Chungking Espresso

Our Amps Go To Eleven

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on April 27, 2009

I don’t have the time right now to give this a full treatment, and I don’t have a napkin to scribble this on… but I’m feeling a manifesto coming on. I’ve been writing and researching about TWEWY for the past few days, and one thing that struck me is how different the game plays based on how you stack your difficulty (there are two different sliders for this!). I also remember that when I was writing about Left 4 Dead I felt the need to make it clear that I was analyzing the game from the perspective of someone playing on Expert. I feel that, often, the only way to fully experience the level of balance and design that has gone into making a game is to play it through on the hardest difficulty you can manage. Charles Pratt recently reflected on what playing Gears of War 2 on Hardcore has made him realize: that the cover mechanic is superfluous (perhaps on every difficulty except Insane).


One of the problems with the hardcore/casual dichotomy is that it’s colonizing: that is to say, there are gamers who identified as hardcore way before we started making this distinction. Hardcore in the traditional sense refers explicitly to players who play games on the hardest difficulty, often quitting the game and starting a new playthrough if they die. L.B. Jeffries and I recently talked to a bartender in Savannah for about two hours on the subject of his hardcore playing of Diablo II. Now, I’m not saying everybody needs to play as a true hardcore gamer in order to appreciate the level of complexity in games, but I do think there should be a little more of a “put up or shut up” attitude in academic, personal, and journalistic reviews of games. The example Pratt sets is, well, exemplary: every traditional review of a game should list the difficulty that one played on (as well as the time it took and how long the average play session lasted).

Remember when Stephen Totilo got totally destroyed by Soulja Boi, to the point where he could barely beat the young rapper in games he hadn’t even played before? I see way too much of this at school, where I easily “out-gamer” a lot of my colleagues. Here’s the manifesto I’m declaring for all my fellow academic and Brainy gamers, it is rather short (I must admit): Play It On Hard.

P.S. Please tell me if somebody has already written on these topics (how difficulty sliders influence how one writes and thinks about a game, besides Juul’s recent paper that I need to get to reading soon). Also, anybody wanna try to take me in Halo 3?

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18 Responses

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  1. Bobby said, on April 27, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    I whole-heartedly disagree. Playing a game on hard is not getting the most out of a game. I’ve been playing games since I was five and still don’t enjoy the higher difficulties of a game because I’m just not that good. I get more pleasure out of learning than mastery. Not to say there aren’t some examples where I’ve wanted to master a game, but that different difficulty levels exist for a reason.

    This is the same reason I don’t play games competitively and rarely play online. I like games with just enough challenge to make me feel I’ve earned it, but I’m against the group of people who think that games are too easy these days. If I shell out $60 on Gears 2, I want to be able to beat it. If I’m going to be faced with insurmountable odds, I at least want to know before hand (Mega Man 9).

    I agree that reviewers should talk about the difficulty level they played on, but I take Giant Bomb’s stance. They review games at the level most people play them, which is the normal or average difficulty. Reviewing Gears 2 on Insane, for example, has little relevance to the general game playing population.

    I wish we could just get rid of difficulty settings in games all together. If you want to make a hard game, go ahead and make and market a hard game. That’s what Mega Man 9 did really well. It’s not hard because Mega Man takes more damage when hit, it’s hard because the stages are designed to test reflexes, memorization, and problem solving. Most games are just artificially hard through tweaked numerical values if you choose a more difficult setting: more enemies, less time, less ammo, greater damage. Are a handful of changed values really that much more important?

    Saying “Play it On Hard” means that harder difficulties are more important than easier difficulties. Greater complexity might reveal the dynamics of the underlying mechanics more concretely in its execution, but complexity is not the same as importance. If you’re planning on writing about the intricacies of Starcraft and then play it on easy, clearly you’ve erred. We should realize difficulty might be relevant, but that’s certainly not always the case.

    If you’re going to write about a game, should you have played it? Yes. But I don’t particularly like “gamers” and don’t believe you need to be good at a game to talk about it. This is especially true when you compare academia to popular criticism. Academics bring much more to the table than just an intimate understanding of hit-boxes and frame-counting. Yes, deep knowledge of a game allows us to write about nuances and specifics, but not every essay or paper calls for that. People who teach do not do so because they are the best what they’re teaching. They teach because they can extract insights that are often hidden from the best practitioners.

  2. Simon Ferrari said, on April 27, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    I explicitly state that you should “play it through on the hardest difficulty you can manage.” The Play It On Hard thing is just a fairly aggressive catch phrase to sum up the idea. If you can’t play a game on hard, then normal is your hard mode.

    “Saying ‘Play it On Hard’ means that harder difficulties are more important than easier difficulties” is a ridiculously bad reductio. I’m saying you should push yourself to your own limits, because (like you say) playing some games on easy just to get through them and “get the bigger picture” to write about them really isn’t doing the games justice.

    I can’t really meet you eye-to-eye on your point about difficulty sliders. I advocate more granular sliders to allow every player to create their own flow state for any given game. That’s just the populist in me, I suppose. The idea that a game should set such a high price of entry just doesn’t make sense to me (still need to play MM9). Pratt’s post shows exactly what tweaking numerical values does–it makes the difference between whether a mechanic is even valid or not taking into account the player’s skill level.

    What I have taken away from your comments is the fact that I needed to hone the scope of my demand–you’re right, there’s a particular kind of write-up that this mentality is useful for. Good show, Bobby!

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 27, 2009 at 7:36 pm

      Also, it’s nearly impossible for a reviewer to play a game at “the level most people play them,” because most people don’t actually finish the games they play.

      And you do know that manifestos are for creating ideologically radical straw men, right?

