Let me start with a confession, and head off comment-based accusations at the pass: I have never completed a videogame on a difficulty setting higher than ‘Normal’, and even then the number that I have completed on higher than ‘Easy’ doesn’t exceed single digits. So, yes, I’m not that kind of player. I will, in all honesty, never be that kind of player. But let’s come back to that later.
First, as with my earlier article, I’d like to look at videogame history (from my point of view) and the evolution of hardness. I am, in gaming terms, a fairly old hand. The first electronic entertainment gadgeridoo in our house was a Pong ripoff by Grandstand, the Game 2000, back in the dawn of the 80s. It was pretty much the worst thing ever in terms of gameplay – one player hit the square ball, the other player hit the square ball, and so on until one player failed to hit the square ball, at which point the score increased. Imagine air hockey, but without the risk of a broken finger* adding that frisson of danger. But this was the Dark Ages, before the advent of real home gaming, and it seemed like some crazy electric dream. Was it difficult? Impossible to say. Is tennis difficult?
When our first proper computer landed it was a day of much rejoicing (it was also Christmas Day, so there were even special celebratory hats). It was a Spectrum 48K+, also known as The One That Didn’t Have Rubber Keys. It came with a bundle of games, all so far advanced from the Grandstand crap-o-tron as to appear to have been compiled by space-wizards sending code back from the future. To give you an idea of how stupid that is, here is a video of one of the games, Spy Hunter.
Amazing, huh? But quite the step up from two rectangles vs a mobile square. This game had several ‘levels’ – I say levels, but really it was just the backgrounds changing colour and there were slightly harder enemies. I played this game for hours and hours and hours, but I never completed it. I’m not even sure it had an end, but that wasn’t important. Most games never expected you to finish. They got incrementally harder until they killed you. Back to the beginning. No continues (that was reserved for the arcades, where a judiciously applied 10p would get you another life), no save games. The games were fun, while they lasted, and then they stopped. And this was after waiting five minutes for them to load from tape.
This seemed great at the time. The play was the thing. You’d plug away for hours, just enjoying what you had. If you snagged a power-up or found a new zone, hey, wow, cool, hope we find that next time. Trial and error was the only way to make progress, with errors sometimes setting you back hours but fuck it, nobody knew any better. That’s just the way it was. If you really, really wanted to see the whole thing, there was no shame in cheating. A word entered into the high score chart or an extra line of code inserted into the loading sequence would present the game to you like a Chinese buffet. Skip a level? Sure. Never die? Have it your way.
As games improved, so too did the ways they encouraged you to play. Graphics became a draw, and ‘end screens’ of majestic beauty, maybe even animated, awaited the player who fought through to the end. Games makers knew this, catching on early that you could have an absolute dog of a game, but if it looked a million dollars it would be a smash. Exhibit A – Dragon’s Lair.
Holy shit, that looks sweet, even now. Animation by Disney alumnus Don Bluth accessed from cutting-edge laserdisc technology… and this came out when? 1983, same year as Spy Hunter arrived in the arcades. This thing is in the Smithsonian, that’s how jaw-dropping it was. Wherever it appeared, the cabinet would be surrounded by crowds several people deep, eager to glimpse the game in action. In fact, this was undoubtedly the best way to enjoy Dragon’s Lair because the gameplay was horrific, coming down to a relentless grind of ‘select the right direction, without clues, with split-second accuracy**’. It didn’t matter though that it was next to impossible to play and cost a pound for a ten-second game, it grossed $32m in less than a year. If your product was mind-blowing enough, people would pay. Which was handy, because games were about to get a lot more expensive. Where games loading from re-useable, mass-market tape could sell for as little as £1.99, the next generation would be loaded from one-shot, solid-state cartridges. Not cheap.
This was something of a golden age for videogames, as the giants of the late 80s and early 90s Nintendo and Sega squared off in a battle that pushed the quality of games ever higher. They were prettier and more fun to play, but technology was still against the more casual gamer. Many games lacked the ability to save and return to where you left off, so had to be completed in one shot – a feat requiring several hours of dedicated play. Even games with save functions would require many hours of practice to ensure the player landed every pixel-perfect jump and avoided every enemy. And if you lost all of your (usually three) lives? Back to the beginning. For £20-30 a shot, this was starting to feel like piss-taking on an epic scale.
