When is difficult too difficult?
When it comes to games, I definitely have masochistic tendencies. I’ll give you an example…
Last night was the fourth night in a row that I have spent pretty much an entire evening playing just one level in Pixeljunk Monsters, repeatedly getting no further than the seventeenth of its 20 waves of enemies. If I’m honest, it wasn’t that much fun. But I absolutely could not give up. There had to be a way and I had to find it. For the first three evenings I refused to seek any help at all online, instead preferring to spend hours upon hours failing over and over. But at the end of the third evening I though, “I’ll just have a look for some general tips.” Seeking a solution specific to that level was absolutely out of the question – if you’re just following someone else’s method step-by-step in a tower defence game, you might as well not be doing it yourself.
Anyway, I found out some information on what kinds of towers are more effective against what types of enemy and, after a few more attempts last night, I finally finished that level. I probably won’t play the game again for another three months now, and when I do I’ll no doubt get stuck immediately, and for an entire week again.
After turning my back on PJM, I moved on to a spot of Darksiders and, after working through a few puzzles, got my ass kicked by some monsters. It occurred to me that I had chosen Apocalyptic difficulty, the hardest available. I usually do this – although not always, PJM I’m playing on Normal – and it usually means I get stuck a lot and have to replay the same bits again and again a lot. So why do I do it?
Well, it does depend on the type of game, but generally I find games to be more engaging if I really have to focus, concentrate and play well in order to succeed. Plus it’s more convincing on an aesthetic level to see your on-screen hero being good at what he or she does. And part of it is simply that I am an experienced gamer who’s generally better than average at most games, and if a game is too easy, it’s usually boring. Usually…
There are exceptions though. If a game is story-driven then I’m fine with it being easy, or at least easy-ish. I’ve actually found I dislike the difficult bits in both Heavy Rain and Uncharted 2, in Heavy Rain because it’s just stupid to ask my hands to move into that position, and in Uncharted 2 because it breaks the pace of the story to be repeating bits too much. One story-driven game gets it spot-on though, namely… and it is getting a bit tedious dropping the same name all the time, but… Half-Life 2.
I didn’t even know Half-Life 2 adjusted its difficulty to your skill level on the fly until after I’d finished the entire game and both episodes. Normally I hate the idea of a game doing that – there’s nothing worse than a pop-up window asking if you’re like to switch to Easy – but Half-Life 2 gets it so right. I got stuck and frustrated on a few of the puzzles, which is a different kind of difficulty, but I was only ever killed in combat when I got sloppy. I scrape through battles frequently though, most notably the Strider siege at the very end of Episode 2. Everybody just scrapes through that bit – it’s deliberately and ingeniously weighted that way.
Weird thing is that while my intention was to talk about how very different games require very different approaches to difficulty, I have literally just now realised that the Strider siege is actually a lot like a Pixeljunk Monsters level – it’s essentially just tower defence in first-person – and now I really don’t know what to think any more so I’m just going to stop writing because writing, and in particular the thinking that goes with it, is too difficult.