Easy/Normal/Hard?

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Difficulty in games is something that has always interested me as a subject. Different people have differing approaches and attitudes towards difficulty, both with difficulty settings, and difficult games to learn or master. Some always play on  hard, some on easy, and I imagine most, playing on normal. Personally, I always try and play games on normal unless I get so frustrated butting my head against a wall that I have to revert to the easier settings. I don’t do this out of any misplaced sense of snobbery about playing on easy mode, but rather because I believe that normal difficulty usually represents the challenge and experience that the designers intended to create, and in good games challenge and experience are linked.

Of course some games change completely with different difficulty levels, sometimes introducing new mechanics, and perhaps simplifying or expanding existing ones. Take Dragon Age: Origins for example. In that game, whilst playing on normal, spell effects are capable of inflicting friendly fire damage onto party members. This encourages a degree of caution before you use large area of effect spells, whilst the easy setting removes this mechanic, thus vastly simplifying the magic system. Other games such as The Witcher 2 offer a more straight forward approach by simply giving enemies less health and inferior AI, to the point where you can hack and slash your way through them on autopilot, which differs greatly from the fast, movement orientated combat of the normal setting.

So, sometimes I think that by choosing to play on easy mode, you perhaps rob yourself of the games original vision, and in some cases, the complexities of the mechanics too. That’s not to denigrate those who choose to play this way. A few years ago I was living with a colleague when The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was new, and between us we must have racked up hundreds of hours in that wonderful game. We would take it in turns to play, whilst the other manned the laptop and searched the wiki for secrets, ways around the all to frequent bugs, and in the end, to hunt down the remaining quests we had yet to complete. I have a lot of fond memories of us playing this game together. However one thing always irked me – my friends insistence on playing with the difficulty slider all the way down to the easiest setting. In Oblivion this meant that a single enemy was actually unable to kill you whilst you used the basic restoration spells. This was a great way to level up a couple of skills at once, but playing the whole game like this seemed an anathema to me. Surely to rob yourself of all challenge was to rob yourself of one of the thing games are meant to be about.

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Then one day it dawned on me. We were both getting different things out of the game despite the apparently shared experience. Whereas she enjoyed the world, the setting and the questing aspects of the game, I enjoyed all those but only with the added threat of death and a failure state. I think this is usually the case for me, but I’ve begun to encounter games where perhaps narrative was a stronger draw for me than any challenge represented by the mechanics. I wrote recently on my inability to complete Mass Effect, due to a general feeling that minute to minute gameplay doesn’t come close to representing the quality of the storyline and the world presented. This is a good candidate for me to blaze through on easy mode, because I fundamentally don’t find the combat fun to begin with. In essence I’m seeking narrative from the experience, not challenge. Or not the kind of challenge combat represents anyway.

I’m at risk of sounding a little like the only kind of games are ones with combat, but the fact is most games lean heavily on the old ultraviolence as a means to control progression, and is usually one of the core things that difficulty levels affect that palpably alters the flow and progression of a game. Obviously I’d love there to be more games that were able to offer a more creative means of challenging the player than combat, but there are plenty of genres that do that, and I think we’re starting to see more and more of them as times goes on and the medium matures a little.

Some games of course have unusually hard difficulty, or are at least perceived as being difficult to learn or master. Dark Souls springs to mind immediately. It certainly is a tough game, but not only is that difficulty quite surmountable with a bit of practice or until the combat ‘clicks’, it actually represents an important part of the lore, story and mechanics of that game. This is one of the things that makes Dark Souls so unique, it melds these three elements perfectly, and the story is in large part told through the very nature of the mechanics. You play a cursed undead, unable to die, but each death draws the character closer to becoming ‘hollowed’; a mindless undead who has lost all humanity. This in a sense represents the players own struggles. Death has a draining effect on the character as written in the lore, and a draining effect on the player in reality. The souls you find lying amongst the corpses that are dotted throughout the world bear different names depending on how far into the game you have progressed, and thus the amount of souls awarded to the player for discovering them. At the very start of the game souls begin with titles such as “Soul of a Lost Undead” or “Soul of a Nameless Soldier”, whilst later ones read “Soul of a Proud Knight”, “Soul of a Brave Warrior” or “Soul of a Great Hero”. These items, and the corpses they are found on, can be said to represent players too, those who have gotten this far, and then given up. Frustrated by their journey they simply stopped playing, and thus their journey ended here.