I don’t know exactly where it all went right, but in my head and in my history, it starts in the late 90s. The vast budgets assigned to making games of that era accessible and acceptable to a mainstream audience were all on-screen, and not a penny was to be wasted. We were meant to see it all, and this could only be achieved one way – games had to get easier.
Take for example Resident Evil and its ilk: designed for cash-rich, time-poor players, those with jobs and families, players who want to experience the satisfaction of defeating a game without having to spend days plugging. Playing time was dramatically reduced (a game like Resident Evil offered only a few hours of actual play), death was no longer the end thanks to the doing-away with of limited lives and Easy Mode was offered from the start. This was a revelation to me. OK, in a way it detracted from my triumph at having beaten Resident Evil 2, but it made sense. I paid £40 for this game. You don’t go to the cinema and only see the first thirty five minutes of a film on a loop until you give up and go home. That’s what art galleries are for.
Some see this as a dilution of the noble goal of pure gameplay; tweaking a game until it becomes less of a foe and more of a hand-holding nanny to the spoilt player. The mechanics of play become subservient to the design, the story, the entertainment. This is fair, in a way, but it all rather depends on what you want from videogames. Producers try to give the mixed-ability public what it wants, because that’s, duh, how you make money. Sometimes it’s subtle, starting the game nice and easy, ratcheting up the difficulty as the player’s skill level increases. Sometimes it’s more straightforward – offer different modes. Easy. Normal. Hard. Insane. Nightmare. Legendary. No Hope. Difficulty levels can also be offered as prizes, something to strive for. Beat the game three times on Nightmare to unlock BRAIN-FUCKINGLY IMPOSSIBLE mode. Er, no ta.
It’s clear that this is a compromise – at a fundamental level, games are designed to be played in a particular way and to alter the difficulty requires breaking at least a part of the system. This has been acknowledged fairly widely, most recently by the developers of mega-franchise Assassin’s Creed, whose third instalment proper is released next week to great fanfare.
As I mentioned way up top, I’m not the type to play on Hard. I like my games with a bit of challenge but I also know that if I’m tested too much without reward, I stop. Assassin’s Creed is perfect for me. It looks beautiful, it has a story at least as good as your average Jason Statham movie, and it empowers the player by placing them in charge of a graceful free-running protagonist able to outrun, outfight and outsmart all opponents. Is it too easy? Maybe, but its success indicates that not all players want hardcore challenges. Sales numbers say we like this nice, forgiving game.
So that’s my side. There are others. For example the true ‘casual’ gamer who plays Bejeweled or Peggle and the million billion hidden object games offered by Big Fish. These players are often bracketed as ‘casual’ and then, to a greater or lesser extent, dismissed and marginalised (why yes, the majority of them are women – but, hey, that’s a different article). The reason for my quote marks, is that such games are frequently the opposite of casual. Bejeweled and its sequels are nuanced, requiring skill and forward-planning to progress to the higher levels. Play can last for eons and I’ve seen this happen to all sorts of people; die-hard RPG fans sitting for numb hours in front of Bejeweled, pensioners who’ve never played a videogame in their life unable to detach from Zuma, commuters locked into Angry Birds day after day. I’ve lost plenty of time to Peggle. None of these games appear to be difficult, but they’re like the old games: they encourage endless play with no sense of an end.
Then there are the hardcore gamers. I don’t get this side. When I started writing this piece I thought ‘Well, OK, what’s currently got a reputation as a tough nut?’ and I ended up with Dark Souls in my Xbox. Yeah, that’s not going to happen again. Everything about it seemed designed to make my life as hard and uncomfortable as possible. Resting restored not just your health but the health of your enemies. There was no way to pause – the usual route of accessing the menu just left the game running with an overlay. Even in the first few rooms, there were enemies that could swat you like a bug and had no reason not to. I’m assured it is one of the best games ever made and that I am missing out. I’ll live.
