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Game Difficulty - What Makes You Play Again?

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Areala

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Retromags member Softballchic and I spend a lot of time talking most nights, and it's often about video games: what we like, what we dislike, and what we're really good at. Last night the topic of achievements/trophies came up. On the PS3/Vita/PS4 model, acquiring every other trophy in a game rewards you with a final achievement, a Platinum trophy, which showcases that you've not just finished the game, but COMPLETED the game. By the time you acquire a Platinum in most games, there should be little ground left unexplored.

I only have three games in my collection which I have enjoyed to the point I went after the Platinum: Borderlands, Fallout 3, and Dead Space. Of those three, only Dead Space requires you to complete the game at the highest difficulty setting in order to earn the reward. Her question for me was why Dead Space prompted me to not only attempt but complete a play-through on "Impossible", and what made me inclined to do so for that game versus the many other games in my library that reward you for playing at a higher difficulty. Why, indeed?

I had to think about it for a couple of minutes, but I slowly worked out and talked through my answer with her as I gathered my thoughts. I did it for Dead Space because Dead Space made me think my way through the challenge.

Floating Corpse

Dead Space is one of the greatest, most atmospheric survival horror games of all time, and at "Impossible" difficulty (which isn't unlocked until you've beaten the game once), it gives you absolutely no quarter. Ammo is scarce, enemies have more health, and dish out significantly more damage to Isaac when they attack. A sequence early on in the very first level has you running from your first enemy encounter since you're unarmed; hectic on Easy or Normal during your first play-though, it becomes downright murderous on "Impossible" as a single mistake will result in that Necromorph tearing off your head mere minutes into play. Why would I do this to myself?

Dismemberment

The answer is: "Because Dead Space understands difficulty balance far better than most other games, and requires the player to make active observations about the world around them in order to counter-balance that difficulty." In other words, Dead Space gives you all the materials you need to create a working hypothesis of how its world works, and from that infer what may be required of you if you set the game to a higher difficulty level. Not only that, it requires you to specifically adopt a play style which seems counter-intuitive in order to have the best chance of survival, and chances are the first time you play Dead Space, you will do exactly the opposite. An "Easy" run through Dead Space and an "Impossible" run through Dead Space are two completely different animals.

Necromorph

At this point, it's impossible to discuss playing the game without some spoilers. I'm not going to give away the ending or anything, but I am going to talk about weapons, encounters, and tactics for dealing with some generic situations which may spoil the tension if you know about them beforehand. You've been warned.

So Dead Space does the typical difficulty spike like every other developer does when it comes to Impossible" mode: enemies soak up more hits, and they hand out violent beatings the same way McDonalds now serves breakfast: all day long. The difference is, that's where most games stop with the whole "balance" thing. If an enemy you can kill in ten seconds on Normal takes fourteen seconds and twice as much ammo on Hard, many developers think that's all it takes to challenge the player. And I don't mean one or two devs, I mean nearly all of them, even some of my favorite studios which made some of my favorite games. This is how Naughty Dog handled Uncharted. Bethesda's done the same with every Elder Scrolls game since Oblivion. Bungie and Halo. iD Software with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. The list goes on. But isn't that kind of lame? If harder modes in your game simply force the player to fight longer and expend more ammo to achieve the same end result, then what are you really doing except making the player endure something more uncomfortable?

Plasma Cutter

Some developers, like Konami with Silent Hill 2 and 3, offer better choices. Those games let you fine-tune the experience, giving separate difficulty levels for combat and puzzles, which is awesome since Silent Hill's combat mechanics are a little on the loose side, and it lets you enjoy at least three different play-throughs where you can be surprised (and intimidated if you don't know your Shakespeare) by the puzzles. I don't mind this as an option, but it does make for a lot more work on the developer side, since now they have to come up with three or four times the number of puzzles they would traditionally.

Dead Space (and I'm only talking about the first game here, because holy hell do parts 2 and 3 fly off the rails at this point) handles the difficulty transition so elegantly you might not notice anything beyond the more powerful enemies, so let me point out how it succeds where so many other games fail. Dead Space requires the player to figure out the rules of the game's world, and adapt to fit them. For instance, my first playthrough was similar to everyone else's: I was looking for new weapons, anxious to walk around with a full arsenal of three or four guns/tools I could swap out depending on the circumstances. Because of that, I got ammo drops for all my stuff, and it seemed like the game handed out ammo in a random fashion: this locker had pulse rifle clips, this storage bin had fresh pack of blades for my ripper, and this guy dropped a canister of fuel for my flamethrower. By the end of the game, I had grabbed every weapon from the shop, had ammo for all of them locked away in my Storage area, and felt like a roving badass capable of taking on the world. This is exactly how the developers expected you to play the game for the first time, and if you try playing this way on "Impossible" you will watch yourself get torn limb from limb in a continual orgy of carnage because it will. Not. Work. This will come as a vicious surprise despite the developers giving you fair warning about it in three different ways. Were you paying close enough attention to pick up on them? Because I sure as hell wasn't my first time through.

