The Challenge of Difficulty

Recently I had a “lovely” conversation with a “gentleman” regarding one of my reviews. This “gentleman” had an issue with the fact that I didn’t complete the game due to finding it needlessly frustrating. To them, the game’s difficulty was a feature and my criticism with it showed a misunderstanding of the game. Obviously I disagree, but the conversation did make me think about difficulty in games and what separates an enjoyable challenge as opposed to rage inducing frustration. In the end it all boiled down to good design, much like everything else when it comes to good games.

I’ve made it pretty clear on my cite that I am a “SoulsSlut”. I love From Software’s Souls series, and the easiest way to get me interested in a game is to tell me “it’s like Dark Souls but….”. Salt and Sanctuary was like Dark Souls meets Castlevania and I loved it, Nioh was like Dark Souls with Samurai and it’s a forerunner for my game of the year. The Serge is like Dark Souls but Sci-fi and it’s the last game for this year I’m truly excited for, even though it’s made by the same people behind Lords of the Fallen, which was like Dark Souls but Crap. And in each and every case, the thing that drew me in to each game, the reason “it’s like Dark Souls” works for me, was the expectation of overcoming the games challenges. Even back in the PS2 era I was a big Devil May Cry fan, which were known for their difficulty back in the day. The funny thing about all of this is: the original Dark Souls, my personal favorite of the bunch, proves my point for both good and ill.

I’m one of those people who hate the idea of Dark Souls having an “easy mode”. Not because I don’t want more people to enjoy the game, but because I don’t think it’s possible. Enemies hit hard in Dark Souls, but their wind up and cool-downs compensate for it. If you change the amount of damage enemies do, the time it takes them to prep and unleash an attack is too unbalanced. If you change the animation times to compensate, then the enemies are doing proportionately the same amount of damage, they’re just faster. The same goes for the player character. If you boost the damage or attack speed you end up breaking the games balance. None of that was to say that there aren’t accessibility issues that From could work on, but for 90% of Dark Souls, the games difficulty proves my point: good design leads to good difficulty. The games systems are connected and balanced in such a way that the easiest way to overcome the game is to have a thorough understanding of these mechanics and systems.

And then there’s Blight Town.

Most fans of the game will tell you this is the worst part, and I am in that camp. (However, Hamish Black from Writing on Games did an excellent video countering this point. But this isn’t about him, fuck off Hamish.) So, why does Blight Town not work: it lags. By this point in the game you should more or less have a firm understanding of the combat. Attack animations are long, and you can’t back out of them, so you have to time your hits. Due to the lag in Blight Town, getting that timing right is much harder than it should be. In fact, I’d even wager that without that lag Blight Town wouldn’t be an issue. The enemies aren’t hard to beat and there’s enough land to avoid getting poisoned. Even the boss is one of the easier ones in the game. The hardest part is navigation, but so long as you keep moving down you’ll be okay. So, here’s the million dollar question: why is Blight Town so lagy? Because some stupid fuck thought it would be a good idea to render the entire area all at once. From the very top, if you look down you can see a clear outline of the poisonous mire down beneath. Rendering all of that takes a toll, and that toll was playing havoc with the games frame rate. As one of the Dan’s from Extra Cridits mentioned in his Lets Play of the game, a Silent Hill like layer of fog to hide some of Blight Town from the player so that not everything had to be rendered at once could have easily fixed this. The one part of the game that was poorly designed lead to the one part of a game that was no longer challenging, but frustrating.

For another example, lets look at the game I’m most in love with right now: Persona 5. I have very few issues with Persona 5 overall, and for the most part the difficulty isn’t one of them. Sure a boss or two have given me a few issues, but in the end I think the game is a little too easy. However, there is one exception to this. In the latter game safe rooms become more and more rare while enemies increasingly have attacks that can instantly kill members of your party. And if that happens to the player character, it’s game over. Where I am now the game even through me into a scenario where I had to fight three mini-bosses back to back with no ability to save between them. The second of which had two separate one hit kill attacks. If I had not been slightly under leveled to create a new persona and not been forced to stick with my main (who could block both attacks) this battle could have lasted hours. Speaking just for myself, out of the 70 hours I put into the game, I think there has been at least one hour per dungeon extra just for the amount of times I got instakilled in the level and had to redo long stretches of it. Thankfully in bigger fights the game gives you the ability to start over from the beginning of that fight, but this doesn’t ease the frustration of losing large amounts of progress when you did nothing wrong.

