Go Hard or Go Home

In this sunken hell, the idea of an area being “secured” is relative, but I’ve cleared out the lobby, the stairs, the shops on the level above and dealt with that crazy son of a bitch who was throwing around Molotovs. Some joker had even set up an automated turret in the toilet. Around here, a guy can’t take a piss without risking his life. This particular corner of hell is mine now and so I set about resupplying from the wrecked remains of the shops and my enemies. Everything is broken here. The walls, the floors, the plumbing, the power supply, the people. All broken.

I put the butt of my weapon through the glass front of a cabinet, wincing at the crash that advertises my presence. It’s necessary, the ammunition inside is vital to me if I want to continue. And I do want to continue.

Shit. From directly above comes the hulking great thwack-thomp of enormous footsteps. My eyes lift upward to watch little rains of dust that dance back and forth across the ceiling, marking the steps. Their path leads directly to the stairs. The stairs lead directly to me. Shit.

As they descend she natters at him, high-pitched and sing-song nonsense he almost certainly doesn’t understand. All she gets in reply is his great creaking yawn, more like a house about to collapse than any language. The voice of a child is violently out of place here.

They reach the ground floor facing away from me; she in a tattered pink dress and he in one of those massive old diving suits they all wear. All thick metal and tough leather. Just like the others, the lower half of his right arm has been replaced with a huge drill bit. I see flecks of my brain and flesh sprayed across the walls, punctuated by shards of white skull. Nauseous.

They have to go left or right. If they go right, I can use the stairway for cover, slip upstairs behind them. No trouble. Left leads straight to me. Go right. Go right! He turns right and takes a lumbering step. She goes left. He follows her. Shit.

He sees me before she does and goes defensive. Makes a noise like a whole herd of threatened buffalo. Stands ready. She slips back behind him and the whole scene reaches that moment at the top of the rollercoaster right before the drop. Silence. Weightlessness. Equilibrium. But something has to give, like the pressure rising in the rusting pipes all over this underwater city. I inch right, keeping a respectful distance, looking to get the stairway between me and that drill. If he snaps and comes at me, it’s game over. For all that bulk they accelerate at a hell of a rate and once they’re going they’re like a freight train, nothing I could do to stop that. Just stand there and die. Messily.

Back to the wall, I make my way around the room. I have to remind myself to breath. I don’t blink. Once I’m past the next corner I’m moving away from them, he likes that. Easy boy, good boy. I keep my weapon pointing down, wouldn’t do a bit of good anyway. Good boy. Finally, the foot of the stairs and I can’t help it, I break into a run and take them three at a time just to get me to the top. When I turn, they haven’t followed. Fine.

Fine. Safe for a moment. But here’s the rub. I’m going to take my last four grenades and drop them on his head and up here we’re going to fight. I’ll use every last bullet in this machine gun and then fire from the flamethrower and at the end I’ll throw electric bolts from my very hands. Up here it’s all walkways and no cover. In a straight line he’s got me every time but up here I can circle around corners and never get trapped. In the end he’ll fall, gradually, like an oak tree. A little wisp of smoke rising from his corpse. Then I’ll turn to the girl and I’ll have to decide what to do with her, because she’s got something I want. Something I need.

Or…

I polish off the Molotov guy with a shotgun to the face and then set about looting the area. As I grab some ammo from a glass cabinet I hear a Big Daddy moving around upstairs. I head up, pop a couple of heat-seekers his way to get his attention and then switch to grenades to whittle his health down. On the way down the stairs he catches me with a charge and my own health takes a hit, but nothing to worry about since I’ve peppered the whole damn downstairs with proximity mines. That does it and I stop to loot the corpse before turning my attention to the girl. I select X to save her; I’m going for the best ending.

Once, my housemate strolled in and sat down to watch whilst I was playing BioShock. He saw me take on Splicers and traverse Rapture without much in the way of comment, but when he saw me eyeing up a Big Daddy with some degree of caution he spoke. “Oh they’re not so bad, go for it!” he said. He’d been surprised, he explained, by how easy they were to bring down, given all the build-up. After a prolonged and ammunition-expensive battle the Big Daddy fell. “How the hell are your weapons doing so little damage? And how were his doing so much?” We quickly came to the answer: I was playing on Hard Mode. He’d played on the game’s default Normal Mode.

I’ve been playing and enjoying First-Person Shooters for a sizeable portion of my life to date and, false modesty aside, I’m pretty good at them. Above average at least. Certainly I am annoyed with myself when I fall outside the top 5 players on a Battlefield server, which happens pretty regularly, but I’m still annoyed. (In our flat, Losing-at-Battlefield-Jim is accepted as a separate but not entirely welcome 4th member of the household.) Many modern games give a little advice with their difficulty modes, usually related to the player’s previous experience and familiarity with the genre. So, as someone experienced in and familiar with the FPS, when it comes to the single player portion I will often select one of the higher difficulties.

The point, I guess, from a design perspective, is to give a similar level of challenge to each set of players, from the brand newbies through to the FPS veteran. The point from my perspective is to create an experience I engage with, take notice of, without gliding through half asleep. A game that’s too easy might as well be one long cutscene, gradually revealing the plot, since nothing requiring any player agency is going to break up the progression of the experience.

Becky Chambers approached a similar topic last week on The Mary Sue, writing primarily on the subject of flow. Like me, Chambers finds a certain dissatisfaction with the experience of a too-easy game. I couldn’t agree more when she writes, “Easy games are forgettable. The moments that stick with us are the ones that were hard won, things that required experimentation and patience.”

