The Pickford brothers were completely bewildered. What Rare had asked was unprecedented, strange and curious. They’d never heard anything like it. Who’d make such a request?
They were Brit veterans of 8- and 16-bit development with dozens of games in their softography, but they were talking to Rare about working on the NES. Rare had demanded something new. They’d explained that the games had to be complete-able. In fact, they required a video of it being played from start to finish to prove it. This was bizarre – developers didn’t complete the games. Players completed the games, and someone overseeing that was unheard of. Half the time games just amped up the speed until either they broke or the players did. That’s just how games were made.
Or so Ste Pickford wryly describes the event years later in a recent blog post. In the years between then and now, there’s been a fundamental shift in our expectations. Once upon a time, games were competitors. Now, primarily, they’re entertainers. They aimed to beat you. Now, to be beaten. Our language says much, really. While we’ve talked about difficulty curves forever, the problems now are “difficulty spikes.” No one ever critiques a game for a difficulty-trough – because the former stops you getting anywhere and the latter is just something you coast through.
Charting this progression is interesting – while the Nintendo approach to games as described to the Pickfords was a major change, one of the hardest lines in the sand was drawn a little later by LucasArts with their graphic adventures. Early adventures reveled in killing the player, often for the most minor reasons. LucasArts realized this kept people from exploring as much as they needed to in order to complete the game – after all, if looking beneath a rock kills you, you’re going to be reticent to take a peek under the next one. Also, it just wasn’t much fun. The attitude spread, but you’ll often still hear developers bemoan the fact that so few gamers actually complete their games. When Valve published their Steam stats from Half-Life: Episode 1, only half completed it – and it was only five or so hours long.
In recent years, the deceptively cuddly LEGO Star Wars took the most radical, almost puritanical take on difficulty. It simply removed death, instead rewarding the gamer for showing greater levels of skill rather than hindering his progress. Jonathan Smith, in a previous article in The Escapist went so far as to describe children’s distraught response to playing a difficult game as “fairly abusive.” By contrast, LEGO Star Wars took great pains to ensure that failure wasn’t merely tolerable – it was impossible.
While few go as far as LEGO Star Wars developer Traveller’s Tales did, we saw a related attitude rise among games that were traditionally for a limited demographic: an attitude I tend to characterize as “entryist.” The math was simple: The cost of making games has risen, but publishers have reached the upper limit of what they can reasonably charge the consumer. This means developers have to work out a way to sell the game to more people while not compromising their core audience in order to stay profitable. Traveller’s Tales achieved this by making LEGO Star Wars easier while maintaining enough depth to satisfy experienced players. Newcomers could have a more basic experience and be lured in, while seasoned gamers could go off and do their own thing.
The results of the entryist movement have been mixed. Compare what happens when you say “Knights of the Old Republic,” which practically beat itself, and “Deus Ex: Invisible War,” which was nigh impossible, in a room full of gamers. Fine-tuning difficulty remains problematic for developers. While it may have been satisfactory for System Shock 2 to sell 250,000 units in 1999, sales numbers like that in today’s development environment would be disastrous. So while Bioshock plays similarly to SS2, it’s far more forgiving if you’re not an experienced first-person gamer. Ken Levine was famously quoted as telling the team he wanted his grandmother to be able to complete it on “Easy.”
Which is all well and good, but there’s a problem with entryism: No one appreciates the top end, since everyone follows the path of least resistance. If “Grandma Mode” is available, hardcore gamers are more likely to waltz through the game than attempt a harder difficulty. There’s no point to putting yourself through a tougher experience if the end result is the same. Fundamentally, the entryist movement has failed – the bottom level has been lowered, but the top level, the level at which games were originally designed to be played, has been weakened in turn. In short, Mass Effect is not Planescape: Torment.
The real victim of the move toward glassy-smooth progression has actually been arcade games, where what they throw at the player can be relatively simple but unforgivingly brutal. And their unforgiving nature is the entire point, because they were balanced to be as such.
Case in point, and what prompted this piece, was my time with Clover’s swan song, God Hand. It’s the sort of swan song that’s is all too aware of the swan’s reputed ability to break a man’s arm with a single beat of its wings: an update of the Double Dragon/Streets of Rage scrolling fighter that kind of wobbles on the edge of tastelessness, then shrugs its shoulders, winks at the camera and jumps off. It’s a modern marvel, mark my words.
It’s also a tad hard. I play a lot of videogames, and I spent longer with at least one boss fight than I did on all of Portal. And while you can turn down the difficulty in theory, in practice you can’t. Easy mode simply isn’t that easy.
But I didn’t care, because, speaking in terms of pure play, God Hand is balanced expertly on the precipice between hard and unfair. You can’t just mash buttons and expect to do well; the game forces you into playing it the way it was designed. The pay off is an amazing high for the relative few able to take it, or, perhaps, the few who need it. And, at least occasionally, I need something like God Hand.
The question becomes, where are you going to get it from? The hard and simple financial math is all over God Hand – in the same way Bioshock had to open up its mechanics to pay for its AAA aesthetics, Clover seemed to have realized that God Hand‘s singular, devoted approach would need to satisfy itself with a smaller audience and a B-movie budget. Its campy visuals are mostly a virtue – but virtue doesn’t sell boxes. Clover’s out of business, after all.
Which means we’ll end up looking further to the edges. We’re used to thinking of niche games falling into genres that don’t thrive in the mainstream. But what we’re beginning to see in the underground is not a matter of genre, but approach. There will be arcade games in the mainstream, certainly, but the enormous budgets they’ll spend will lead to an approach that will leave the almost-masochistic hardcore unsatisfied. They’ll swap aesthetics for aggression, like heroin for methadone. This leaves difficult games in a position equivalent to genuine ’80s metal: ignored by the mainstream and scorned even by the more centralist specialist press, but beloved by those who understand it. Already, it’s probably a self-fulfilling cycle. A review in the lifestyle press of a punishing game will lead to a punishing review. As they skimp on graphics to save costs, realizing they can’t sell enough, the reviews in the mainstream game press will also get nastier, due to our endemic technophillic lust. Those who care about the God Hands of the world are going to have to learn to roll their eyes, like lo-fi music aficionados, and concentrate on their own world devoted to ever-louder games.
To those who are ready to rock: I salute you.