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Also Dark Souls difficulty is mechanically unique, in that enemies are tough not because they do insane damage and have large health bars, because usually they don’t. There are occasions where that is the case, but for the most part the enemies are challenging because they are reasonably intelligent. Even the earliest foes are entirely capable of seizing on your mistimed attack, or an overly aggressive approach, and killing you very quickly indeed.  Yet it cannot be denied that difficulty is one of the biggest turn offs for people who read or hear about Dark Souls, which I feel is a great shame because what’s on offer is a truly unique experience, but unfortunately one that only really hits home around 30 hours in, so it is true that you have to break through the wall to enjoy it.

I must admit that I sometimes approach difficult games with a mentality of simply wanting to master it for the sheer sense of achievement at doing so. Eve is certainly one of them. When I began playing, I sort of made it my ambition to understand it, just because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do so. That may sound silly, but at some level I feel that if you can make it in Eve with regards to complexity, then you can make it in pretty much anything that the MMO genre can throw at you. I played that game for 18 months, and can honestly say I only gained a reasonably proficient knowledge of, at best, 15% of what that game has to offer. But one of the things you do learn after a while, is that learning all of the systems in Eve is most certainly not required. If I’m living in low sec PvPing, I probably don’t need to know too much about T2 manufacturing. If I’m mining in high sec, I probably don’t need to read up on bubble mechanics in null sec. And if I’m living in null sec and engaging in a war, I probably don’t need to know about the rewards for exploration in high sec. So, mastery of all knowledge is unlikely to add much to your experience unless you have an army of alts. Whilst it certainly is a complex game, it’s a lot more manageable once you begin to break it down to the bits that are relevant to your immediate gameplay experience, which when you’re a new player in particular is likely to be quite limited.

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But what cannot be denied about both Eve and Dark souls, is that as well as being mechanically difficult and complex, they both certainly obfuscate things more than is necessary. Dark Souls is almost deliberately obtuse at times. The tutorial does little more than teach you the controls, and explains none of the mechanics governing death, levelling up, becoming human, summoning players or being invaded. This is actually a design choice on the part of From Software, they obviously intended players to explore and discover, which is certainly mirrored in other parts of the game too. Also, an experience based on a sort of shared knowledge with both friends and other players online becomes a large part of the fun of unpicking the game.

The same can’t really be said for Eve however. Whilst Eve cannot avoid being complicated, such is the breadth of the game and the range of experiences on offer, but it could certainly be better at explaining how things work. Most of the knowledge players need to understand the game cannot be accessed from inside the actual game, with a lot of information stored on wikis or other websites. This is also what makes joining a corporation as a new player just as vital for learning how the game works through the shared experience of long term players, as well as it being an important anchor in the game and a gateway to much more fun experiences than the average high sec newbie engages in. Yet unlike From Software, I don’t believe this kind of obfuscation of mechanics was actually intended by CCP. It’s not a poetry of mechanics/lore/story and difficulty, it’s just a barrier to enjoying the game for a lot of people. I like overcoming difficulty because I believe it can often be a byword for depth in games, but also because I like figuring it all out. However, I can totally understand why it totally alienates people that you need to understand this, just to be able to truly know how firing your guns at a moving enemy works. And that knowledge has to be sought through means that the game client doesn’t offer. I guess on the spectrum of complexity for the sake of depth, and complexity for complexities sake, Eve is guilty of being a lot closer to the latter than the former.

I’m rambling a bit now, but as you can see, there’s lot’s to think about with regards to difficulty. I guess that I’d conclude that difficulty is a very important part of a games design, and that players approach it in ways that perhaps mirror what they want to gain from the experience over all.

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Gaming Update

I haven’t written much on what I’m currently playing, so I thought I’d give a weekly update on where I’m at with the various titles I’m plodding my way through.

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The Secret World

I haven’t had anywhere near as much time to devote to this game as I would like. One thing I always say about The Secret World is that it’s the sort of game that demands long play sessions to really get the most out of, at least for me anyway. I find that the story sinks in a lot better if I can drink in the details, rather than if I’m just popping online for half an hour here and there.

I’m currently still making my way through Kingsmouth. There’s an awful lot of content crammed into this tiny map, and I’m having a good time with it. I still find the investigation missions to be the best part of the game, aside from its overwhelming sense of atmosphere. Some of the other missions are pretty prosaic, but you often end up doing a lot of things you’ve never done in an MMO before.

