Video Games

Difficulty

It’s always tough when you play a game to the end, and are left with a bad taste in your mouth. The tendency is to then bad mouth the game as a whole just because the ending isn’t what you wanted it to be. Sometimes this is because of the investiture in the character and the unwillingness to see the ending as anything other than the final few seconds, like a lot of people did with Mass Effect 3. Other times it’s because you feel the ending pigeon holes you into being a saint or a mass-murdering psycho, like in Bioshock. Endings are hard, I get that. Good thing I’m not examining endings! I did that pretty in-depth for ME3 already, anyway. I want to discuss the thing that happens just before the ending, the final fight.

Ok, so really it’s a discussion of the nature of difficulty in games. It just so happens that the last fight in a game is often a good place to look to get a base line. Quite often the game goes for something memorable, nay, epic. It’s an orgy of things to click and interact with. A smorgasbord of shit to not stand in. A veritable cornucopia of death rays to dodge. A…you get the idea. The problem is, there is a fine line between “fun but hard” and “fuck this game”. Actually, no, it’s a very obvious line.

If you depart from the core mechanics of your game during the last fight, you have crossed the line.

It’s really that simple. The pinnacle of the game play experience should not be a place where you have to learn something brand new and are forced to do something over and over until you learn this hitherto unknown facet of game play. It’s a place where you bring together what you have done so far, and are pushed to the limit as you put your skills on display. Sometimes this does involve learning new things about the encounter itself, but it should be done so in the context of the game. God of War always expected you to learn the trick to the encounter as you continued your badassery. In Everquest and World of Warcraft, you had to perfect whatever the gimmicks were, because by the end it was never just one thing. Shit, even The Legend of Zelda had a strong track record of forcing you to figure out how to kill bosses based on the hints of the Under Warlocks (You know, the old men trapped in dungeons, often in hidden rooms. Seriously, what was going on there?). There are many more examples, of course, but you get the idea. Staying true to the game play experience is the crucial component.

When you veer off course, you are left with the smell of sadness and the taste of disappointment. I have experienced this recently, and it’s name is The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. I’ve had a fair amount of distance from it at this point, purposefully so, but time has not healed this particular wound. I want to say it’s not a bad game, I really do. I don’t want the experience of the game tainted by the absolute shitfuckery of the last encounter. Yet, the final encounter is so miserable that I keep finding myself recommending others not to play it. This is compounded by the fact that up until that point, it was a laughably weird and kind of eyeroll worthy game.

It was an action RPG that lifted heavily from what had come before. You had an erstwhile companion that was so annoying she made Navi look like Robert Downey, Jr. I wanted to murder her so much that I longed for the dulcet tones of “HEY! OVER HERE!” in a high pitched fairy voice. It had bizarre crafting and item creation. It had gambling at vendors. It had gem slots, though these were super useless and not at all well thought through. It had a strange tower defense component. It had steampunk and planar travel. It had a weird built in legacy of Van Helsing. Surely, this was something that was worth at least $5, which is what I paid for it. Boy, I do not feel that way now. Now, I feel that I wasted my time on the game and that $5 was $10 too much to pay for the game. Yes, I should have been paid $5 to play it. Why? Because of the absurd difficulty spike of the last encounter.

Prior to the last boss, the game had started to do that thing aRPGs do. It started to have crazy difficulty spikes for no good damn reason. You’d mow through five packs of monsters, only to be one-shot five times in a row by another pack. This is frustrating in itself, and is indicative of bad design. I will come back to this in a short while. Setting this aside, I soldiered on and made it to the last boss. The mad scientist himself. Here’s where the game took a header.

See, the last boss was basically a gnome inside a giant robot. It sounded just like Thermaplugg from WoW, and looked just liked him. I think it lifted direct quotes, even. The boss had several different methods of instantly killing you, but you could avoid them by moving. Of course, the boss summoned hordes of adds so moving might be impossible all of a sudden because of collision detection. You had to kill all the different spawn points and also the things that granted the boss abilities. It’s about sixteen different things, but sure, no problem. In fact, while all of this is hard, and frustrating, it’s not the issue.

No, the issue is that each of these things had a massive hit point pool, and you had to spend an extremely long time wailing on it to kill it. During which time, of course, you were instantly killed by something you could no longer avoid. This is part of the encounter, though. Unlike every other part of the game, this part has no penalty for dying. The game expects you to complete the encounter by dying over and over and over again, listening to the three or four quotes from the boss that he shouts every three seconds. That’s the moment it crosses over into “fuck this game”. It stopped the core mechanic of not wanting to die, and replaced it with endlessly dying to eventually complete the encounter. For some reason no one realized that death rushing to beat an encounter probably meant the encounter was too hard and probably needed to be a bit more reasonable.

Consequently, this was also the way Guild Wars 2 dungeons were designed. The game touted its ability to do away with the “holy trinity” of tank, healer, damage, and allow for a true “bring the player, not the class” experience. Sadly, it accomplished this by letting you die over and over again and rush back into battle with the boss. In fact, it counted on this. Lower level dungeons were a slog of this mechanic, and anecdotally accounts for one of the largest complaints about the game. Once again, until this point in the game, you really wanted to not die. Instead of attempting to tune the encounters in some fashion, the game just says, “eh, fuck it”, and accepts endless death cycles as a way to complete the game.

Difficulty spikes, such as the one-shot packs previously mentioned, are frustrating in their own right, but it usually serves as a soft gating mechanism. Don’t want to be one-shot? Farm more gear/get more levels/etc. The reward for overcoming this soft gate is a marked decrease in difficulty following this, quite often with some sort of “lootsplosion” equivalent attached to it. Of course, this often ends up becoming a breaking point in its own right. Many players will become frustrated at abnormal difficulty spikes, and such points lead to fairly obvious striation. This is usually less outright frustrating that a game abandoning its core mechanics, it’s still a source of displeasure and leads to many people setting the game down.

Despite the popular opinion that many players want completion handed to them, difficulty be damned, I don’t think that’s actually the point. People will complete a game that gets harder and harder as long as it does so in a linear fashion. The original Dragon Age is a good example of this, as are most non-base building RTS games, such as Myth or X-Com. People do like feeling accomplished and clever, and the slow honing of skills is a good way to achieve that. Even when allowing something like a “story” level of difficulty, scaling difficulty is a good thing. Challenge is still a good thing, and is an important part of a successful game. At least, in my opinion. Without risk, you can’t have meaningful reward.

When there is no more risk, and only punishment, it’s not any better. Difficulty is good, but only within context. Difficulty for the sake of difficulty is not a thing to be celebrated.

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