A challenge is always welcome when it comes to video games. Regardless of what I am playing, I like being tested, learning the mechanics, and perfecting my reactions to them. I like learning what I'm doing so I can be better at it. What I don't enjoy is a game that tests my patience, as opposed to one that encourages me to improve my skills. This was my problem with Spelunky, a recent addition to the XBox Live Arcade collection that has garnered a lot of praise. The game has its appeal, but unless you're a masochist, and have nothing else to do, I would have a hard time recommending that you play it.
I see message boards complaining about handholding in games, how difficulty is too easy, how developers are only reaching out to casual fans, not the hardcore elite gamer. I've seen enough complaints about how people don't want a real challenge in how they play, they just want to gun through to the next level. By making a game 'easy', players feel bored and unchallenged. A bored gamer is not a pretty sight for anybody.
General difficulty is one of the charge leaders in gamer arguments, so when I look at games where the difficulty is unforgiving from the start, I immediately seek out a solution. When I found, in the case of Spelunky, that there was no alternative, I tried to immerse myself in the game and learn its mechanics. This is how I've improved with almost every game I've played; I've paid attention and learned from it, tried to really learn its play structure and layout so I could get better.
Frustrated after my difficult experience with Spelunky, I went in search of an alternative. I wanted a challenging game after the past few I've played, and while Spelunky had certainly challenged me, I wanted something that wouldn't test my patience to its end. I wanted to play something that would force me to think about my reaction time, pay attention to what was going on, but still make me feel like I was accomplishing something.
This is, I think, one of the hardest parts about being a gamer. When a gamer sits down to play a game, it's such a solitary experience that the reward taken away from it is only as satisfying as the gamer allows. When something is accomplished, there's a brief rush, a firm affirmation that a goal was achieved. It feels good.
Over the years, I've improved as a gamer. I handle shooters pretty well these days, and even if I stick to normal difficulty, I'll toe into the hardcore area once in awhile, just to change things up. As gaming engines improve, though, normal difficulty can seem like a lovely stroll through the park. There's almost nothing to it. This achieves the same end as an unbearably difficulty game: when a game is too easy, there's no challenge, and so there is no desire to continue playing.
Hunting for the happy medium is an even bigger problem. Looking over the years I've gamed, and the innumerable shooters I've played, I see a whole host of games that handle in more or less the same way, with a few tweaks thrown in for good measure. Watching the evolution of the Unreal Engine has been something of a treat, watching it flow from the clunky, stiff cover motions of games like Army of Two to the smooth, refined Gears of War 3. It's become the go-to cover-shooter engine for a reason: it's improved and gotten better as it ages. It's also become a bit easier over time.
Playing Army of Two, a game from 2008, showed me how far the Unreal Engine has come. It also gave me a good challenge, because the mechanics aren't smooth, the characters don't flow gently from one area to the other, they don't operate with complete precision. The player character will not always duck properly, and finding cover is not a guarantee of success. It's a challenge, because seeing the older game in action shows how far the newer games have come. It also shows where they've stumbled in lowering their base difficulty.
Cleaning up and constantly refining a widely used gaming engine is a good thing. I'll never say it's not. I like the Unreal Engine because it has improved and its learning curve has ensured that I've gotten better at games, feeling comfortable enough to attempt the hardest difficulty settings. While I confess to usually chickening out and going back to a slightly less difficult mode, I still want to try and hit that hard setting. I want to get to that point; because I want a challenge I can sink my teeth into.
A game like Army of Two is a challenge for me because it is not refined. It's not as polished as its engine-descendant games, like Gears of War or even Spec Ops: The Line. Army of Two is a glimmer of what the Unreal Engine would become. It's a challenge, forcing me to think on my feet, pay attention to the screen, and coordinate with an in-game AI that I was slow to trust at first because it is such an unfamiliar concept. That the mechanics in a four-year-old game are not perfect makes the game all that more exciting. Forced to actually think about where to go next and how to get to that point without taking advantage of automatic cover or a coherent AI, makes the game one of the more engaging experiences I've had.
I think I've been taking older games for granted. 2008 doesn't seem that long ago, but in the gaming world, it might as well be a century. While I like how far a certain engine has come in four years, and while I love the advances it's made in 2012, I think I might linger in 2008 for a bit longer. It's nice to have a challenge.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays.