Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Value of Difficulty: Why Games Are Better When They Make You Mad

It’s a common theme nowadays to hear that games aren’t what they used to be, that they’re just so much easier now. There’s no more exploring the fantasy worlds of Golden Sun with only a tenuous understanding of dungeoncrawling and no internet to consult at every obstacle, or the reflex-based gauntlet that was Turbo Tunnel in Battletoads, or rationing your finite number of lives as you leapt over Goombas, Piranha Plants, and bottomless pits alike. There are autosaves, easy modes, checkpoints, and in general no real sense of loss when you lose. Take the latest Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, for example, as there are no true penalties for dying. You get your equipment back and simply reappear right outside the area you died, or even a few moments before you died in the middle of the fight, and you simply try again.

And to be honest, that makes for a much more relaxing experience. No longer does a misstep at the final stage of a boss make me redo the final dungeon and the likely multi-stage boss fight in its entirety, only to start failing at different spots as I become frustrated and attempt to rush through it. Because, if anything, that’s just too much of a time investment for me to afford anymore. And not just me, but most people that identify as gamers, as the most popular demographic is 18-34 year olds that buy their own consoles and, presumably, have their own lives and responsibilities outside of work, like friends, family, or children, and can’t afford to spend hours upon hours reloading saves to catch a legendary Pokémon or trying to find the glowing weak points on a giant boss. Games that are too frustrating or too punishing could tend to scare this demographic away, an experience I’ve had playing the Dark Souls series.
I am indeed a scrub, in that sense, as despite multiple attempts and entirely new saves I would always end up getting stuck in Undead Burg at one point or another, mildly frustrated and unmotivated at my inability to progress and, not finding any real way to do so, I quit. The nagging voices in my head that kept mentioning other things I should really do temporarily abated, as the time I spent messing around stabbing the same skeletons over and over again was time I could’ve spent taking care of things around the house, reading a book I’d meant to finish a while ago, or spending time with my family and loved ones. Any number of things needed done, really, and all I was doing was mindlessly banging my head against the wall?
I’d never come back to Dark Souls, since when it comes down to it, I’m just not that good at reflex-based games, but what I would eventually find was a game called Darkest Dungeon. It bears a few similarities to Dark Souls, mainly a dark-fantasy theme, but its lore is actually much more similar to that of Bloodborne, a game very similar to Dark Souls made by the same studio. They both draw heavily from H.P. Lovecraft, with evidence of tendrils, tentacles, and otherworldly cosmic horrors in full display, but in Darkest Dungeon you take a party of four heroes (random names being applied to classes like the Jester, the Crusader, and the Graverobber) to delve into... well, dungeons. And just like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, it’s also extremely difficult.
Image result for darkest dungeon warning screen

In fact, it’s so difficult that the game comes with the above warning, letting prospective players know that it’s not for the faint of heart. They actually even had to add an “easy” mode (Radiant, keeping the darkness theme going) that, while still difficult, reduces the amount of time players need to put into the game. But still, expect your heroes to die.

But before I go further, the world of Darkest Dungeon is this: you operate as the Heir, who is Heir to a parcel of land somewhere in Europe (possibly France?) in a roughly medieval timeframe, left to you by the Ancestor—who, in meddling with eldritch power, met a grisly end and corrupted the entire region of the Hamlet. You take over rule of the Hamlet and begin assembling and training teams of heroes, guiding them as they venture into crypts and evil woods alike, growing in strength and experience, and, eventually, perishing. Because some will die, and in my experience, it’ll be those you liked the best or needed the most.

Currently, in-game, I have an overabundance of fighters but too few healers or supporters, meaning that I have to sit on my legendary explorers as I again go through low-level dungeons to raise up healers and jesters. Because the damage in Darkest Dungeon isn’t just physical, it’s mental: heroes suffer stress damage from critical hits, certain attacks, and other debilitating events (the coral is abrasive and unsettling). In low-level dungeons, this is negligible, but in higher-level dungeons it quickly cause heroes to break. And when they break, it’s not pretty; first, they experience a mental breakdown, abusing teammates, refusing healing, and throwing themselves in front of the enemy, and if their stress continues to mount they have a heart attack, leaving them on Death’s Door.

Image result for darkest dungeon warning screen
An example of when a hero reaches one-hundred stress. (source)

And what’s more, stress damage doesn’t heal in between excursions. It will reset to 100 (200 being when a heart attack occurs), but the abusive tendencies and stress stay until you’ve paid someone to take care of them for a week, whether that be in a brothel or a confessional booth. This costs gold, but most importantly, prevents you from relying on the same few heroes, requiring a greater time investment to train multiple teams, each with their own goals and balance.

Beyond stress, there are also other random encounters—the Collector (the King in Yellow), the Shambler (not truly random), and hosts of random enemies that can easily spell doom for the unprepared. I get attached to characters I play in games like these, and at first intended to never let one of my characters die—something I was cured of after multiple party wipes were there were no survivors. Tabraham, Reynauld, you are not forgotten.

But I forgive the game for this, because honestly, games are best when they’re difficult. It’s not that relaxing games like Breath of the Wild don’t have a place, because sometimes you just want to be immersed and explore, something I also genuinely like about Minecraft. But those games rarely leave lasting impressions on me, while games like Darkest Dungeon or Dark Souls bring out your mettle—how much time are you willing to invest to beat this challenge? Are you reflexes and strategy up to the test to actually beat it, especially without help? What will you find out about yourself in trying to overcome this arbitrary challenge?

Given that Dark Souls and Darkest Dungeon are immensely popular, of course, I know that there are a good deal of people that agree with me—have you had a frustratingly enjoyable experience like me?

1 comment:

  1. I've always been enticed by the idea of harder to play and more mentally challenging games, like these, but honestly, I don't think I would know what to do?
    I'm a Elder Scrolls-Dragon Age girl, I like my autosave and I like being able to go back. YEah, I know it doesn't mirror the real world when you can just skip back a few days, remake a decision that wasn't the right one and keep going...but I don't play for the real world.

    also, my playing style is "play for 30 minutes than go do something else", so the immersive, more challenging games would pose quite a problem. XD