Technical Difficulties: Some Mother#*!&ers Always Trying to Ice Skate Uphill

[Wrenchfarm brings us a fantastic Monthly Musing blog on how gamers often make games more difficult for themselves — both knowingly and unknowingly. In fact, Wrenchfarm almost perfectly describes how I play virtually every game. There are still a few days left before the end of March, so if you haven’t written a blog yet for this month’s topic, you’re running out of time! — JRo]

Ever make things harder on yourself? I’m sure you have. I bet a lot of gamers do it, sometimes without even thinking about it.

I know at least one example that I’m sure a lot of people can identify with – never using the big guns. Whether you slaughtered innumerable Super Demons in Doom without ever firing the BFG, waded through a corn field thick with Taken in Alan Wake never touching the flare-gun, or refused to slot that amazing rune in any equipment, all because you were always worried about a bigger badder challenge down the road or a slightly better piece of equipment more deserving of the shinny, you know what I’m talking about. Its the inclination of the hoarder. The penchant of the paranoid. I have made so many games so much harder than they needed to be due to this constant desire to save my most powerful and valuable resources in case I need them for something a little later. Never mind the fact that I might have to try an area ten freaking times in a row because I refused to “waste” the rocket launcher ammo or drink the super elixir – the next area might be even worse! The punch-line is of course running right into a stockpile of items you can’t carry since you are at the maximum capacity immediately after finally laying waste to a room using only the default pistol.

I know there has to be other gamers out there that do this too. Gamers who saved every dollar and never bought anything in Rapture’s vending machines only to complete the game with a full wallet and an ulcer that could have been avoided if they just ponied up the dough for a few more armour piercing rounds.

I hesitate to say it because its a point that gets played to death sometimes, but maybe its an old gamer thing. Maybe it comes from being raised on Nintendo Hard games in a time before save games and check points. When you were lucky to get a continue or maybe a password every other level. Back when more often than not failure meant a cold GAME OVER screen and a start back at scratch. In those dark days it was prudent to play things a little safe, see how far you could stretch that last bit of health or make sure to never pick up anything that would replace the spread gun once you got it. These days games are generally a bit more forgiving and that kind of frugality is unnecessary, but the behaviour persists. Of course, that doesn’t explain all the younger gamers, the boys and girls that joined us after the SNES, who cut their teeth on the Playstation yet act in much the same way. Maybe it isn’t a strategic choice, maybe some people are just naturally cheap or paranoid.

Of course some people just get off on seeing just how far they can push it before cashing in their resources. And to me, that is where the more interesting conversation is. The gamers that take what a game has to offer and pick and choose or tailor the game to suit themselves by placing entirely personally enforced rules and limitations on themselves.

You see this behaviour a lot in RPGs, both JRPG and western varieties. Sometimes gamers don’t even realize they are doing it to themselves. Way way back in the SNES days of Final Fantasy 3 (or 6 whatever you like) you had all these characters with special abilities – The Prince with his unique power tool attacks, a fallen retainer with sword techniques, a feral child and a mute freak who could both use a type of mimicry to recreate devastating powers, and even more. All these super powerful character abilities you could bring with your team and use to wipe out any monster who dared to get in your way. But who did I and everyone of my friends use in their party the entire game? Locke, the thief who’s claim to fame was the ability to pinch the occasional item off a enemy. Why use such a weak character when so many others were available? Because Locke was awesome! Who doesn’t love the thief with a heart of gold and a romantic revolutionary streak? His stats might have sucked, but as a character, Locke was the man. And so it goes from those days to the most recent incarnations, players will frequently skip over technically superior characters in favour of a personal affection or attachment to another technically weak one.

Oh Hakan, so low tier, so much fun to play. Don’t ever change… unless they want to give you some buffs, that would be cool.

Even in the hard-nose world of fighting games you see this kind of thinking. Top-tier characters like Ryu, Chun, and Rufus may dominate high level play and be clear choices for anyone looking to win, but that doesn’t stop the occasional slippery Hakan or lumbering Zangief from entering a tournament. These guys knowingly use characters with weaknesses and flaws because something about that character speaks to them. They like the personality, the play style, the challenge of stepping out of the conventional wisdom – something compels them to play a character that gets sneered at by many players. It can be frustrating, humiliating, and disheartening, but they keep at it. Of course, maybe its just the lure of glory, of being the next Gamerbee and proving that “the worst character in the game” can still lay out a righteous whooping in the right hands.

I love games like Oblivion and Fallout, they are so big and so open to personalized play styles that comparing your experience to a friends can seem like comparing two different games. But a lot of that variety comes from purposely making choices that actually limit your character or make the game harder. I know a lot of players went through Oblivion without casting a spell because they wanted to make a pure warrior Orc or Barbarian. Or played a dainty mage that never swung a weapon in anger because physically attacking something would be beneath them (after all, that is what Summoned Skeletons are for). But then you have people that went even more in depth. You have the players that either refused to use fast travel or even modded their game to prevent it, forcing them to walk all over Cyrodil to get anywhere. One of the most popular modifications for Oblivion is Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul, a mod which makes extensive changes to the game. Right off the hop it takes away the level scaling of the default game which made sure enemies were spawned relative to your level, meaning it was very possible to wander straight into a Yeti up in the mountains or find a cave full of Elder Vampire mages ready to nuke your lv 3 Bard in his leather jerkin. Items are heavier, health potions lose their zing, and generally everything is harder and deadlier. If you are looking for a relaxing easy time with powerful items ready to be seized and enemies suited to your characters abilities like the developers assumed players would be, Triple O seems like a kick in the pants. But for a lot of gamers, it or other similar mods became the only way to travel in Tamriel.