And yet again, almost all of that was also true for Darkest Dungeon, a game I loved and in which these same things didn’t bother me. Why? Because everything in Darkest Dungeon, from story to tone to game play mechanics, reinforced the idea that the world is a cruel place that does not care about you or your goals.

Good difficulty stems from good design. Good difficulty requires work and dedication by the player in order to overcome, but it does not get in the players way. Good difficulty does not ask a player to brute force their way past the games challenges, but to make smarter use of the games systems. Good difficulty does not laugh at a players failures, but revels in their successes. Good difficulty may ask for a players dedication, but it does not waste the players time.

Ludophile Lab is having an Identity Crisis

I haven’t been posting as much as i would like. Hell, i haven’t been posting much at all. Part of that is just life. School takes up a lot of time and there isn’t always something interesting to talk about. Recently, however, I’ve come up against a new issue. I’ve always been more interested in doing reviews more than anything else, and with my review now being mainly hosted over at IndieGamerTeam.Com, i’m having kind of a hard time coming up with what exactly i want Ludophile Lab to be. Part of me thinks it would be a good idea to try and make this more editorial based, and reviewing Non-Indie Games (like Persona 5 which i am loving and putting way too much time into). However, by the time a topic reaches me bigger and better voices have probably already wrote or made a video on it. I mean really, between Jim Sterling, Writing on Games and Noclip there really isn’t much i can add to most conversations.

So now that you know what’s been going on and where my head is at most of the time, i’d like to ask: what would you like to see? Stuff like the trailer reactions and stuff probably aren’t going away becuase they give me an excuse to talk about games. But other than that, what kind of stuff would you all like to see? Editorials? More personal game related stories? Fucking Top 10 lists? Please, feel free to leave a comment and give some ideas, i’d appreciate it.

An Open Letter to Atlus in Regards to their Streaming Policy for Persona 5

To Whom it May Concern,
Persona 5 has been one of my most anticipated games since before you announced it. I jumped on bored with Persona 4, played 3 soon after and even bough a copy of the PSP re-release of the original game. I regularly find myself hoping you will release a Persona 2 collection in the US with both parts of the adventure. I love this series, I love these games. And so far, I am loveing this one just as much as I hoped I would. Because of this, let me say right off the bat that I understand your reasoning behind your position on streaming Persona 5. Even though I’m only about 6 or 7 hours in, I’ve already experienced events that make me glad I went in cold. Understanding is not agreement, however, and like almost everyone else I disagree with this decision.
Given your track record and my love for these games, I am going to assume you’re being earnest about wanting to avoid spoilers. Here’s my issue: you are showing a profound lack of faith in a game that doesn’t deserve it. The message you are sending is that once people know what happens, there’s nothing else worth experiencing. That isn’t true. I still have my PlayStation 3 hooked up to my TV because I have Persona’s 3 and 4 downloaded on to it. I have done damn near everything there is to do in both games, but I know at some point I am going to go back to them. So far I have no doubt that Persona 5 is going to end up along side those. If you make a good game, people will want to play it. Even know the story, people will still want to play a good game. And again, all you are saying here with these restrictions is “this game is not worth your time”. That isn’t true, stop acting like it.

Best Video Game Dogs

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To my pleasant surprise today is National Puppy Day! As a lover of dogs i thought i’d celebrate today by putting together a list of the best dogs in video games. This list is super scientific and cannot be argued with:

  1. All of them.

“But William, what about those mangy dogs from Dark Souls and Resident Evil that want nothing more than to chew your face off?”

I’m sorry, did i stutter?

All.

Of.

Them.

That concludes this very scientific list. All dogs are good dogs. If you have a dog, please tell it i love it.

The Good Ol’ Days are Still Ahead of Us

With 2016 being as dead as everyone it took from us, and us facing down the barrel of some really bad choices made over the last 12 months, I think right now we could all use a good dose of positivity. With that in mind, allow me to posit something of a controversial opinion: we have not entered into the golden age of gaming yet.

Don’t get me wrong, I love retro-games and I really fucking love the retro-revisionism going on in the indie scene. In terms of pure hit and miss ratio of good to bad games I still think the PS2 was the best console ever made. I would even say that with a few notable exceptions, the last generation was filled with mostly forgettable crap. So forgettable in fact that even I found it hard not to look to the past with a since of longing.

And yet, I still think gaming’s better days lay in our future.

