Go Hard or Go Home 5

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.


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.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

  • I actu­ally think pair­ing this arti­cle with Ben’s most recent one makes for an inter­est­ing match. 

    Maybe play­ing on Hard Mode starts to bring back some of the broad choices Ben was miss­ing?


    • Jim Ralph

      Looking back over Ben’s arti­cle I think you’re right, Bill. In fact given that it was pub­lished dur­ing the period this arti­cle was begin­ning to con­geal in my mind, there’s prob­a­bly an even more direct (though sub­con­scious) link than either of us real­ize.

      Actually to an extent I think my own arti­cle can be read as a response to Ben’s, chal­leng­ing his asser­tions that video games rely pri­mar­ily on ‘twitch’ reac­tions and lit­tle else. In my opin­ion what you find when upping the dif­fi­culty, or indeed in an already very dif­fi­cult game like Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden, is that while phys­i­cal prowess is one level of required learn­ing, beneath that is an under­ly­ing struc­ture of tac­ti­cal thought, often sub­con­sciously learned and exer­cised. To stick with the FPS theme, very often on Hard or in mul­ti­player the best play­ers will be those who for­mu­late the best under­stand­ing of the archi­tec­ture of the level design, the weapons at their dis­posal, the ene­mies they face and the posi­tion­ing of their allies. It’s a shame that CoD with its corridor-shooting level design is often extrap­o­lated as the prime exam­ple of the FPS since it lessens this archi­tec­tural inter­ac­tion (and is per­haps there­fore more acces­si­ble and pop­u­lar? It’s an unde­vel­oped the­ory of mine) but even in CoD’s incred­i­bly sim­pli­fied game­play you’ll find the bet­ter play­ers have learned the maps, remain on the move, strafe around cor­ners, check win­dows, flash bang rooms before entry, grenade likely camp­ing areas, and so on. None of those are twitch reac­tions, they’re learned tac­ti­cal deci­sions which often call for the choice of using a lim­ited resource (say, grenade) on an uncer­tain out­come (gain­ing a kill, avoid­ing a death, or wast­ing your resource) or leav­ing it. When we con­sider sig­nif­i­cantly more com­plex shoot­ers, like some of the Battlefield games, the num­ber of deci­sions is mul­ti­plied.

      I think the prob­lem many peo­ple face in the deci­sion of whether to ‘go hard’ is the assump­tion that they will be phys­i­cally inca­pable of per­form­ing the required move­ments with the required speed and accu­racy. In fact in many games devel­op­ing an under­stand­ing of cor­rect mechan­ics and sys­tems sim­ply through play­ing them with your thinkbox ini­ti­ated is enough to pro­gress at a rea­son­able rate.

      • Matt Schanuel

        I had a sim­i­lar response to Ben’s arti­cle; a lot of skill in gam­ing and espe­cially in hard mode depends upon the way one thinks about one’s actions. Usually, if a player hits a mechan­i­cal wall, the answer lies in new strate­gies, or focus­ing on a dif­fer­ent facet of play. It may require devel­op­ing new habits. It’s one of the rea­sons I love class based mul­ti­player games; there are dis­crete expe­ri­ences there that can reflect dif­fer­ent parts of the game expe­ri­ence, and helps the player inves­ti­gate new strate­gies that they might apply to the classes they’re already solid with. Its a forced change in per­spec­tive, and is fun!

  • Tom Dawson

    I dis­agree with a lot of this, but it’s clearly had an effect; I popped in a copy of Amazing Spiderman yes­ter­day and, instead of breez­ing through the pre-game screens, actu­ally thought for a moment before select­ing the hard mode. I’ll let you know how it goes, but if it all goes ter­ri­bly wrong I’m putting the blame squarely on you!

    (ran­dom aside, the hard mode descrip­tion makes men­tion of requir­ing an increas­ing reliance on stealth to win the day. Really? Stealth? From a teenager in a bright red-and-blue cos­tume who swings around shout­ing “Woo!” a lot? I can’t imag­ine it, per­son­ally…)

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