Monday, June 8, 2009

Make it hard, make it last.

by Anand Ramachandan. This article first appeared on my weekly Game Invader column for The New Indian Express

I've been guilty, of late, of playing some games on 'easy' difficulty. There, I said it.

My only excuse is that I have a job that keeps me rather busy, and I don't get enough time to play games as much as I'd like. So, in order to keep in touch with so many games across so many platforms, I need to, like, not DIE every few minutes. Cranking down the difficulty levels helped me quickly see as much of a game as possible in quick time – enough to get a good grasp on gameplay, underlying core concepts, production values and the rest.

But then, you lose the love.

The games I remember most fondly are those which I had to strain every sinew to beat – Baldur's Gate 2, Halo 3, Braid, Fallout 3, DOOM, Dawn of War. In the early days of true-skill gaming, there was Pac-Man, Defender, River Raid and Donkey Kong.

There's a special happiness to beating a challenging game on the harder difficulty levels – a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that is one of the purest joys found in gaming. Anyone who loves their games will tell you stories of how they beat a Boss after ten tries, or solved a puzzle after six hours, or managed to better a seemingly insurmountable hi-score or race time. These are cherished moments in every tr00_b700 gamer's life.

I try several different games every month, but once in a while, I'll feel the love. And will want to finish it for the sheer pleasure of playing, dedicating twenty plus hours of my sadly packed life to it. And then, I'll look for the difficulty and crank it up.

The most recent of these is Guitar Hero : World Tour. The easier levels are great to get a hang of the game, but you'll never feel like Zakk Wylde or Yngwie J.Malmsteen unless you attempt the songs at the harder levels. And it's a truly warm glow (or awesome headrush) you'll feel when you nail a particularly difficult solo after much practice and multiple tries.

Some of my happiest (and most oft-narrated) gaming memories are of long struggles with specific battles in Baldur's Gate 2 – notably with illithids, dragins, and the game's no.2 boss, the evil vampire Bodhi. Believe me when I tell you that I used to actually arrive at tactics and strategies in my dreams. I kid you not. I was THAT into BG2. Completing Halo 3 on 'Heroic' was fun, too (though I wasn't good enough for 'Legendary').

I also remember the agony of wracking our brains over devilishly clever and ingenious puzzles in the early Sierra and LucasArts adventure games – and the matchless exhilaration of hitting on the right solution, sometimes after days of trying. Sometimes, it would come to you when sitting in class, or on a bus, or lying in bed, and you'd just KNOW, and you couldn't wait to get to the PC and try it out. When it worked, there would be high-fives and hugs all round. Remember folks, these were pre-Internet days. No walkthroughs. No cheats. None of that sissy stuff. You had to beat the game. Yourself. Like a woman. Or at least, like a really tough man.

Id software got it right with Wolfenstein 3D. The difficulty levels were called : "Can I play, Daddy?", "Don't hurt me.", "Bring 'em on!", and "I am Death incarnate!" . If you really wanted a good time, you know what you'd pick. Right?

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