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12:36 PM on 10.29.2011

Difficult Difficulty Selection

As a kid, I would (and still do) get very excited after a game purchase, tearing off the plastic wrap and pouring through the manual as soon as I got in the car for the ride home. Before I even put the cartridge (and later, the disc) in the slot, I would know intimate details about the game's characters, settings, and controls. I couldn't wait to get home and start playing, but there is one thing that almost always got in the way - the difficulty selection screen.

Especially true for games where you go in not knowing anything about how they play, this can stop an eager player dead in their tracks. Games that present just 'Easy, Normal, Hard' are being lazy and straight up wrong. For giving you only three options, it's actually a lot of choice. Most games today are sufficiently complicated that this three option menu is far from ideal for representing the actual difficulty. What abilities or attributes are you losing by selecting 'Hard'? Do the levels change significantly, as in Mega Man 10? Do the enemies get improved, more intelligent A.I.? There are countless such aspects that make a modern game difficult.

An example of what not to do. Might as well have no description at all, if you provide no information other than the glaringly obvious.

I think of myself as a pretty skilled gamer. When presented with this option, I almost always choose hard. However, this can backfire severely in some situations. In most games, like the Resident Evil series for one, 'harder' means you die extremely fast and enemies are tough to kill, while ammo is scarce. As said, there are a lot of factors at work here that directly affect gameplay. Why limit the player to three options, when each option affects so many things? One should be able to pick and choose these factors individually, which would not be too hard to implement as they are able to be changed already (just as a group). There could even be presets, such as 'survival-horror', 'glass cannon' etc that would have these options set to a configuration that would make sense for the mode name.

For the examples above, the 'survival-horror' difficulty type could reduce ammo, make enemies stronger and the player weaker, while 'glass cannon' might move such sliders to have it so the player is extremely weak but able to dish out above average damage. Of course, 'custom' could also be an option letting the players fiddle with the sliders in a way that they would enjoy the game the most. Personally, I am not a huge fan of running low on ammo no matter what game I am playing - to the extent that I will sometimes not use a weapon in fear of wasting its precious ammo, only to complete the game and realize I never fired it once. I would set the sliders that would give me the most ammo, but lower my health to the minimum. That is the kind of challenge I prefer, and this mode of difficulty selection would allow players to truly play the game how they want to play it. The player can increase the challenge where it is fun for them, without being forced into something they might not want to change.

Ghost Recon: Sniper Elite had the right idea, letting the player see exactly what elements are being tuned.

Even a few sentences explicitly stating what the three main options of Easy / Normal / Hard do is a good step which many games are taking. I have been replaying Half Life 2 recently, and noticed exactly that in the menu. HL2 is also interesting in the way it handles difficulty, in that one is able to change it at any point in the game. I think this is great, but at a cost - if you are stuck, you can lower the difficulty and make a section easier to complete. Alternatively, you can increase the difficulty later as you get a better handle on the mechanics. However, with a method like this the player might forget it exists, especially if it is the case of moving up to a harder difficulty. A player might breeze through the game, having selected the easiest difficulty to begin with, and then feel less satisfied after completion having forgotten to ramp it up as they got better at the game. With all the statistics tracking in games these days, I don't think it would too hard to have the difficulty fluctuate based on performance (headshots, completion time, damage taken etc). I believe some games do this already, even. I know in the Devil May Cry series, there was a point where I died many times, and the game asked me if I wanted to switch to an easier mode having sensed my frustration.

In the end, it's up to the player to decide what they find difficult, or how they feel like tackling a game. Presenting more (customizable) options to the player is never a bad thing in my opinion, as long as there are simple defaults for those who care not for such things. More control over the game environment equals a higher maximum enjoyment a player is able to get out of the game. Everyone has slightly different opinions on what is enjoyable, and also what is challenging, and such a system could accommodate that. A criticism I can think of is the worry the player will move all the sliders to make it 'ultra easy' mode, but I feel it is already easy enough to do that. My guess is, most players don't, because the right amount of challenge is really one of the largest contributing factors to why people play games in the first place - fun.   read

5:25 PM on 10.21.2011

Isaac's Journal

Isaac's Journal

Entry 1.

I don't know how much time has passed. There is no sign of light above me, indicating the opening I used to escape my mother...The air down here is very still. Finding an exit might be difficult, if that is still my goal. There is something smeared across the floor in this room, what looks like directions or a map, but on closer inspection it appears to be gibberish. Did I write this? Perhaps I have always been here. I am starting to forget.


Entry 2.

