Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Importance of Being Difficult

I love Mass Effect 3’s Insanity mode, it’s amazing. Playing it is a revelation; it’s not so much harder than playing normal difficulty as it is sharper. Every good thing about the game is better on Insanity mode. Enemy A.I., flanking maneuvers, even the team aspect of single player; Mass Effect 3’s insanity mode is one of the best “hard modes” in games today. In the old days games only had three difficulties, easy, normal, and hard. Hard mode was the mode I only played when I was using a code like the up, up, down, down code of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. These days there are often four or five modes though you can rarely tell the difference between one and the next, there are a few shining examples.

Halo brought us the so called Legendary difficulty. Less about bragging rights, legendary mode was the only way to see the best and most in-depth ending in each game. In Halo 3, it was even the only way you knew that Cortana and Master Chief survived, every other difficulty mode had them dying valiantly saving the galaxy. Of course as ever, the question always comes back to, ‘is the juice worth the squeeze’. Difficult games have to walk a line on difficulty versus reward. Games like Dark Souls arguably are hard for hard sake, which is one way to make a game but certainly not the only way. Games like the MMO, The Secret World dare you to solve quests by intuition and clue finding, though whether or not the game space really wants things difficult is always a question on the minds of developers. While Dark Souls was certainly both a critical and commercial success making a game hard has backfired more than once for a company. On the other hand when Ninja Gaiden III was made easier, the result was a far lower review score aggregate than its predecessors.  As House used to say ‘Everybody lies’, certainly the popular school of thought is that games are too easy but when the rubber hits the road, hard games are often decried as ‘cheap’.

In the end perhaps developers are just better off trying to make a game great, rather than focusing too much on the difficulty level, certainly it seems easier. Still I hope that hard mode isn’t forgotten as games become more and more about the bottom line. Difficult games carry a pride all their own, a reward for a job well done that is subtle as it is ethereal. At times in life one wonders if we chose the easy mode because we thought the hard choices were undoable or unwinnable. Difficult times are inevitable in games and in life; let us never forget it.

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