More interestingly, I think the reason the future of games is so bright is in large part do to the same factor that made last gen so overwhelmingly dull: those filthy casuals. Most of the people I know don’t want to say this in fear of driving away new members of the gaming community, but the fact is most of last generation was centered around teaching new comers how to game. At beast games were streamlined for accessibility to this new audience and at worst they were stripped of their “gameyness”. The best games from the era managed to make that work (hell, even I’m hoping that the System Shock remake takes a few queues from the Bioshock series) but overall gaming last gen very much felt like an introductory course to the medium.

And in almost every way it could have, it paid off. Not only are video games out selling their media rivals, but a slew of quality games that have reached that mass audience over the last year has show that the “Gaming 101” generation has started moving into 200 level classes. Those filthy casuals who weren’t ready for the depths and complexities of old school CRPGs or arena shooters, they’ve learned, and learned very well.

The last few years have seen some truly great games released and become hits, while still feeling very much like video games. Dark Souls 3 found a nice middle ground between being an entry point for new players while not abandoning it’s trademark difficulty. Overwatch took the crown as king of the Online FPS, and not only is it surprisingly deep and complex, it also has a roster of colorful and diverse characters that wouldn’t have felt out of place in the “golden age”. The Doom remake very much was just a prettier version of its predecessors and look how well that did with audiences. Hell, even Call of Duty has started incorporating more traditional video game and geek culture iconography.

But even more impressive than that, this new flood of gamers has also brought with it new experiences. It is sadly true that big companies aren’t taking as many risks as they once did, but new voices are making up for it. Even in an age were Okami would have been green lit could you imagine games like Her Story or Gone Home getting the go ahead? I hate to say it, but I don’t.

Right now we are living in a time where the things that made games great are coming back while also having the freedom to question what exactly it is that makes a game. We live in a time where the line between “retro” and “modern” are beginning to blur. And most importantly, we live in a time were almost everyone is invested in seeing what comes next. The future is bright my friends, don’t let anyone tell you our best days are behind us.

The Games I’m Thankful For

I wrote a while back about how Dark Souls made me a better student. Thinking about that and knowing that tomorrow (as I’m writing this) will be Thanksgiving, I decided to do something of a listicle detailing other games that have made a positive impact on my life. So please, enjoy this little bit of year end positivity and feel free to share your own stories in the comments.

1

This came out when I was in middle school, and at the time I had only met my mother twice in my life. As fate would have it however, I was living with my grandmother on her side, who thought it was important for me to have some semblance of a relationship with her. So every Saturday she would call me on the phone (you know, that thing phones did before the rise of texting) and we’d talk for at least an hour. One of the things the two of us found we had in common was a fondness for cartoons, specifically the then still child-friendly Toonami showings. At the time Toonami ran game reviews every now and again. One of those was for The Sands of Time and I was instantly hooked on it. What really made this game stick with me over the years however, is just how in tune it made me feel with my mother. The Saturday after seeing the review (or, lets be honest, glorified trailer) my mom said it looked cool and, with out any form of prompting, asked me if I’d like a copy as a gift. Even if the game had been total crap, the instant connection I felt over how much I had in common with the mother I’d never gotten to know was enough to keep the game in my good graces.

 

2
I remember being in awe of how “realistic” this game looked.

This was the first game I ever played. I moved around a lot as a kid for reasons I wouldn’t know until much later in life, and as such making and keeping friends wasn’t something I was good at. Add to that a home life that i’ve only recently feel like i’ve been able to recover from, and its not hard to see how I was maybe a little more isolated than I should have been in my formative years. Well, in one of the houses me and my father moved into the previous owners left behind a Playstation 1 and the first disk of Metal Gear Solid. The disk was scratched to hell, so I didn’t make it every far in those early days, but I was completely engrossed with the parts I could play. It also didn’t hurt that it was pretty much the perfect game for me at the time: Solid Snake was pretty much everything young me thought of as cool meaning he was also my complete opposite, making him the perfect avatar for my much needed escapism. So when ever home became unbearable I could beat the shit out of a bad guy and was rewarded for doing it, plus this was a “friend” I could take with me. While this wasn’t “the” game that made me an avid gamer, it was the beginning.