The first is the presence of the "One Gun" trophy, a reward for finishing the game using nothing but the Plasma Cutter. By its very nature, this trophy's existence relays a crucial fact to an observant gamer: it is possible to finish the game using nothing but the very first weapon you find. This may sound the same as beating Resident Evil using only the knife, or Silent Hill 2 with nothing but the nail board, but it's not even in the same galaxy for three reasons: the plasma cutter is an obscenely powerful and accurate weapon in its own right; it can be upgraded throughout play using your limited supply of power nodes to do more damage, hold a larger clip size, and reload faster; and playing without the other weapons allows you to focus on upgrading it to the exclusion of everything else but your own suit, ensuring you can make it powerful enough to keep it viable though all twelve chapters. A Knife-only Resident Evil run, on the other hand, gives you no way of turning your blade into a zombie-dismembering, one-size-fits-all tool of the apocalypse.

Dead Space Inventory

The second is something you're likely to notice only if you're making a "One Gun" run, or are very observant when playing normally. With very, very few exceptions, the game always drops ammo for the weapons you are currently holding. There are a couple places where you will always get a pulse rifle clip or a rack for the line gun whether you're armed with them or not, but otherwise the game will only spawn ammo for the weapon(s) in your inventory. In other words, the more guns you lug around, the less chance you have of getting the ammo you need right then and there. At lower difficulties, this isn't a problem, since you can always spend money at the various shops to load up. On Impossible, this is a death sentence. Money spent in shops needs to go towards power nodes and upgraded rig suits, not more ammo for your oversize arsenal. Ironically, though it sounds like the worst idea in the world, one of the best ways to tackle Impossible mode is to limit yourself to just the plasma cutter, thus earning both trophies at the same time.

The third is Stasis. Your first time through the game, Stasis feels like such a gimmick, one the devs used to give you a new way of solving puzzles. Can't get through that short-circuiting door because it slams too quickly? Hit it with Stasis and run on by. Need to slow down a rapidly-spinning metal object so you can grab something behind it with your Kinesis attachment? Stasis to the rescue. Using it on enemies is practically an afterthought, with a couple of exceptions for a boss fight here and there, and up until the last chapter or two it honestly feels like cheating since it turns otherwise normal fights into "shooting fish in a barrel"-style carnival games. And while you can upgrade your Stasis using some of your valuable power nodes, it's hardly necessary considering how rarely you use it in life-threatening situations, how freely the game drops Stasis recharge packs, and how frequently you encounter the recharging stations after points when you've used your Stasis to get past a particular obstacle. Only a complete screw-up requires as much Stasis as the game implies you need, right? You can see where this is going. Only a complete screw-up requires as much Stasis as the game implies you need on the lower difficulty settings. On an Impossible playthrough, that Stasis meter on the back of your suit is all but a second health bar, because if you're not using it, then you're taking more damage than necessary, and if you're taking more damage than necessary, you're spending money on health packs instead of better armor, and that means you're dying. Those power nodes which feel wasted on Stasis upgrades during a standard run? Those are among the most valuable improvements you can make on Impossible, because mark my words, those recharge stations you ran by laughing at before will be the only thing saving you from violent dismemberment this time around.

Medical Center

Dead Space encouraged me to earn the Platinum not because it made the game harder, but because Impossible mode fundamentally altered how I needed to approach the game, thus making it an intellectual as well as a physical challenge. Its hard parts seem insurmountable when you start, but only until you re-wire your playing style to compensate. It's more than just making enemies tougher, it's forcing the player to pay attention, acknowledge their limitations, then turn around and use those limitations to their advantage. You don't brute force your way through Impossible mode; trying that shit will get your spine stomped into the deck plates. You finesse your way through Impossible mode, which in turn makes you feel like even more of a bad-ass once you've finished.