With no way to tell time, it is impossible to say how long it took me to go through the first door. At least my sense of direction remains intact, which tells me I am heading south. There is fecal matter much too large to belong to the four grubs crawling around, which is slightly unsettling. What worries me even more, though, is the fact I can not smell it. This tells me I have been here for so long I am accustomed to such smells...


Entry 3.

The horrific thing in the middle of the next room hadn't seen me, although missing eyes, logic dictates that I would be safe. Not here. Somehow I know it is watching me, and when I inevitably free it from its rotten prison it will come after me. I have no choice - the exits are sealed. Confrontation is the only way forward. I am terrified, but the creature looks vaguely familiar. I can't quite place it, but it is akin to looking into a hellish funhouse mirror. Crying ever harder with each minute, I prepare to face the nightmarish abomination head on.


Entry 4.

I am getting stronger, although I now know this is no nightmare. Pain is very real in this place - even the flies are a menace to be feared, one having bitten a solid portion off my left ear. I managed to drown it, the bite causing a surge of tears which doomed the fly before it could lay eggs under my skin. I've been rewarded by a room of respite, along with a familiar surface artifact emerging from the ground. It is the first thing I have felt I could safely touch, and while empowering me with confidence, it still felt as cold and metallic as the golden door giving off a false warm glow.


Entry 5.

There seems to be no escape this way, so I have started to dig my out. Most of the obstructions are solid rock, and I have but one explosive, my only choice is to go straight through the grotesque piles of waste. I have hit a wall on all tries. I did manage to find some strength behind one pile, but my moment of happiness gave way to a cruel realization - The stronger I am, the longer I am here. I have not pressed on yet, this dark thought has occupied my mind for quite some time now. The shadow of death is closer. And brighter.


Entry 6.

A hideous creature has confined me in with it. Larger than anything I have so far seen, there appears to be no way out of this room other than the way I came in. Having searched everywhere for an exit, I keep my distance, studying this fly infested horror's habits. It seems to be in the habit of destroying me. Deep down, I have found I have still have the will to live. I better move quickly, this seems to be the source of the monstrous flies riddling all these rooms. Soon, I might not have space to stand in if it keeps up this pace. Escape will have to be a second priority to ending this things reign of this awful place. End it I shall...but how?


Entry 7.

Remembering the artifact I had picked up gave me a glimmer of hope. How could I use it in my favour? It looked incredibly dangerous, I was worried about harming myself, but figured that would be more merciful than death at the abominations twisted, relentless onslaught. Focusing all my energy, I felt the object gather more power around it. I managed to stop crying even, if only for a few seconds, while it unleashed a massive burst of energy right into my enemy. It was so bright, perhaps the brightest thing I had seen, my eyes now are only beginning to readjust to the gloomy unlit basement. Just a couple of stray flies to clean up now, and I can begin to think of how to get out of this place with no doors leading anywhere but into the same rooms I have already traversed.


Final Entry.

Alone again. There is not even a corpse left to remind me something once had some sort of semblance of life. A hatch in the floor has appeared, although its destination is engulfed in pure blackness. Tossing a rock and listening for the impact has failed, the only sound coming from the opening is a faint wail that oscillates between impossible pitches. All other options exhausted, it seems to get up and out I must travel even deeper. It is hard to believe there is anything below where I am now, yet something tells me I am only scratching the surface. Here I leave my journal, before it gets lost in the darkness, but if you are reading it it's probably too late for you as well. You will do well to remember you were not the first, and most likely not the last. I have left you some idols of strength, drink the contents of these heart-shaped containers and you may feel your strength slowly return. With no rope or other means of a slow descent, I have chosen to jump into the abyss in hope that it will lead me to a better place. I wish the same thing for you as well, should you choose to follow my path.

-Isaac   read

8:13 PM on 10.18.2011

Binding of Isaac playthrough video

I've been really enjoying The Binding of Isaac, as are lots of you I'm sure. There is hardly anything bad I can think to say about the game, especially at it's price of 5 bucks (or 6 with the soundtrack which I suggest). I have been having such a great time with it, and because I love Destructoid so very much, I decided to do my first ever playthrough video for you guys in light of the fact that the game is such a great candidate for such a video. If you are on the fence about buying the game, or don't really know what it is about, or even just want to check out a fellow DToid-er playing and talking about it, I hope you'll enjoy. This is the only place I'll be posting about this [ ie DTOID EXCLUSIVE :O ] but really, this was pretty fun having never done anything like this before.
Check it! Out, that is:

(can't embed, right? Or am I just fail?)   read

2:25 AM on 09.18.2011

Relaxation: Thinking Differently

Relaxing for me is thinking differently.

