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December 2008

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Gonzo, Hunter S Thompson

Playing Difficult

N'Gai Croal, one of the most well-spoken commentators on videogames on the interwebs, wrote an interesting article about the need for scaled difficulty levels in videogames - that not every consumer in the medium is looking for a punishing experience, and that the time spent developing advanced difficulties should be reflected in the opposite end of the scale as well.

I happen to agree with this - if a section of a game punishes me too much, I'll likely put it away for the day - and perhaps never make it back.

What I found interesting with the article though was one of the comments that compared the difficulty level of games with the accessibility of great literature. The argument was that as an experiential form, a videogame is depleted by removing the difficulty as you can no longer engage with the content the way it was intended to be engaged with - just as simplifying the language of a great writer would also deplete it (*cough* Abridged Shakespeare *cough*).

I suppose there is merit in this argument - I played through Bioshock on easy the first time through, and it made the whole thing seem a little less epic. There's a few games I've hacked my way through on easy, and it removes some of the drama - a sense of accomplishment is missing, and as an interactive artform, accomplishment is important.

However, the argument is also fatally flawed. I have read some incredible literature, but I cannot claim to have understood and embraced every element of it immediately. For instance, last year I read Nietzsche, but I didn't necessarily understand it. After a study guide though, along with a few essays, and some cross comparisons from critical essays I grasped the words, and the meaning behind them. You could say that I learnt philosophy on easy.*

I like easy settings in games, but if they sometimes remove a sense of accomplishment from a game, they shouldn't. I think of games like Silent Hill 2, one of the greatest games ever seen with a story and subtext that nothing else in the mass-produced end of the medium can come close to matching. Silent Hill 2 offered a puzzle difficulty setting alongside a combat difficulty setting. As it is a game best played for mood, and tension, and the incredible story the differentiation of game elements was a wise and pertinent choice. Silent Hill 2 is a cerebral game, and the combat is not exciting enough to want to make it the focus of the game. Customising one's gaming experience is possibly the most intelligent means of scaffolding an interactive experience for a player.

I use the term "scaffolding" deliberately to extend on the metaphor of Nietzsche as videogame. I teach English, and helping students dissect the language of great literature and achieve understanding requires scaffolding, and assisting them to make meaning. Some kids can "play" English on hard because they are naturally talented - they don't need an "easy" setting for learning The Great Gatsby for example. I can assure you though, that the majority of students do. If teachers only focussed on creating a challenging experience for the "hard" setting to the neglect of the "easy" setting, how would they maintain their jobs?

Game companies should consider scaffolding their experiences in more ways than a single easy setting that makes bad guys die in one hit. Most games are made up of disparate elements and the way they interplay is what creates a gaming experience. By scaling each element separately, a more confident, relevant gameplay dynamic can be created for the majority of players. N'Gai Croal mentions a few games in his article that already do this. Here's hoping we see even more.

And just 'cos I love to pose questions to the crowd - what things from real life did you have to learn on "easy"? Any books that you needed formalised study to embrace? Anything you deliberately learnt on "hard"?

* A friend of mine with qualifications more impressive than my own actually went as far as to say that some things should only be studied with the benefit of a structured program, and the guidance of hundreds of years of scholarly thought. Nietzsche without guidance can be dangerous.


I love definitely the idea of scaling different components of game playing experience separately.

But I think your metaphor for study guides being 'learning on easy' is a little flawed. There's a difference between simplifying the language of great writers as the only form in which the reader encounters it and accompanying the original beauty and fullness of the language with a study guide that allows you to truly appreciate the layers of meaning encapsulated with concision and elegance. As the equivalent of difficulty scaling on games goes, my metaphor would tend more towards, instead of the book, reading the wikipedia page the night before the assignment's due.

As for real life: does NaNoWriMo count as learning writing on easy? Unfortunately, you've still got to replay it all on hard if you want to end up with anything good out the other end...
I had a huge reply and interesting discussion point for this before Firefox ate it...

To precis what I said though - you're right, the metaphor was a bit hamfisted. I guess I was carried away trying to further the metaphor of literature as game, and language as difficulty. The metaphor probably works better when comparing playing a game with a playguide to reading literature with a study guide. Though I think the metaphor stands up when you consider the way study guides are used for different audiences - a Shakespeare guide for Year 10 is a bit different to Uni for instance - which makes it a reasonable cross-comparison to scaled elements of a game. The Uni student might like to set "historical and sociological contexts of Shakespeare" to easy, but play "Language and Elizabethan verse" on hard - while the Year 10 student would play both on easy, with "contemporary fictional links and interpretations" on medium.

Yeah this metaphor gets better and better...

And the wikipedia metaphor - I know with my philosophy as a teacher, wikipedia is activating cheat mode... ;-)

Oh, and NaNo is playing on medium in time trial mode... NaNoEdMo is playing on Nightmare!!!
I have no pithy comments or philosophical musings to add to your discussion today Nash... this is due to the fact that I have logged onto LiveJournal only briefly, to see if you had posted. And oh what an apt post it is.... I just wanted to leave a comment to let you know that I am about to slip my brand new, totally legal *cough*, copy of Silent Hill: Homecoming into a ps3 for the first time and settling back to play it on a big screen high def tv....

Am I evil? Why yes, yes I am. :) I'll be thinking of you when things get cerebral... heh heh.

(yeah I just wanted to squee about this to someone who would actually also think that it is totally awesome that I am getting to play this game, even if it ends up being bleh, as the reviews seem to be ^_^)
Oh... you mean the AMERICAN Silent Hill that's been receiving all the bad reviews. Oh gosh. Aiyee. Woe is me.
Okay, I can no longer play it cool. I envy. I thirst. I want!!!! Indeedily, you are evil...

Cerebral like a GIANT HEAD!!! Oh, you were going for the subtle reference... ;-p