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.

Want to read my Review for Rise and Shine?

Last month i did a trailer reaction/review for the Adult Swim game Rise and Shine. Well, since then i got a press copy and put a review up. “But William”, i hear you say, “A new review didn’t go up on your site.” Well observed my imaginary, super invested reader. My Rise and Shine Review didn’t get published here. Instead it went up at a new site: IndieGamerTeam.Com! This is where most of my reviews will be going for the foreseeable future. Not all of them, the site is very much aimed at Indie titles, so if i ever get off my ass and finish Final Fantasy 15 (i haven’t been able to play since about the week it came out…fuck my life), i’d post a review for that here. But for right now, You should all go read my Rise and Shine Review (i am pretty damn proud of that one), then you should follow us at IndieGamerTeam, because it wont just be me doing the reviews. We’ve got a few people who want to bring you enjoyable and insightful reviews. We’re like, a squad or league or…some other kind of grouping of professionals who work towards a common goal. There really should be more words for that…  Or if that’s not your thing, you can also follow us on twitter @IndieGamerTeam. And if that’s not your thing…then…why….why are you still reading this. Go home, do something productive with your life. Play some games or something.

Turning 25: What I Hope to Accomplish This Year.

Red number 25 with reflection

Hello everyone! Unless WordPress’ stupid scheduling system messes up on me again, you should be seeing this on February 1st, which means IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!!! As it says in the title, I’m 25 today, which is kind of horrifying because that means I’m 1/4th of the way to 100 and I’m not ready for that shit. Jokes about my extensional dread of being old and irrelevant aside, not is when I like to look to the future and talk about what I hope to accomplish in the next 12 months. I already did my “looking back” post near the end of December last year, but let’s recap:

  • I moved out. To be honest this was only a couple of weeks ago, but as it was one of the big things I wanted before turning 25, I’m going to go ahead and count it.
  • I started this site. I even registered the domain name.
  • I started getting review codes. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t posted nearly as much as I would have liked. I was aiming for 1000 words written and published a day, then started to settle for one post a day…then settled again for posting at least a few times a week. But, I have made it to the point were I’m getting review codes and press releases, witch is nice and been a big help.
  • I got one of my idols to reblog some of my work. Moviebob reblogged an editorial I wrote, which was super awesome. I wanted to get something at least liked gy either him, Laura Kate or Jim Sterling, and I got it. Technically Jim Sterling also retweeted me, but I’m not going to count that as it was a joke tweet about how long it was since the last FistShark episode.

That’s a lot of pretty great stuff. There was more that I talked about in my looking back post, but you can read that HERE if you’d like. Now lets start looking towards the future. What do I hope to get done this year?

      1. I want to be done with community college. If all goes well, next quarter will be my last at my community college and i’ll be transferring to a university to get my journalism degree. While that does mean I should also be starting the school I hope to get into this year as well, I’m not adding that to the list just yet. I mean, yeah I hope it happens and that my GPA is up to snuff in order to get in, but my main concern is going to be getting my AA.
      2. This is the big one: I want to get fucking paid. And no, I don’t just mean I want to get a job. I want to get paid for writing about games. I missed my chance at becoming a freelancer for Polygon a little while back because I didn’t have a good enough computer. I got all the parts for the one I got now about a week after they stopped looking at it took me three weeks just to get it working properly. So, this year, that’s the end goal, getting some kind of paid work. Either freelance, staff work or just getting big enough to run ads on my site or to justify starting a patreon. Realistically, I’m hoping for freelance work, but that’s fine with me. This is also another one I almost already accomplished too by the way. Someone wanted me to post an sponsored article (from them, not by me) about their site and was willing to pay for the privilege. Unfortunately, it was a real money gambling site and something about the email made me uncomfortable about doing business with them, so I just kinda….deleted the email without saying anything….i’m not good at telling people no, okay.
      3. I want to get better at editorials. I’ve only written a few for the site, but i’ve not been too happy with any of them. So this year I’d like to change that. I’d like to post at least one editorial that I’m truly satisfied with before I turn 26.

