So last week I got rather rant-y and bashed on ‘Hard’ mode in BioShock Infinite, and I feel like I need to clarify a bit now. Considering where games are now today, I was lucky to be born when I was born. I didn’t have to wait for the polish the original NES brought to gaming at home; it was already established and it had some of gamings’ greatest titles even to this day. The gaming industry had gone through some rough patches and controversies, but by the time I really had awareness and could game, the industry seemed secure, though I wouldn’t say it was booming like it is today. The industry makes more money now and, well, mo’ money, mo’ problems.
One of the many problems and challenges in making games these days is that the audience has become much larger and with wider demographics. There’s many different reasons why this has occurred and perhaps I’ll write about them on a different post, but essentially the industry became larger, mo’ money, and developers had to start broadening their ideas and designs in order to appease a bigger fan base, mo’ problems; all of whom would have varying skills and expertise.
I imagine developers scale their difficulties with a bell curve in mind. Most people will feel comfortable playing on ‘Normal’, so it would be in the middle, and then there would be a decline in the number of players who deviate from the standard–people who will play on ‘Easy’ or ‘Hard’. The goal for most developers is to try to widen the top of that bell curve as much as possible, drawing in as many players as they can without creating an imbalance that makes players fall into other difficulties. The reason this is most beneficial is that creating strong and compelling difficulty increases and decreases is really hard. However, by covering more difficulties you can gather a wider spectrum of players. Developers will design a game with a specific set of challenges and obstacles in a game, but in order to maximize their profits, they will opt for multiple difficulties to make the game more accessible to the industry’s growing audience.
The most prevalent way to do this is covered in Part One of ‘Hard Mode Can Suck It’. The easiest way striate different difficulty modes is to change the numbers in the formula rather than formula itself. Instead of that peon taking two shots to kill in ‘Normal’, it now takes four in ‘Hard’. Instead of there being four enemies to take down in ‘Normal’, ‘Hard’ will send six at you. The idea being that a higher volume of stuff–enemies, health bars, bullets–will naturally increase the difficulty, but as I said in Part One, that can mean a big, ol’ bag of bullshit.
Like any work of fiction, rules must be formed and subsequently followed. This is typically where we can distinguish which genre a piece fiction falls. Is there technology beyond current real-world technology? Then there’s most likely a sci-fi element to the piece of fiction. Now for all intents and purposes, readers, watchers, or players of that fiction can suspend their disbelief about the appearance of other futuristic technologies later down the road. The fiction established future technologies as a realm of possibilities and for the sake of this post, I’ll call that forming a rule. However, that is a pretty broad example.
Creators can get much more specific in the rules they establish. For example, sticking in the realm of sci-fi, a character might be the only person in that universe that can pilot a very challenging and powerful star-fighter. If that’s what the fiction is establishing, then that, too, is a rule. Although, just because something is a rule doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to wiggle; it simply means that there needs to be clear and logical reasons as to why the rule is bendable. If the creator of that fiction wishes another character to pilot that star-fighter, the creator then must give a reasonable explanation as to why. Does the new character piloting the star-fighter have some sort of augmentation? Is there a commonality between the two characters, like a common bloodline? Does the other character suffer a price for piloting a star-fighter beyond he or she’s comprehension and skill? It can be any number of reasons, but nevertheless, it still requires an explanation in order to maintain the audiences’ suspension of disbelief. When it’s done well, it can be quite compelling. When it’s done poorly, well then it’s a bunch of bullshit.
I mentioned in Part One that BioShock Infinite establishes that even a pair of scissors is capable of killing someone pretty easily. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go in to detail about the scene, but effectively, BioShock Infinite establishes that life is frail and death can come easily, much like real life; this is a rule it forms. Then why the fuck does it take three modded bullets to the head to take down the average baddie? Nowhere in that game do they establish that a bullet isn’t a bullet; therefore, bullshit.
This form of ‘Hard’ mode is like someone screaming in your ear as your driving a car. Is it more challenging to concentrate? Sure, but it’s mostly because something is annoying you rather than the actual driving conditions being more difficult. ‘Hard’ mode becomes more of annoyance than a challenge when a game breaks its own rules. I’m not looking for gritty realism in all my games, there’s a time in a place for that. I just want consistency and strong design.
Continuing with sci-fi and shooters as my base examples, bullets are difficult to make rules around, but typically, that is why sci-fi shooters will have shields and highly advanced armours. Shields will take punishment and health bars will go down quicker. You even get a shield in BioShock infinite, which makes it more believable that Booker can survive battle after battle, unlike the NPC enemies. There is a bit of a general acceptance that characters in video games can take more damage than what a real-life person can, which is fine; it’s a rule that covers most of the gaming industry. So when a single bullet doesn’t down an enemy or your character, it makes at least a bit of sense. Headshots, however, are a different story.
Landing a headshot is more challenging than landing a body shot, and should have an appropriate reward for succeeding over a bigger challenge. A bullet should still have some characteristics of a bullet; otherwise, why give a Booker a shield at all? A bullet sponge NPC breaks your suspension of disbelief because you’re feeling cheated. The rules weren’t followed. Designing those kinds of enemies is a bullshit way to add more time to a game’s play through and it’s definitely more annoying than rewarding. Instead of developers relying on this form of design, I believe that developers should follow the model set by games like F.E.A.R.
I’m sure the NPCs in F.E.A.R. also had an increased amount of health, but it was hardly noticeable when a well placed headshot would still down the average dude. F.E.A.R.’s genius however came in when the difficulty was increased, enemies would try different tactics, like flanking, more often. If you had to reload, they would wait for you to pop back from your cover to fire at you. And while you were distracted by the one guy holding your position down, another NPC was working his way around to your back side to catch you in a crossfire. The experience made you feel as though you had to push forward or get killed. It felt like you had to rely on your own skills in order to advance rather than having to simply test your patience as you slowly plugged away at each bullet sponge of an enemy. It was fantastic.
‘Hard’ mode shouldn’t increase just in the volume of stuff. It should be environmentally and tactically challenging rather than the more-is-harder model. Someone screaming in ear while you’re driving is annoying more than challenging; driving 150km/h during torrential downpours, that’s a challenge…it’s also stupid, but so is blindly choosing ‘Hard’ mode in a game. Game designers should follow the example set by great A.I. in F.E.A.R. or enemy design Halo. Not to start a whole different rant or add too much to this monolith of text, but the Hunters in Halo are one of the best designed enemies around. They have impenetrable armour, so you have to hit their more exposed fleshy bits; although, because they’re a large symbiotic creature housing many slugs, it requires many shots in the fleshy bits to down the goliaths. That’s just clever…I miss old Bungie.
Anyways, I swore I wouldn’t write a post as long as the Final Fantasy VII – The Undertaking post, hence, why I split this post into two parts, but I think all and all this whole rant is much longer than the FFVII post. So, thanks for reading, be sure to check out my other posts, especially if you haven’t read Part One; and if you have the time, you should go play F.E.A.R. and leave BioShock Infinite on the shelf for a bit longer. F.E.A.R. is awesome.
Okay. Love you. Bye Bye