On game difficulty and the concept of ‘challenge’
I’ve wanted to write something on this for some time now, and reading MtBerry Yoshi’s post on the same was my push to do so. He talks about his own changing attitudes, over time, from challenging himself in a game’s higher difficulty settings to ezmoding through just for the story. I’ll bet it’s something a lot of us do.
Anyone who, like me, came from a gaming background where the only peers were stereotypical rabid competitive types should sympathize. Normal mode was these guys’ Easy. ‘Real men’ played Hard. Or Brutal. Or Legendary. Whatever.
Here’s the thing. Difficulty settings are handicaps – things only doled out when one contestant is superior to the other. In gaming, there’s scant argument on that superiority. We are capable of a spontaneity and cunning no computer can match, even when we’re playing by their rules.
By that token, cutting our AI adversaries some slack would be the sporting thing to do, and perhaps it is. But what slack is that? Easy mode means different things in different games.
Let’s take RTS games. Higher difficulties in many of those involve the AI incorporating advanced units, like a sparring partner taking the kid gloves off – which is sensible, since there’s nothing stopping us from doing that regardless of difficulty. But it doesn’t end there, does it? Any AI’s counter to our human intelligence and strategy would be a product of cranking up variables within its reach – basically, cheating.
Accelerated production cycles. Reduced unit costs. Waived penalties. An RPG or FPS equivalent would be AI enemies dealing more damage and suffering less – and, in the latter case, enjoying ridiculous accuracy. I like to quote the example of a test match I ran with a friend in Unreal Tournament years ago, against bots on the Godlike setting: it was (and I am keeping a very straight face here – this is not exaggeration) nothing but five minutes of getting headshotted across the map within a second of each respawn.
Call that a handicap, or anything you like, but none of this makes for a fulfilling experience, even in the pseudo-competitive context. It’s the gaming version of an employee tasked with clearing next month’s worth of work by the end of the day. There’s only so far such shenanigans can go without challenging the notion of challenge.
There are, of course, games that attempt to introduce different variations of the difficulty setting. MtBerry Yoshi mentioned The Last of Us, which I never played, but I did play Fallout: New Vegas, and its Hardcore Mode comes to mind. It was designed to encourage keener (or more risk-averse) play by adding elements of realism (hunger and thirst, ammo weight, greatly slowed healing, etc), which sounded cool, but personally, I found it more a mere inconvenience than anything. Abjuring VATS targeting and aiming with the then-newly introduced iron sights was more my idea of a challenge.
This is just my take, naturally. Everybody wants different things – different challenges, even – from games. But there it is. Challenge is not bringing a knife to a gunfight. If you want challenge, play against a human. Don’t measure your skill (or others’) as a gamer against arbitrary advantages imposed in lieu of an actual, meaningful honor system.