Go Hard or Go Home 5

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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.