s progression through that world, enjoying the sublime sights that much more

mgs mission failed

Take a classic example at the height of a completely different genre: Metal Gear Solid. Now I remember playing the third game in that series on its highest difficulty, and taking it way too seriously, going through without killing anyone, in fact without being spotted at all. I still remember the punishing nature of the AI, their communication and vigilance made stalking through the undergrowth a crucible; often reducing me to a sweaty wreck. My controller was hurled at the floor a lot in those days, but you see I always picked it back up; determined that my next try would be smarter, better. More importantly I was having fun, more fun that I would have had just breezing through. But above all I will always remember the feeling when Snake froze, disobeying my commands for a fleeting second or two, as the screen slowly faded to black. A cut scene was about to play, and I had earned every second of it. Relief washed over me in an awesome wave.

And for that reason I will never understand Metal Gear Solid’s detractors, they can’t have been playing it right! Cut scenes too long? Those were my rewards, my rest! How dare they! It made the game more fun for me, it wasn’t just the stress of impatience leading to loss, it was the thrill of ‘doing it properly’, of living dangerously, and the palpable tension felt when a guard almost walked over me as I blended into the grass. There was no other way to play it.

Of course it’s fine for people not to want the challenge for fear of stress, for simply wanting to breeze through and take in the story and say they’ve done it. But I’m convinced that if they were to just try it once properly they’d never go back. If you only ever have processed cheese then you wouldn’t know what you’re missing out on with Stilton.

The Big Fat Hairy But

Not all developers have managed to carry this out in the right way, in fact only the minority do it well. That’s the real downside to higher difficulty, meaning some trial and error is needed. CD Projekt Red builds their games wonderfully around varying degrees of difficulty. In fact, I would bet that they intend a higher difficulty initially and then work their way down to providing easier options. They will utilize all of the game’s many features to enable progress, and it is measurable and satisfying. Further, I would argue that concocting a potion to defeat a wraith isn’t any more difficult than not concocting it…it is just more complex, slower, and requiring of a more thorough understanding of the full spectrum that the game has to offer.

uncharted heavy enemies

There are lots of games that do not have the same effort put into their modes. A quick check of the menus of most shooters these days and the state of play is clear. Some developers lay out the ways in which their game is tougher: more enemies, stronger enemies, your health is slower to regenerate etc.

It is easy to tell when someone has been lazy, and the same levels are populated with the same enemies, only now they inexplicably take ten bullets to die instead of one or two. This isn’t the way to do it. The challenge has to be intelligent, and it has to involve strategy and forward thinking to overcome. Not just shooting more, or hiding for longer and waiting for your health to recover. Improved enemy aim is good, along with improved enemy AI, because these can be combatted with skill and awareness, but there are way too many games content to just double the enemy count thrown at you. There’s no satisfaction to be had in conquering these games because you don’t feel any more deserving of it, you were just clumsily punished until you crawled out the other side.

A Difficult End

When used effectively difficulty means engaging more thoroughly with a game, it means understanding better ways to play, and it heightens a game’s value, making you savor its contents. Some games are just naturally more difficult, without having to use different settings, but the next time you find yourself breezing through and not stopping to smell the roses, pause, turn the dial up and start demanding that they demand more from you, you’ll only get more out of it in the long run.

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