Relaxing can be done many ways, one thing that is relaxing to someone could be a source of annoyance to another, but it's all done for the same purpose. Unwinding, de-stressing, taking your mind off things, relaxing is taking where you were just a second ago and putting yourself somewhere new. Watching a movie, playing a game, reading a good book can all (metaphorically) take you to different places, where you can enjoy a new world's rules and sights for a while and forgetting about your own for a while. Playing games like Portal ("of course I can walk on those light beams. I just can't shoot past the blue energy fields") teach you how a new environment works, with it's own laws and constraints. The upside here is the new environments are usually rich, varied, and entertaining; they stimulate your imagination.

Lots of things to see, lots of things to do

Quick! Run! He's talking about immersion! Absolutely. Exploring the Capital Wasteland in Fallout after classes for the day is great way to relax. I'm the kind of gamer that really gets 'sucked in' to certain games, usually more open ones with a rich world to explore. I can have some fun, feel accomplished, and in the end feel pretty relaxed. Even when attacked or stumbling into a trap and trying to escape, the panic is 'safe' panic, and doesn't stress me out at all (except in most of the Silent Hill series and Creepers in Minecraft). There are exceptions but I find most games are great for releasing stress and relaxing.

What I like about video games, is that unlike any other medium, you really are directly involved. You aren't just watching a character think his way through a situation, you are the character and you have to do the thinking. The Portal games are a perfect example of this. You no longer have to think about bills or work or whatever it is that's weighing on your mind. For a while, you have to think about how to teleport cubes across chasms, where to paint walls (and what color) to reach floating doors, funneling laserbeams through dimensions unknown to press buttons. In most people's daily lives, they don't have to think about things like these (if you do, I'd like a job doing what you do please). Playing a lot of games, though, I am used to thinking in different ways and can unwind looking back and figuring out a test chamber, whereas 'non-gamers' may get stressed at the mechanics or constantly worry about controls and handling character. The more comfortable you are with the mechanics/game world, the more relaxing the actual gameplay can become, you can focus purely on working out solutions. It's like math (using your brain in creative or new ways to arrive at solutions), if math was about shooting digital space soldiers in their uncanny-valley faces.

Shootin' the breeze...err, Pyro.

Team Fortress 2 is another great example. At its most basic, you are choosing which weapons to go shoot others playing the game with and then doing so. Without getting into the ridiculous 'game violence is bad' thing, that alone is relaxing on one level for a lot of people (just look at how many play COD). Then, going deeper, each class has its own distinct personality and with that, a set of dialogue. Together on the extremely well designed maps, it really gives a sense of fighting on a battlefield with other unique personalities. The context sensitive nature of the lines really adds to the experience, random unique dialog lines spoken in situations I can only guess at (streaks, close calls etc). Each time that happens, it's usually right after I have pulled off some sort of nice move, and it's almost a reward that brings even more personality into the game. From the scout's patronizing laugh when you pull of a nice kill, to the giant laser guns on top of the BLU bases, everything is 'believable' in the context of its own world - a place I can go to where I can relax and build some sentry guns.

I could talk TF2 for a while, but it's not the only game or type of game I find relaxing. There have been quite a few games especially in recent years that seem to put the focus on tranquility. Games like Flotilla, a minimalist space combat simulator with a soundtrack of classical piano, the ever-popular Flower, the upcoming Journey and the simpler games such as Fl0w put an emphasis on peacefulness even if you are doing something as chaotic as blowing up space ships. Just like how people choose different genres of movies to watch based on their mood, so too do I choose between types of games (subdued, frantic) depending on how I feel like unwinding. Most days of the week last school year, I could come home after classes and find my housemates on the couches playing Halo. It was great to relax and maybe have a beer or three while blasting bad guys (there was even a daily achievement which was called "Blastin' and Relaxin' ") before getting down to some homework. Getting these quick rounds in was a great way to take my mind off things temporarily, but on busier days where I'd be in the library or a lab all day, coming home and playing some DEFCON or Braid couldn't have felt better. After all, for me relaxing isn't about not thinking, but rather thinking in different and challenging ways, which is why I am and will always be a gamer.   read

1:59 AM on 07.07.2011

Front Page'd!

Very happy with where my blogging is taking me so far, I have always wanted to be on the front page of Destructoid!
Since the post has disappeared from my personal blog, I figured I would just put a link to it so people could still get to it through my profile.

Thanks everyone who commented and enjoyed!!   read

3:49 AM on 07.06.2011

Adventures in saving

Hey all, my name's Nik (or, Telephis on dtoid) and this is my first foray into the world of blogging. I know, I am ashamed enough without you berating me. Been a Destructoid reader and...commentor for quite a while now (love it here) but never really fleshed out my profile or explored other things such as the C-Blogs. This is my attempt to start fixing that! Enough of this intro, I now humbly present my first blog post, which is all about Saving and Save Files in games.