And that’s my big three goals for this year. Now comes the part were everybody stops reading: the selfish “gimmie-gimmie” part. I don’t expect anything to come out of this, but I’m going to ask anyway. While I will include links to stuff I want in case any of you have too much money and want to burn some of it, That’s not what I’m asking for this year. No, instead I’m going to ask you to donate to the Epilepsy Foundation.

See, my best friend is epileptic. She means the world too me, and the idea that I might wake up one day and see a message from her that reads “hey, this is your friends dad. She had a seizure and hit her head (or something like that) and it doesn’t look like she’s going to make it past the night”….that idea fucking terrifies me. When I decided to write this part, I had a dream were this exact thing happened and I woke up crying a few hours latter. So, if you think I am just the coolest person ever and you want to do something nice for me, donating to the Epilepsy Foundation and helping bring an end to this nightmare is one of the best ways you could do it. Links to everything is down below.

Epilepsy Foundation

Steam Wishlish

Amazon Wishlist

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.

Looking back at 2016

2016

2016 has been a year of cognitive dissonance and emotional whiplash for me. In almost every way that matters this has been an awful, awful year. It’s also been one of the best years of my life. If you read my last Lab Notes then you’ll know that the last few months have been hard for me, but for the most part the story of my 2016 has been one of my life coming together as the world tried it’s best to tear itself apart.

To illustrate what I mean: back in June I met one of the biggest goals I set for this year. I got Moviebob, one of my three big idols along side Laura Kate and Jim Sterling, to like and retweet an editorial I wrote. That was a huge moment for me. But then I had to deal with the fact that my first big “fuck yeah, I’m getting good at this” moment was riding on the coattails of one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks the US has ever seen. That piece I wrote was about the blowback Moviebob and others got for saying that E3 presenters should maybe think about what they were presenting as the Orlando shooting had happened the day before. While I’m not going to go into all the awful shit that happened as my life seemed to be getting better, I think it’s important to know for an honest assessment of my 2016.

This year also saw me finally getting review codes! Back in August I got my first code, for the game Bear With Me Episode One, and a little bit later I got my first pre-release code for The Final Station. While I haven’t done nearly as many reviews as I would have liked, this was another step in the right direction. Ever since then i’ve made enough contacts with developers and publishers that I honestly don’t always remember who I’m already on their press list and have to check before sending out emails. I mean, Nintendo probably won’t be sending me review codes any time soon, but I’m at least a little more sure that’s I’m making progress.

I also met one of the most important people in my life, my editor and best friend, Cathy of IndieGamerChick.Com. Cathy has done more for me than anyone I’ve ever known, both professionally and personally. When it felt like my life was falling apart she was the only person I could really talk too and she has helped me improve as a writer to an astonishing degree. Honestly, go read my old Poor Mans Geek reviews to my the last few I put up and it’s night and day. Hell, compare my ClusterTruck review to my Dark Souls 3 review (which I put out before working with her) and you can still see the improvement. But as great as all that is the best part is just having her as a friend. Literally almost every interaction I have with her makes my day better just by the fact that I got to have that interaction. I don’t know what else to say other than she has made me a better writer and a happier person. Cathy, if you’re reading this, I love you friend and I wish I could repay you for everything you’ve done for me.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Vikkie Blake followed me on twitter and I have semi-frequent conversations with Joe Parlock. So I’m getting noticed not only by really fucking cool people, but people I hope to someday work with. Vikkie even called me cool on the podcast they do, so that’s pretty neat. If either of you two are reading this, keep doing what you;re doing: your both amazing and I look forward to reading many more piece by each of you and suffering through as many bad jokes as the world can produce along side you both.

I am not where I want to be just yet, but this year has made given me the hope that I can get there one day. While I do kind of hate that I can say that in a year that’s been as awful as it’s been for pretty much everyone, I can’t lie: I will always look back at 2016 with some degree of fondness. I’m looking forward to the upcoming year, and I feel ready to take on whatever 2017 has to throw at me.