Dragon Age: Origins both was and wasn’t my kind of game. The RPG parts of it were great – BioWare doing what it does best – but the micromanagement needed in the battles left me feeling cold. I didn’t really enjoy the tactical fights, but I put up with it because I was enjoying everything else so much.
All that changed with the demon.
A little before the halfway point of the game, I fought a powerful shape-changing Sloth Demon that stalked the dreams of Circle Tower mages. His first couple of forms were no problem; some shape-changing of my own made short work of them. But once he hit his abomination form, my fate was sealed. I tried dozens of different tactics, but nothing seemed to work, and it wasn’t long before the fight stopped being a fun challenge and became a chore. I couldn’t retreat and reloading my last save would have cost me hours of work, so I did the unthinkable: I turned the difficulty slider down to easy. The demon fell very quickly after that, unable to stand up to the newfound potency of my attacks. The lower difficulty made much of what I didn’t like about the combat disappear and I found myself wondering why I’d been playing it on medium for such a long time.
It was an interesting question and not one that I’d answer for a while. My problems with Dragon Age weren’t because of a lack of skill on my part, but because I had skipped a lot of the side quests and thus a lot of the experience points. I could have gone back and leveled up my party, but honestly, I didn’t want to.
I’d never played games on easy before because I’d never really had the need, and so the idea of simply making the game easier didn’t occur to me at first. When I finally did think of it, I didn’t do it immediately. Thanks to a mix of pride and stubbornness, I tried to kill the demon several more times before I finally admitted defeat.
Once I had, however, I blasted through the rest of the game, and enjoyed myself a lot more than I would have otherwise. After a while, Dragon Age just seemed like one of those games that I was naturally bad at, and turning the difficulty down to easy was unavoidable if I wanted to enjoy it. My pride in my gaming skills had taken a bit of a knock, admittedly, but it wasn’t really a big deal, and certainly wasn’t something I was going to make a habit.
But then I started to play Mass Effect 2, and it become clear that there was more to my “situation” than simply finding DA:O tricky.
Mass Effect 2 seemed almost like two different games to me. The plot was interesting and the characters much more colorful than in the first installment, but, any time there was something to shoot, my interest began to wane. Tracking down the elusive vigilante, Archangel, on the lawless Omega station, or defending a certain Quarian crew member against a court of admirals was a lot of fun, but fighting waves of mercenaries or Geth? That was a different matter altogether.
The combat just felt boring. There was no need to turn it down to easy, because the difficulty wasn’t the problem; I just didn’t really enjoy it. I could see that it was well done, and was a significant improvement on many aspects of the combat from the first Mass Effect, but I didn’t want to do it. What I wanted was to be able to avoid it altogether and just get on with the parts of the game that I enjoyed.
I started to realize that my priorities were changing, and that how I played and enjoyed videogames were changing along with them. Videogames have always been one of the central parts of my life, but I’ve never been the kind of guy who played for the challenge.
To me, videogames have always been a narrative medium, where the actual play was secondary to the story being told. I’d always been more interested in seeing where the story went, rather than getting headshots from the other side of the map or achieving a two-hundred hit combo. I’d never really played on easy before, but I didn’t really go out of my way to play on hard either.
Even as a kid, seeing the ending was more important to me than getting the high score and games that were all about skill barely interested me at all. As I have grown older, my desire for my skills to be constantly tested has all but disappeared and the emphasis that I place on story has massively increased. I’m not saying that I want to skip the gameplay entirely, but it takes less and less these days to frustrate me.
With Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, the gameplay was actually intruding on my fun. I wanted to be talking at the Landsmeet or finding out what made Miranda tick, not pausing every few seconds to reissue orders to Alistair and Morrigan, or crouching behind low walls, taking pot shots at combat droids.
Having realized this about myself, though, is actually quite liberating. I pre-emptively turned down the difficulty on Heavy Rain, for example, because I was more interested in finding out who the Origami Killer was and rescuing Ethan’s son than I was in tying my hands in knots during the quick time events. (Although thanks to the wording at the beginning of the game, I mistakenly set the game on hard anyway. Note to David Cage: Being familiar with the PS3 controller is not the same thing as wanting to push ninety gajillion buttons to climb a muddy embankment.) Knowing exactly what I wanted from a game, and being able to take steps to make the experience that much more appealing was pretty exciting.
My newly discovered self-awareness has a downside though. When I’m soured on a game that has good gameplay, but a lackluster story, it’s frustrating because I know exactly what’s happening. When BioShock 2 came out, the premise piqued my curiosity, but the storytelling just didn’t seem up to scratch. It wasn’t bad per se, it just wasn’t as good as the original, which is hardly a crime. While I still wanted to find out what happened in the end, I wasn’t deeply involved in the story by any means.
The problem is that BioShock 2 has the type of gameplay that I would normally appreciate. It has a great deal of intricacy and depth, and is a lot more immediate and visceral than Dragon Age or Mass Effect 2. But I just couldn’t enjoy it. I’m not the type of gamer that can have fun with the gameplay in isolation, not in a single player game at least. Just like with the BioWare games, there’s nothing really wrong with BioShock 2, but all I did was rush through the admittedly fun gameplay as quickly as possible to see how the comparatively weak story ended.
If a task wasn’t connected to the main story, I didn’t do it. I stopped looking for audio diaries or ammo and gave up on tactics, attacking with wild abandon, smashing things with my drill arm when I ran out of bullets. I didn’t even really try to get ADAM, and I just “rescued” the Little Sisters the second that I killed the Big Daddies protecting them.
I finished the game, got the “good” ending, and moved on. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever go back to BioShock 2, because the story didn’t grip me enough to want to play through it again. I’ve had fun with the multiplayer mode, but the single player is like a closed book to me now. The worst part is: I know that that has nothing to do with the game.
There’s a reason that I choose to spend my time playing games rather than watching movies or reading books. With games, I can be an active part of the story, even if my role is just to “shoot the bad guys.” I only have so much time to devote to playing games, and, ideally, I’d like to enjoy that time as much as possible. If that means playing games on easy, then that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Logan Westbrook could totally do a 200 Hit Combo if he wanted to …