3

As far as I can recall, i’ve lived with 8 distinct family set ups. Most of those were christens. Most of those were the crazy kinds of christens. My first stepmother was not an exception to that rule. See, me and her two sons, in our time together, had met an older guy in our neighborhood and had formed something of a friendship by playing a streamlined version of Dungeons and Dragons. Stepmom#1 did not like that. Even though our game was streamlined to the point of being near unrecognizable to real fans, to her it was the same “satanic” game alarmist news had warned her about. I didn’t take that kindly and ended up get myself grounded for my…less than tactful attempts to persuade her to let us keep playing. While I couldn’t go out and play, I was still allowed to play video games. And the one I played the most, the one I got hooked on was one of my stepbrothers copies of Pokemon Stadium for the Nintendo 64. I sucked at it, but everyday after school I went back to it hoping that would be the day I’d power on through it. By the time my two week prison sentence was up, I really didn’t want to do much else but keep playing.

So those are three games I’m thankful for: the one that started it all, the one that cemented my love for gaming and the one the made me feel like I really had a family. There are so many more I could talk about, but I’m going to end there for this year. If you’re reading this I hope you’re having a happy thanksgiving, and I hope to see you again soon.

Augmenting Politics: On Mankind Divided and the Use of Political Iconography in Games

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With Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to be released later this month you would think the marketing department would do everything possible to avoid drawing the ire of potential costumers, but alas this is not the case. For the third time since the game has been announced Mankind Divided finds itself the subject of controversy, and I think its time we had an honest talk about it. For those unaware, the marketing team for Mankind Divided released some promotional material with the phrase “Aug Lives Matter” used, an obvious reference to the Black Lives Matter movement (though the games executive brand director, Andre Vu, argues it’s simply a coincidence). With part of the game world also being referred too as a “Mechanical Apartheid” many have begun to wonder if the developers are too willing to use language associated with racial discrimination in order to fake a since of narrative depth.

While there is a lot to unpack here let me start off with this: conceptually, I don’t really have a problem with the developers using this imagery so blatantly. Video games, as an art form, should be free to address real world issues, and clear illusions to real life political and social movements is a good way to do that. In fact, if done right these illusions can give a mythic weight to their real life counterparts. It is in that same vain, however, that we reach our first point of contention. If handled poorly this could not only convey some unintentionally racist connotations but it could also serve to undermined these same movements.

For the sake of simplicity let’s focus on the “Aug Lives Matter” part of the controversy. Illusions like this tend to work by using call backs to other material (fictional or otherwise) known for handling the themes the artist making the connection is. As such, it’s is possible that the developers are going to try and tackle the issue of police brutality, the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement, making the games illusion seem fitting on a surface level. But BLM was more specifically about fighting police brutality towards a disproportionately black citizenship. Because of this, if Mankind Divided does not aspire to be more diverse in its cast than other games coming out it runs the risk of saying to player not “police brutality is a problem” but “police brutality is a problem only when white people suffer from it”. I very much doubt that this will be the message anyone at Eidos Montreal or Nixxes Software are aiming to make the thematic core of their game but this is why careful, nuanced and thoughtful use of illusions must be used and portrayed.

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I miss when this was the big Mankind Divided controversy. Those were such sweet and simple days.

For a good example of this, we only have too look at the franchises recent past. One of Human Revolution’s major motifs was wealth disparity. When it came time for the developers to make reference to real life, the drew inspiration from the then relevant Occupy Wall Street movement. While Human Revolution and OWS both had their flaws, this connection wasn’t as divisive as the games themes and OWS’s goals were similar enough to justify that connection. The sad truth is, with Mankind Divided this doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t thinking the illusion to BLM was done thoughtlessly, but I do think it has been handled carelessly.

And the real kicker? This franchise, by it’s very nature, is in the perfect position to handle topics of discrimination but for a group that gets almost no notoriety elsewhere.

The Disabled.

While Augmentations and Prosthetics are not exactly the same thing, if you really want to make Deus Ex a story about discrimination it could easily be made to fit. At the end of the day, we are still talking about a group of people who’s bodies, for whatever reason, can’t function the way society expects them too and yet that same society is unwilling to make nearly any kind of concessions for them. There is a good story about discrimination and segregation there, one that doesn’t get told nearly enough. But instead the developers have been trying to associate transhumanism with racism, which are too distinct as concepts to make that comparison seem anything other than lazy.

What Mankind Divided is aiming for in nothing new. Science Fiction and Fantasy has a long history of drawing upon modern ills for its content. But there is a right way to do it and Mankind Divided has yet to prove it understands this. I hope I’m wrong, but only time will tell.