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X-Com: Enemy Within

I absolutely love Maxim’s modern reimagining of this seminal 90s gaming classic. Who doesn’t enjoy equipping and controlling customised toy super soldiers right? The interplay between the turn based combat during missions, and base and troop tinkering in between operations has a wonderful synergy that drives the whole experience forward. It is the sort of game you can easily lose hours to without even checking the clock.

It’s one of those games that I’ve started many times but never finished. I’m now learning to just keep it on my hard drive for when the need for some turn based action takes me. At the moment I’m not very far into the game at all, and I’m pretty much just dipping in for a mission or two every now and again. Can’t wait until I get some mech troopers though.

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Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2

At the moment I’m continuing to treat the first Dark Souls much like X-Com. It stays on my hard drive for when I feel like jumping in for a few hours. I’ve got pretty familiar with the game now, but there are always more mysteries to uncover, and I can take the story with some NPCs as well as the main storyline in different directions from my first playthrough. It’s one of the things I love about this game.

I’m also playing through Dark Souls 2 at a friends house. We’re doing co-op the old fashioned way, by passing a controller back and forth. We completed the first Dark Souls like this too and I found it to be a really nice way to play the game. If you get frustrated you can hand it off to someone else to have a go, which sometimes is all you need to prevent the experience driving you up the wall.

So that’s what I’ve been playing this week.

Red Surprise

Belghast, of Tales of the Aggronaut and supreme ruler of Blaugust, has kindly provided some writing prompts to give participants ideas for posts. Today I’m going to use one of those ideas. The prompt is:

“What is the coolest moment you have experienced with a game community? Has someone gone out of their way to help you, or was there a really interesting player in a community you have been a part of?”

To answer this, I’m going to talk a little about an experience I had playing the original Dark Souls earlier this week.

As I mentioned in a previous post, even though Dark Souls is ostensibly a single player game, other players are always on the periphery of your experience. Their forms fade in and out of your world, and their messages of hope, guidance, and treachery form a core part of the games rich experience. As well as these more ethereal interactions players can also be summoned into your world to help with boss battles, or invade it for some red hot PvP action, as long as you are in human form. And vice versa too. You may enter the world of others to offer your assistance or a beating.

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So, the other day I was running through Undead Burg when a message appeared on screen: “You have been invaded by dark phantom x” (I’m afraid I don’t recall the name). I went into battle mode; topping my health up and picking an optimum spot in the area to await my assailant (in this case underneath a large bridge with a dragon perched atop its turrets).

The foe was sighted. A red phantom, running at me. I quickly began to use the scenery to hide, anticipating that I may have the opportunity to backstab him. He dodges just in time, but I get a few hits in, which do remarkably little damage to him. As I realised that this would be a long fight which would depend on backstabs or parries for high critical damage, I feared the worst.

After a few seconds it became clear that this wasn’t an ordinary fight. As I swung my battleaxe toward him, he simply blocked or stepped aside, making no effort to counter attack or go on the offensive. It was soon apparent that he wasn’t interested in fighting at all, so I backed off, confused. Then suddenly he ran off, with me following close behind.

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What followed then was even stranger. He began dropping items on the floor for me to collect. Over and over again he supplied me with useful utility items like homeward bones. Then, he ran on ahead again, and opened up a shortcut that would have been far to difficult for my low level character to open. Leading me to a precious bonfire from which I could respawn upon the deaths that would surely come, he bowed, waved, and exited my world.

This person was supposed to be a dark phantom here to slaughter me and take my humanity, not a servant of the light, coming to save the day at my  behest like usual. The fact that he didn’t kill me made me realise that this nice person must have been running around their own world collecting items, then invading the games of noobs in order to offer them their assistance. Its certainly an unconventional way to do that, but it made for an exciting encounter that made me smile.

These sorts of bizarre interactions are one of the things which makes Dark Souls such an incredible and unique experience. Until next time mysterious phantom /salute.

Games What I Like: Dark Souls

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Dark Souls is a strange game. A very strange game in fact. Most players when they first begin simply find it difficult, and occasionally frustrating. You die, a lot. However, Dark Souls is a game which requires a slight shift in attitudes, in that death does not really represent a failure state as it does in so many games, but rather it represents an opportunity to tackle the same obstacle again, but this time armed with the knowledge gained from your last attempt.