Clearly, therefore, I’m not the man to write this bit of the article. So I spoke to some gamers of my acquaintance, Mark and Kasper, who are battle-scarred veterans with a thousand extra lives. Here are some observations from them, and I’ll put the full text of the email interviews up on my own blog, because I think they’re worth reading.
Me: Do you play them for the difficulty factor? What is it that draws you to games that most people would be defeated by in seconds?
Mark: If all games were relatively easy, then the experience would feel too passive for me. It’s an interactive medium, so there needs to be something more than just the experience of taking in the visuals and the narrative.
Kasper: It’s not just the difficulty. One of the main factors is that they provide a concentrated dose of pure gameplay with none of the padding that you see in a lot of other games. [Kasper at this point gave me a link to a beginners guide to shmups*** which gives some very good reasoning behind the appeal]
Me: How long do you play for in a day/week, and how long will a game last you, on average?
Mark: Play-time depends on how quickly our two-year old goes to sleep… I can maybe squeeze in 2-3hrs a day at the moment. How long each game lasts varies widely from game to game. Say in the region of 10-25 hrs each.
Kasper: There are two main challenges in shmups: The first is the ‘1CC’ which is completing the game in one credit with no continues. The next is the high score. Getting a 1CC in an average shmup might take about 15-20 hours of gameplay, depending on the game. Getting a score to rank with the best might take 50+ hours.
[Fifty plus hours, incidentally, is peanuts compared to the time I’ve put in on Skyrim or Final Fantasy VIII, but a lot of that time will be spent wandering empty houses searching for treasure, not packed with incident like a shmup would be.]
Me: I’m being provocative here, but isn’t something like the scrolling shmup genre a bit of an antique?
Kasper: To the casual observer, the golden age of the arcade shoot ’em up appears to have been the late 1980s to early 1990s – but look at a poll of best shmups (voted by fans) and you’ll find that most of them have been released from about 1995 up to recently.
Mark: It has still evolved over the years, with the advent of ‘bullet hell’ shmups or you have tweaks to the basic mechanics, like e.g. bullet grazing (increasing your score or multiplier by staying close to bullets) in the Shikigami no Shiro series, which adds an extra layer of risk/reward to the scoring system.
We interrupt this interview to bring you footage of Kasper playing Dangun Feveron:
Me: Where’s the story, though, the character, what about ‘emergent gameplay’ and all that business that games are sold on these days?
Mark: I think they retain their appeal as it’s a fundamentally simple concept that anyone can grasp (dodge bullets, shoot enemies), yet they’re tough to master, which keeps you coming back for more. Video gaming is an extremely broad medium that encompasses all kinds of different things, so I there’s still plenty of room for non-narrative driven games. There is something refreshing about the purity of a classic arcade game that wouldn’t in any way be improved by shoehorning in some contrived narrative
Kasper: Most story-based games don’t even have good stories, so I’m not sure why shmups should be looked down upon for that reason. I mean, given the choice between an good arcade game and one of David Cage’s epic, cinematic, QTE-fests, I know which one I’d rather choose…
Mark: Flawless execution of a classic game-style still beats the unrealized potential of a cinematic big budget action thriller for me I guess.
So where are we now? I can see a potentially exciting future for games, with developers figuring out how to tailor them to the demands of the mainstream and the hardcore without having to break their own rules. A future where everyone has a chance to beat a game without compromise and without feeling cheated. But in truth I see another, more likely, future; one of factions huddling round their True Flame, where gaming is codified, ghettoised, stratified. Your games over there. My games over here. Their games out there. It doesn’t have to happen – I think Kasper and Mark show that we’re all the same under the surface. We all just want a bit of fun, a bit of a challenge to fill our leisure time. Isn’t that what games are for?
*I once broke someone’s finger during a game of air hockey. Not my finest moment, but that motherfucker was going down.
**Modern gamers will recognise a primordial QuickTime Event in this.
***A contraction of the already-slang term shoot-em-up