SMACK

So what video games have you gone back to experience at higher difficulties? And did you enjoy playing them, or was your experience one of frustration and/or annoyance? Let me know in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading these ramblings from your humble Warrior Nun. :)

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I'm usually a love-em-and-leave-em game player (too many games in the sea to spend time playing on ALL the difficulty levels), but if a harder difficulty offers something the others don't, I'll play that one. There's nothing worse than finishing a game only to realize that you didn't see the real ending because you weren't playing on the hardest difficulty level. Warn me of that in advance, dammit!

The first game that I enjoyed playing at all difficulties was Goldeneye. The different mission objectives made it feel as if I was having a different experience each time rather than just playing the same mission with tougher enemies.

On a related note, the original PC version of Monkey Island 2 is the first game that compelled me go back and play the easy mode to see what wasn't included. Described on the box as "normal mode - for game reviewers," the easy mode had different solutions to a lot of the puzzles (or took them out altogether), making it sort of entertaining to breeze through after having finished the more difficult mode (which is actually the real "normal" mode).

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Points for mentioning the masterpiece that is Silent Hill 2.

I'm a pretty casual gamer... ....actually wait, that doesn't describe me at all. I've been playing video games for 33 years and they're my favorite hobby ever, so I guess I can be considered more of a hardcore gamer. ...Actually, forget these stupid labels altogether. Let's start over.

I love playing video games, but I love playing them for the sense of comfort, excitement, immersion and fun that they provide. I generally don't go in for challenge. That's not to say that I don't like to be challenged (I refuse to lower the difficulty of Alien: Isolation to anything below expert and will probably never pass the first encounter with the Xenomorph as a result), but so many people look at challenge in different ways. Some gamers view multiplayer competition as the only true challenge. Others look at a game like Dark Souls, with its legendarily merciless difficulty, as the best kind of challenge. Others like to have their brains massacred by puzzlers. Me? Idunno. I just like to have fun.

What makes me come back to a game usually isn't the sense of challenge, but rather the sense of atmosphere, exploration, and the sheer joy of gameplay. While I definitely felt a rewarding sense of accomplishment when I completed the %&^#% water temple in Ocarina of Time, what I take most from my experience of playing the game was the joy of my first 3D open world, the satisfaction of technical advances like the lock-on camera, and the fun of navigating creepy dungeons. While I felt undeniable excitement upon figuring out what to do next in my beloved Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, what thrilled me most about both games was the sense of location and the degree of interaction that I was allowed to have with them. The puzzles of Silent Hill 2 make it a more interesting and challenging game, but it would still be a landmark of atmosphere and storytelling without them. I've played all of these games many times over, well past the point at which I'd become familiar with what to do and how to do it, because the experiences are just that entertaining.

Toejam and Earl has hardly any challenge at all. Mega Man 2 can be beaten in an hour. The Sims is.... ...I don't think there IS such a thing as challenge in The Sims. But what all three games have in common is the sheer presence of "it", that intangible quality that makes a game just plain fun to dive into. And at the end of the day that's what will keep me coming back to a game, even if my membership in the red-blooded American male club would prefer that I attribute it to the rugged victory of dudely conquest instead.

Challenge can be a really good thing - it's nice to feel like you've accomplished something or overcome an obstacle, after all - but for me, challenge is just one of the many building blocks that can be used to make a great game. If it's there then great. Some people want as much as they can handle, and more power to them. But at the end of the day none of it will amount to anything if the game isn't fun.

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Dead Space is without a doubt the best third person shooter since RE4: perfect mix of gameplay and horror. Lately I've been trying to platinum my games recently. I already platinum Transformers FoC, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure All Star Battle, Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection, and I've gotten every trophy for a VF2, Daytona USA, MK Arcade Collection, Marvel vs Capcom Origins, Galaga Legions DX, X-Men Arcade, Simpsons Arcade, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, Super Hang On, Marvel Puzzle Quest, Gunstar Heroes, Doom Classic Complete Collection, Sonic the Fighters, and LOL even Playstation Home.

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I like it when games force a paradigm shift on me, this happens almost exclusively with Japanese games, for some reason. Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox was punishing, but the game is trying to teach you the "right" way to play it, and once you discover the nuances and subtlety of the gameplay, you're hooked.

Resident Evil did that too in the late 90s; I hated it at first, then realized it was kind of a point-and-click adventure gone 3D, with added action.

Super Mario 3 seemed impossible at first, finding out the secret items, and gaining extra lives makes the game seem manageable; you learn to go with the flow, letting the game teach you. I've always been amazed at such great game design.

I still consider 2004 Ninja Gaiden a very underrated work of art. It's amazing. The quirky Tomonobu Itagaki deserves a lot more respect.

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