Autosaves are not so much a nuisance in PC gaming, where a quick hit of F6 will save when you want, but in consoles and certain restrictive pc games the game usually dictate when and where you do your saving. Sometimes this can be a brutally implemented system, with save points strewn out so thin you could be playing hours over and over again. I'm sure you have all played games where you have made hours of progress only to die from a cheap shot and having to repeat whole sections over. Even if saving is done automatically every 10 seconds, there is almost always the ver real possibility that it will save milliseconds before a death. In the original Red Faction, I remember getting all the way to the final bit of the game and being so excited to finish it, having thoroughly enjoyed it until that point. The point where, in my infinite wisdom, I had only one save file going and saved it at 5hp right before getting mowed down. I couldn't believe the game had actually let me do that to myself.

The trouble is having save points that are not too far apart to be frustrating, but not too close together to make the game super easy. Seeing a grenade being that has hurled at your feet roll menacingly towards you like the time bomb of death that it is supposed to be, does not provide much more of a reaction than "I'll run away! Damn, it got me. Better try again". Halo was the first game I felt was trying to do something different with saves, to fix these problems. It has save points at specific locations, not too far apart but pretty much at every major event or checkpoint. My revelation came about when I died right after a checkpoint. Loading...see enemy...dead. Loading, see enemy, dead. Loading...etc. I watched in horror as thought I would have to do the whole level over, when on the 5th or 6th load, I came back to...the previous checkpoint!

Shouldn't...have just....saved....!

It was outstanding. Even the previous checkpoint wasn't too far away, and this time I was careful to avoid the same grim fate. Before, when I saw a grenade, then 'Game Saved' pop up in the corner of the screen, that situation would be terrifying. Being stuck in an endless loop for hours, trying to find different angles to jump away so you retain a sliver of your health is not fun (for long). My problems were solved, it seemed, for now I could travel through time. I then got to thinking that I could recreate load-deaths on my own, and wondered what that effect would be like if I were the cause of death, instead of an enemy. I pulled out the scientific method and ran for the nearest cliff upon spawn, plummeting to my demise. After doing this several times immediately after rezzing, my hypothesis proved to be true - I time travelled back to the previous save...where I did the same thing. I never tested how far back I could go, but the knowledge came in handy as I played through the rest of the game. At a part where I need some rockets, but ditched the launcher a while back? Time travel. Out of ammo or took the wrong / harder route? Time travel. Bored? Time travel. Backtracking autosaves solve problems and are fun in themselves, if you find things like that fun, which I clearly do because I am weird like that.

Still, choosing your own savepoint on your own terms (and having multiple slots!) is my preference. Valve games come to mind in this respect, having their own invisible autosave checkpoints in case you are afraid of your F keys while retaining the ability to save and load anywhere. However, this approach certainly does have drawbacks. It can make things way too easy, for one. I feel this way whenever I save ROM states - I can just rewind time and try that missed jump until I make it. No real threat or challenge is presented when every mistake can be corrected with no real consequence. Death is the real motivator in most games, not because death is scary, but because it wastes time. Time spent looking at a death screen, loading the gamestate back up, getting to the point of death from a checkpoint a couple of minutes away. Take that time away, the player is no longer afraid to die, and something of value is lost, namely pressure. Braid did something new with this, focusing on time lost instead of death as a punishment, but that is a whole other discussion.

Not enough save slots when you are super paranoid about the consequences of your nested decisions.

Until single player games do something like MMO's, where you really can't go back, a choice is a choice, the current save systems don't led themselves to true panic when there are bullets flying at your face. A lot of interest has been around 'permanent death' runs, which I find most intriguing, where the player is on the honour system and if they die in the game, they have to die in real life. Joshin', they just have to delete all their saves and start from scratch. It is an interesting concept, actually being pretty logical. If it weren't for mario cementing the concept of extra lives into all videogames ever, it might even be the norm. Well, probably not, but maybe included as an official option in some. Having more dire consequences for death other than going back a save is quite literally a game-changer: being more cautious and conservative in situations where you might normally just run in or make decisions without really thinking. This can reach frustrating levels, of course, on par with save points being hours apart, but at least with perma-death runs, it could be a choice rather than poor design. Consequences for death should be factored in when choosing Easy, Medium, Hard from the difficulty menu, which is something I will write about in my next entry.

Thanks for reading!
-telephis (@nik_SG)   read

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