Once you begin to be at peace with death, Dark Souls becomes an amazing experience. You are the chosen undead (or are you?), freed from a prison where you were fated to spend all eternity, and told only to ring the bells of awakening, and discover the fate of the undead. Dark Souls may seem a little light on story, but this in fact not really the case. What it is light on is exposition. There are NPCs scattered around, but they are few and far between, and not all that they say is to be trusted. The world of Lordran is a mysterious place, and deducing very much about it is left to the inquisitive minds of players, as is puzzling out the lore of this strange land.

First and foremost however Dark Souls is a third person action game, which specialises in brutally hard combat, requiring great skill to overcome the more difficult enemies in the game. Even the run of the mill grunts you encounter early in your adventure can easily kill you very late into the game if you become cocky or overconfident. It is also an RPG, and you level up your character with souls collected from vanquished foes, or occasionally as loot, and these souls are also the games currency, to be spent at merchants and blacksmiths. But, if you die, you drop your souls. Make it back to them again without dying, and they can be reclaimed. Die en route however, and those souls are lost forever.

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Another important mechanic to grasp is humanity. Humanity is a semi-limited resource and a consumable item. When humanity is used and players ‘reverse hollow’ at a bonfire (the checkpoints you return to upon death, and also where you level up) they cease to appear undead, and become human instead. Die, and the humanity is lost, and the players returns to their undead state.

Humanity leads us on to another of Dark Souls’ most interesting features, its online capability. You see, in Dark Souls, other players are always on the periphery of your experience. You sometimes see ghostly figures running through your game, which are in fact other people playing their own game. Touch a bloodspot and watch how another person died, sometimes providing you with vital clues of upcoming surprises or what not to try. Players can also leave messages for others to read. Sometimes these are messages of hope, “praise the sun”, “I did it!”, “hope”. Other times they are clues about what’s coming up ahead or secrets you may have missed “illusory wall ahead” or “boss”, and many others. Other times the messages are more dastardly, pretending there is a secret wall ahead, or to try jumping off a ledge.

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Players can also interact with one another in a much more concrete sense. You may leave a summon sign on the ground outside a boss, then other players will see that sign and can summon you to engage in some jolly co-operation, and maybe finally get past that boss that killed them 50 times, and you may summon other players into your world too. It is also possible to invade the worlds of other players, or to be invaded, for PvP battles. But all of this can only happen when you are in human form, so there is a trade off to be made. Being human allows you to summon help, but you also run the risk of being invaded.

I could wax lyrical about the map alone for hours. Dark Souls has the most incredible level design I’ve ever seen. It is a huge world, and one that initially seems disparate, with little connection. However, as you progress through the game, you realise that all of it is interconnected. Everything links back up through shortcuts, lifts, ladders etc. It has to be played to be experienced, but route planning is one of my favourite parts of the game.

There has been a tendency to represent Dark Souls as an almost Flappy Birds like experience, as if it is difficult just for its own sake. As if it is just designed to be hardcore, and deliberately obtuse. This does the game a great disservice. It is a game about problem solving. Is your heavily armoured knight too slow against certain enemies? Try coming back in full leather rather than plate. Keep getting your halberd stuck in the walls in a certain section? Try it again with a shortsword. Lack of ranged attacks getting you down? Try learning some pyromancy magic. The character creation is free form, and souls can be farmed if need be. You can solve any problem put before you with a little thought and persistence. Sure, the game doesn’t pull any punches, and you will have to puzzle out most of its systems and mechanics, but, that is part of the journey of discovery.

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Maybe its just a Stockholm Syndrome like phenomen, but Dark Souls is a game that really becomes more enjoyable the longer you play. That’s partly because you simply become better at the combat system. It can be a cruel task master, but crucially it always remains fair. However, I like to believe that you simply begin to understand the game better; what the joy in the experience is I suppose. That solving that problem, killing that boss, finally getting through Blightown feels like overcoming the odds, about achievement for its own sake being rewarding enough. It also becomes a lot less linear later, as the ability to warp between bonfires makes tackling things like additional bosses, and non-essential areas more appealing (and trust me there are many).

There is a good 70 hours or more content in this game in your first play through if you try and see everything, and it can usually be picked up fairly cheaply. It is an extremely deep and complex game, with many mysteries to be uncovered, and it improves the longer you stick with it. It is one of my favourite games, and I implore you to give it a try sometime, if the price is right. You never know, you might just fall in love too.