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Eric Nicholas Reed avatar 10:16 PM on 01.28.2011  (server time)
Why 2010 Sucked: Upping the Difficulty

I’m pretty sure it started with Enslaved. I was sitting on my chair, about the start the game when the typical “choose your difficulty” screen popped up. I stared at it for quite sometime, which was a new thing for me. I typically would just hit “normal” and go on about my game. But I had an inkling, an urge if you will. What if I played on Hard? What’s so different about “hard”?

Playing on hard changed the nature of what a game is for me. Before, for me the most important aspect of a game for me was story. I wanted to know what happened to these people, these characters, next. Half the reason I even picked up Enslaved was because I heard it had a story of epic proportions (which it does by the way). What I didn’t expect, by playing the game on hard, was to be introduced to a whole new world of gaming; a form of gaming more retro than you’d even imagine; the “Pure Game.” This loss of my gaming innocence is why 2010 sucked…

I am, at best, an average gamer. You’re talking about someone who did not beat Super Mario Bros. 3 until he was 19 playing it on the Wii Virtual Console, after playing it in various forms most of his childhood. So the idea of jumping from playing on “normal” to playing on “hard” in any game was a difficult proposition. I once, out of curiosity, bumped up the difficulty on Halo 3 to Legendary, only to get my ass handed to me by grunts.

But first person shooters aren’t really my genre of choice, and when I started playing Enslaved, I figured that my action platforming skills were good enough to warrant making an attempt. I beat the game with little real difficulty; a confidence boost for sure; but I noticed a real difference in the way I played. I would pause during boss battles and thing “Hmmm…what should I do” rather than the normal thinking on the fly I would do on “normal”. I actually had to out think the game. At the time, I thought nothing of it.

The strangest revelations about your life can come to you while you are in the classroom. I am a TA for a Introduction to Digital Media course at the school I go to, and as way of bringing 250 snot nosed undergraduates into the world of Digital Media, the Prof began with two lectures on Video Games. The ultimate question of those lectures became “What is a video game?”

He didn’t venture that far down the history of gaming, sticking more with the connections between early home games and the connections that can be drawn between game play and comfort with computers, but something within his lecture came up that really got me thinking; the notion of the “Pure Game.”

Remember the scene in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, where Steve Weibe is literally drawing out the patterns of barrels and flames on the screen of his arcade cabinet. This is the essence of a pure game. The computer lays down the ground rules, and it is up to you to figure those out, and use those to beat it. All early games were like this. Consider Pac-Man; each ghost acts differently, and each stage has a set path in which, if you take it, no ghost will harm you. The essence of gaming at this time was figuring out how to beat the computer at it’s own game, under it’s own guidelines.

This is something I feel is lost for the modern gamer for two reasons. First, oftentimes the computer thinks; in many games these days, especially sports games, the computer adjust the way it plays the game to become more competitive with you. Second is the emphasis placed on online play; while fun, playing other people is not the same as putting yourself up against a computer, because people don’t often act in pattern, predictable ways. (Well, they do, but it takes centuries of sociological research to figure that out, not 40 hours on CoD). None of this is to say it’s bad, more to give a reason for the appeal of retro games.

I’ve mused enough though. Why did 2010 suck? What does a shift from “normal” to “hard” have to do with this “pure game” notion? 2010 sucked because it saw me make a fundamental shift in the way I think about games. I was always the type that would be willing to put aside crappy aspects of a game’s gameplay or graphics in trade off for an amazing or at the very least interesting story. As long as I could progress though the game with a base knowledge and understand of how the game is played, I was in good shape.

But that simple choice to play on hard changed the way I thought about the game. I began to strategize and analyze what the computer was doing. I would die countless times on a boss simply trying to figure out how to get though the battle without getting hit. I HAD TO LEARN HOW TO BLOCK! Who wants to block in a video game?! I want to attack! Basically, it turned what I once did as a somewhat escapist enterprise into work. And work sucks.

A final, more tangible example. I play Rock Band guitar on hard. It’s the perfect place for me in terms of my ability at the game and my desire to have fun playing it. Can I play on Expert? For the most part yes. But I don’t enjoy it. My fingers get tired and I can’t sing along to the song or anything due to the fact I’m concentrating on it. My choice in difficulty there is driven strictly on a ‘fun’ factor, not on if I’m actually capable of doing it.

For me, playing on “Hard” turned games into “pure games”. But designers these days aren’t making “pure games”. Donkey Kong is hard because the algorithms controlling the patterns of the advance of the baddies is very complicated. You can figure it out, but it takes practice. But I’m someone who plays for story. Playing on hard became a burden, and while satisfying perhaps when I completed the game, instead of providing me with a non-stressful experience of relaxation after a long day in classrooms, it put me on edge, made me frustrated, and ultimately did little more for my than give me a few more Gamerscore.

Play on “hard” if you wish. But this guy, he’s going to stick to “normal.”

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