Fallout 3 was a game that could be made ridiculously easy if you wanted it to be. A friend of mine was complaining about how much of a breeze it was, saying that for all the talk of scarce resources and humanity hanging by a thread, it was actually pretty easy to survive in the Capital Wasteland. I asked him how he set-up his character and he proudly told me he pumped Strength, Endurance, and Int so he could have the most combat power and skill points per level and took the early perks that boosted combat and skill efficiency. Immediately after starting the game he made his way over to the location of a super powered plasma gun you can get off a quest involving no combat and then he played through the Operation Anchoarge DLC which nets you a suit of unbreakable power-armour. After acquiring this godlike power, he then proceeded to complain as his futuristic knight in shining power armour laid waste to entire Enclave squads with his death ray.

Yeah. Its gonna be easy if you play like that.

And as the on-board targeting computer placed 43 depleted uranium rounds into the chest of an emaciated chem-addict wielding a gold club, I wondered – why is this game so easy?

To me, Fallout 3 only came alive when you played it when an idea in mind. My spindly and frail character spent the entire adventure decked out in the Vault utility suit (red chucks FTW!) throwing bombs and grenades from the shadows at unsuspecting Raiders and landing a ridiculous number of critical hits in melee thanks to a maxed out Luck stat. Of course, if a mutant so much as sneezed on him all the stimpacks in the world were not going to put him back together again. To say the experience was bumpy is an understatement. When things went well, when I could sneak past the first few enemies and seed the area in landmines before starting the party, and sit back as explosions rocked the wasteland as enemies rushing to kill me tripped on the mines, it was divine. When the game placed me in straight up fights or took away my surplus of grenades, things got dicey. Not going to lie, I ended up addicted to Med-X and Psycho more than a few times. It was a glorious gaming experience, easily one of my favourite ever. I played that weirdo, with his stupid clown shoes and idiotic mohawk, for over a hundred hours, through the majority of side quests, the main quest, and DLC. Most of the people I’ve talked to that enjoyed the game did the same kind of thing – intentionally building a character with weaknesses or quirks. There was the modern day barbarian who used a simple sledge hammer to tame the wastes, the pyromaniac who only used fire based weapons, and the cannibal pariah who alienated himself from just about ever town and settlement in the game. Another friend of mine spoke highly of going through New Vegas with minimal combat skills and health, relying on companions to handle the fighting while the player character hacked, repaired, and talked their way into and out of every situation. If you just want to build a strong character in Fallout, its not hard. Pump the combat stats, check a wiki or strategy guide for the location of a few powerful items and stat boosters, and then just nuke the heck out of everything. If you want to make an interesting character though, well, that takes some thought, some effort, and some self imposed limitations on the players side.

The fact that the player has to take the challenge on for him or herself is what really interests me. On the Bioware forums, I found out about a sub-set of Dragon Age players like to do “no-pause” play throughs that rely entirely on real time button presses and meticulously set-up AI companion tactics to see them through battles, completely ignoring the radial menu that lets you pause the combat and issue orders. Needless to say, this makes the game a whole lot more difficult (too much for me!) and its not like there is an achievement or special piece of equipment for doing it. Its just a self imposed challenge some DA players take on themselves to spice up the game. The game never pats them on the back, or doles out some gamer points, or gives them a shinny rank next to their name for the effort. Heck, unless they record all the big battles, other fourm members probably won’t even believe their braggadocio about their Nightmare/No-pause/No-mage game. Its just something they do for themselves.

This kind of play can teach us too. I remember rubbing shoulders with various “concept characters” in City of Heroes. CoH had a very flexible system for developing characters so you could end up with a huge variety of different play styles and tactics. Of course though, some power sets and skills naturally rose to the top, becoming so powerful that it almost seemed like they were broken. These powersets were so good that naturally everyone would subscribe to them. Well, everyone but the concept characters. These were the guys who wanted to play THEIR image of their hero, a subset of the role players who wanted more from the game than just grinding to 50. The ones who said they wanted to play a martial artist who was strictly human, that meant no flying, no super speed, no energy projection, nothing mystical at all. The benevolent deity who could only take powers that could not be used to harm. Or the Tank that really wanted to be a Scrapper. These players passed on things like travel powers, utilities, and so called “necessary” abilities to follow their concept. The min/maxers thought they were crazy. But they were also kind of brilliant. The physical perfectionist of the all natural martial artist showed us that when properly built, the passive swift and hurdle powers could be used to make a character as fast as a super speeder with better mobility and no endurance usage. The “Scranker” became a viable teammate, a kind of blitzkrieg tank that relied on being just tough enough to take the first burst of damage and then killing enemies quickly rather than wearing them down through attrition like the assumed “best” tanks. Odd ball builds like the much loathed Storm Defender turned out to be some of the most powerful and flexible in the game. These players could have just played the game like normal, took the best power choices and had a merry time – and there is nothing wrong with that, I’m not denigrating that experience at all – but there is something great, and at least in my nerdy mind, even romantic about playing a concept character. Rejecting the accepted knowledge of whats best and making your own way according to your own self defined vision of the character. Not every concept character turned out to be a hidden powerhouse, many of them were just gimped sub-optimal builds who spent a lot of time tasting the floor, but even then they were fun to play and play alongside with.

For many games, difficulty isn’t just some option you can toggle in the options menu. It is something that the gamer can take and mould and work with to create the game experience they desire. Whether this means simply picking slightly weaker characters because you like their style, modding a game to put a little edge back on some overly rounded corners, or taking on herculean tasks that nobody but yourself will ever give you credit for, its something you, the gamer can control. And I think that is pretty cool.

Nic Rowen