      • Bobby said, on April 27, 2009 at 8:17 pm

        I would actually love it if a reviewer just “gave up” in the middle of the game. It would save them a lot of unnecessary time on the bad games many of the big websites are forced to review. Something like, “yeah, I finished about half of this thing and just couldn’t stand it any more.” That’d be a real honest review right there.

    • Bobby said, on April 27, 2009 at 11:21 pm

      I’d be interested in hearing why you think harder difficulties do the game justice.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on April 27, 2009 at 11:25 pm

        How about I save that for a post after I finish this paper for Ian? Did you see the massive postmortem I just finished? Fuck my life.

      • Bobby said, on April 27, 2009 at 11:48 pm

        I should have elaborated and said that “in time,” not tonight. My blog commenting has gotten real rusty since I stopped caring to follow-up on most posts. Brain not work much good no more.

      • Krystian Majewski said, on April 28, 2009 at 6:17 am

        Corvus did that with The Witcher.

        I’m still torn about weather it was a good idea. On the one hand when I read a review, I want the critic’s opinion which also includes the possibility for the critic to give up on a game.
        On the other hand, I’m expecting the critic to be an expert on his subject. I don’t need to read a superficial glance. I can get that on my own.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on April 28, 2009 at 7:34 am

        Ooooh, I bet that review earned him some snarky comments from at least one other prominent member of his SIG. Good for him! I think his idea to give up and admit it was great, but I have to admit that the way he justified based on the wording of his contract-“I was paid to write about my experience”-felt a bit off. He claimed to be able to tell what the storytelling style was, yet he ignored most of the narrative. Isn’t part of how you tell a story the fact that you unfold it in a particular manner over time?

  3. Simon Ferrari said, on April 27, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Blargh, too many ideas flooding into my head. This is why this issue became important to me: because my very ability to “understand the game at a deep level” while playing TWEWY relied on the difficulty I played the game at. I think the game is a remarkable achievement in tight coupling of control, mechanics, and narrative–but this just doesn’t show if you fly through the game on easy.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 27, 2009 at 8:25 pm

      It won’t let me reply to your second comment because WordPress is stupid. I bet that happens a lot more than you would think. Sounds like we need more transparency in the game review profession!

      You can always kinda tell when the reviewer played a game half-assedly. It’s when they write shit that doesn’t square and then claim the review had to be short for the sake of page economy.

  4. Nick LaLone said, on April 27, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    I’ll take you on in Halo (i’ll lose horribly) but i bet it’d be fun. We should take it to Carcassone.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 28, 2009 at 11:05 am

      Let’s do it, man! Hardcore Carcassone: if you lose, you have to burn down your house in real life! It’s like Russian roulette on a board game! Breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law.

  5. Charles Joseph said, on April 29, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Hey Simon, thanks for the kind words!

    As you may guess I tend to agree with you that reviewers should state what level of difficulty they’re playing when they review a game. Especially when this changes the game’s rules in some basic way (as it does in Gears 2, where on Harcore your AI buddy doesn’t revive you).

    However, I’m not sure that it follows that they should say how long they played the game. Ideally, I think that they should play the game until they understand it, which might take hours or it might take years. How long it takes to grok something is different for different people.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 29, 2009 at 12:15 pm

      Ah yeah, I totally didn’t support the part about time spent with in argument. I guess the basic idea there, which wouldn’t make sense in your 300 word reviews, would be to show the level of excitement a traditional reviewer had when playing through a game. The length of each play session says a lot when you consider that a lot of reviewers are completely jaded when they play through some games. It would add a level of complexity to their praise or criticism of the game. Though, yeah, I need to think about it some more, because for instance an academic usually has to stop and take a copious amount of notes on what they’re playing.

  6. Tom said, on April 29, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Hey, what up. I think you’re right about playing as far as you can, diffifulty-wise. I like to try and push myself, it makes things more interesting and tense. BUT we shouldn’t have to, as you said.

    There’s always that time where I come up against a silly game roadblock, can’t get past it on Hard, and realize that I have to go back to the damn beginning to play on Medium. This happened for Dead Space (the first room where you have to drag the artifact with the giant tentacle claws — I was out of money, ammo, and health for guns that could long range kill the tentacles. I literally could kill everything else in seconds with my upgraded force gun, but could not kill the damn tentacles!)

    Anyway, I think it’s honest and all to say that you didn’t finish the game, but then, for me, it’s not a review, it’s an “impressions” or “thoughts” column. You don’t see movie and book reviewers stopping halfway through and calling it a “review.”

    Sure, I stop playing sucky games all the time, but I’d call it something besides a review, then.

    Oh, and you’re right that difficulty can change experience/comprehension. I’d argue that the maligned Witcher required a hard playthrough. In fact, the game tells you that you “don’t need” potions and most spells on easy, or really on medium. On Hard, you have to play every part of the game to survive (and it takes away combat aid), making it a completely different experience. If you didn’t play that game on hard, you were playing a different game than me. That’s weird to say.

    That was long. Sorry, I just caught up on this who response thread, and wanted to wave my hands around a bit.

  7. […] weird happened. It is actually an good example of what my fellow blogger Simon Ferrari wrote – sometimes you can’t really make a judgement of a game if you haven’t played it on […]

  8. Robyrt said, on May 4, 2009 at 10:29 am

    This really shouldn’t be an across-the-board decision. Just off the top of my head, there are 2 groups:

    Games which are increasingly fun at high difficulty:
    Fighting games
    Music games
    RTSes in skirmish mode
    Games in genres you’re already good at
    Games with awful balancing (Silver)

    Games which high difficulty ruined for me:
    RTSes in campaign mode
    Third-person action games (Devil May Cry)
    Atmospheric games (Bioshock)
    Grand strategy games (Civilization)
    Games with bad save systems (Dead Rising)

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