This is a view we find taken to extremes with all sorts of self-entitled fury on various websites and forums, where people sound off over the dumbing down of mainstream gaming. In the quest for inclusiveness, games have become too easy and too casual, apparently, and therefore pointless. Whenever I hear such complaints I find myself wanting to hook the individual by their nostrils and scream in their face, “There’s a hard mode, you reprobate, did you select it? WHY NOT?!”

It’s all relative, of course. Perhaps my Hard Mode play through would be impossible for you, particularly if you’re not familiar with the hallmarks of First Person Shooters. Previous experience means that I start the game with some idea of what the gameplay is going to involve, perhaps you lack that prior knowledge. Similarly, I wouldn’t skip straight to the hardest setting for an RTS or RPG because I’m not confident in my ability to take on those systems at that level. Perhaps you would be, and if so, more power to you, buddy. Games are a two-way experience, developed through the existing product and your interaction with it. Likewise, what we’re talking about here is challenge, which is produced through the interaction of your capabilities with the difficulty mode you select. Different strokes for different folks. Game developers have the unenviable job of attempting to cater for an increasingly experienced and skilled core set of gamers whilst also making their games accessible to those who’ve never picked up a controller before. This is reflected in the gradual inclusion of extra settings on which to play, variations on Easy, Easier Easiest, Hard, Harder, Hardest. Every now and again we’ll even get a Don’t Even Bother To Select This Mode! Games are easier than they used to be, but players are involved in the creation of the gaming experience and must therefore take some degree of responsibility for that experience by doing a bit of self assessment before selecting the context in which they will play.

Why, then, in the vast majority of cases, do experienced gamers approach a new game on Normal Mode, or the local equivalent? Sometimes, of course, the Hard Mode is locked behind a Normal Mode play through. Finish the game to prove yourself capable of taking on such a challenge, and all that. Like many aspects of game design, this is a leftover from the days of arcades, where every game fought to hold your interest and offer profitable replayability. And like other such arcade leftovers, gradually that type of design is disappearing. And then there is the problem that you often need to select the difficulty before you’ve even played the game which, when you think about it, is pretty bloody stupid. How am I supposed to know which mode suits me? The Hard Mode of Battlefield 3 is significantly harder (and more broken) than that of BioShock, so what’s it going to be like on this brand new game I’ve just bought? Both of these factors, the locking of Hard Modes and their mysteriousness before a play through, work to railroad the player away from selecting them. Even the language involved is telling. The word “Normal” invokes not just a sense of being between Easy and Hard, but also of being the standard or preferred mode. It appeals by identifying itself as the “correct” way to play.

But have another look at those stories above. In one, I experience and use the game world, assess the risks, note the terrain, identify with my character, engage with the atmosphere. In the other, I blast through what could be any old FPS. BioShock’s primary failure (and, while great, it does have some failings) is that what is supposed to be a meaningful decision – what to do with the Little Sisters – actually lacks the intended ethical punch because the “Rescue” or “Harvest” choices lack proper repercussions. Harvesting gives you a small advantage, but not a game changing one, and certainly not one required by even a semi-experienced FPS player to progress. On its harder modes, (Hard or Survivor) with ammo, money and healing items scarcer, repercussions are magnified. Taking on a Big Daddy becomes a risk; Little Sisters pose a viable moral question. On Easy, even Normal, one plays a meta-game, often going for a particular ending, without identifying with BioShock’s internal world.

Likewise, Uncharted’s Hard Mode somewhat alleviates an infamous negative quality of the game. The horrific phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” is often leveled as a charge against Uncharted, the ugliness of the phrase perhaps hoping to take the shine off the game’s pristine beauty. Essentially, what this dreadful grouping of words seeks to represent is a mismatch of narrative and gameplay, in this case pointing out that Cutscene Nathan Drake’s charm and light-hearted wit is completely at odds with Gameplay Nathan Drake, who is, essentially, a mass-murderer. This is somewhat (only somewhat, mind you) alleviated when the player finds Drake genuinely at risk in Hard Mode. Ploughing through an area with headshot after headshot is less involved than a steadier paced duck-and-shoot route in which being hit by bullets actually matters. The gunplay becomes more a case of self-defence on the way to one’s goal, something you feel you and Drake would avoid if possible.

And to give one final example, moving through God of War on God Mode requires you to learn, as Kratos, your enemies’ weaknesses and tells. No longer can you walk into a room and start slashing at random, you take a moment to count and identify your enemies, considering who needs to be eliminated first. You cannot mash buttons until everything is dead; instead, you time your attacks and learn when to block, when to roll away, when to take to the air. You learn that in thinning out your enemies’ ranks by killing off the many undead soldiers first, you can minimize the number of simultaneous attacks that come at you, and thus the combos you use on the bigger enemies are less likely to be interrupted. As your expertise grows you might allow yourself a wry smile, mirroring Kratos’ own, because you understand just how challenging this next room is going to be. You learn to understand and appreciate the brutal recipes the designers create, using various enemies as ingredients.

What quickly becomes clear when we run through gaming experiences like this is that Hard Mode offers the purest form of the game you’ve bought. On Hard Mode, the enemies will attack and defend more intelligently and realistically, and you will have to learn and adapt to progress. On Hard Mode, your game isn’t just an interactive storybook where you progress from cutscene to cutscene. Rather, you’re as immersed in the world, vulnerable to its dangers and invested in its progression, as any other character in it. On Hard Mode, you track your prey, defend your base, build your character’s skills, gamble with your time and their life. You watch your corners and identify exits, subconsciously strategize and memorize the previous couple of areas you were in. On Hard Mode, you find the challenges that force you to evolve.

So, if you don’t as a rule, give it a try sometime. You’ll probably be frustrated, scared, tense and annoyed. Hell, you might lose or give up. But success on Hard Mode is unlike success in any other mode. It’s well-earned.

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