A few weeks ago, I bought the Playstation 3 classic Bioshock Infinite. After a few marathon gaming sessions, I managed to bound through the game, and as I write this, my position is on the final airship, locked in an epic battle against other airships which procure soldiers and robots onto mine. The object is to make sure the power source on my airship stays up and running while blowing up the other airships. That would be easier if the enemy airships weren’t slamming me with some of the most dangerous and difficult enemies the game can throw at me.
The irony is that I’m playing Bioshock Infinite on the easy setting. Does anything about the scenario I just described sound easy? For a point of comparison, I also bought the original Bioshock, which I’m playing on the normal setting. Now, I should point out in fairness that even though these two games bear the same series name and several common elements, they are two totally different games. Bioshock is done in the first person, but it otherwise has the feel of a common survival horror game – the challenge is in the many ways the game deprives players of the equipment they need to stay alive. The atmosphere is one of suspense and dread, and the player has to learn to maximize every available resource or they’ll be dangerously underequipped at points when it counts. Bioshock Infinite is a true shooting game; enemies are everywhere, ammunition is expendable, and the primary challenge is in not getting hit with bullets. But even so, I’ve only just entered the second area in the original Bioshock. It’s nearly as awesome as Bioshock Infinite, but with the difficulty up a little, I’m more like slowly hacking through it. I keep getting stymied in the same place.
I’m an easy setting gamer. I find nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, a lot of gamers seem to disagree. And that line of disagreeing gamers runs right up to and includes the people developing the games. Easy-shaming is a video game trope that’s been around for quite a long time. Easy-shaming is a way game developers mock gamers who play through a game on the easy setting in some way. Some games are more blatant about this than others; in Art of Fighting for the Super NES, the reward for beating the game on the easy setting is the word “CONGRATULATIONS!” displayed on the screen as it echoes on the soundtrack. That’s depriving gamers of the real ending. Back in the 16-bit Era, it would take on much nastier forms. Streets of Rage 3 only let easy setting gamers play through the fifth level. If a gamer got that far, it gave an ending which mocked them. Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi simply cut back to the intro screen after a victory and told gamers to try the next difficulty level. Shadow Dancer is an extreme case because you didn’t get the real ending until beating the game on its hardest setting.
Some games don’t even wait that long to make fun of gamers. They’ll have an easy setting named “wimp mode” or “wuss” or something equally as degrading.
I tend to prefer to believe that this way of psyching gamers out is a way for developers to make up for their own shortcomings with making the game. Veteran gamers all know that an increase in challenge levels means the developers have to come up with a way to jack up the challenge, and that they sometimes suck at this. Sometimes enemy attack patterns change, sometimes the game speeds up, sometimes the levels get flooded with more baddies, and sometimes enemies have more health and do more damage. Increasing the challenge is more than just flipping some code switch. That means that developers tend to run low on creative ideas for how to do it themselves. The Madden series is famous for its catch-up speed. One of my favorite role-playing strategy games, Shining Force II, didn’t do anything except make the enemies far more aggressive on higher settings. Fighting games are probably the worst about driving the challenge high. They get cheaper, and the computer is faster and suddenly equipped with an array of techniques the game’s physics don’t ordinarily allow. Mortal Kombat II, for example, let the computer throw the player when the player tries to hit it with an uppercut. That’s a move which just isn’t allowed with two players.
I’ve never gotten along with easy-shaming. The core idea which surrounds it seems to be that gamers play games strictly for a challenge and should do everything in their power to make the games as hard as possible. That’s a philosophy that I disagree with. One reason is that back in the 16-bit Era – which, should you need reminding, is the one I grew up with – the idea that games should be as hard as possible was little more than an excuse for developers to pad games. It meant being lax on real creativity in favor of jacking the challenge up to a bruising level, so even good gamers wouldn’t stand a chance. Essentially, it was a way to make a cheapo.
A good challenge is a nice thing to have in a video game, but it’s not something I consider a requirement. In fact, if the game gets too difficult, I frequently get frustrated with it. This isn’t the 70’s anymore, and no one plays video games to run up a score counter. Since the onset of the NES Era and Super Mario Bros. changing everything about the way we view games, they’ve been good for transportation. Escape. Imagination’s fertilization. And the onset of 3D games has only emphasized that. When we play 3D games, we want the freedom to run off and explore vast, complex worlds to our heart’s content. When developers try to limit how far a gamer can get or what they can do just because they don’t agree with the difficulty the gamer is playing on, it makes them look like a bad football coach complaining about the refs. It’s outright infuriating if one particularly difficult object or enemy is blocking you from a section of the game.
Furthermore, part of that escapism is trying to cope with real-life frustrations. Easy-shaming is a mindset for kids, but all the people who were kids when easy-shaming started grew up long ago. They’re adults themselves now, and they have everyday stressors which get the better of them more often than they would like to admit. As anyone with any rudimentary psychological knowledge will tell you, stress is about control, and adults worry a lot about control over little things in their lives. We feel stress whenever things start to fall out of our control, and we react in different ways. Video games are a good way to deal with stress in a safe and fun fashion. If the player is forced to ramp up the difficulty in a padded game in order to open something up, they’ll turn into one of those walking cliches about people who keep getting stonewalled. They’ll start to feel a loss of control in their video game as well, at which point their stress-coping mechanisms will switch over to beating up the controller… Or something else that happens to be in the vicinity.
Games have also been accepted as an art form now. The only people left who oppose that idea are talking Helen Lovejoy heads. (“THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!”) The last real, notable critic of video games being art was Roger Ebert, who died some four years ago. And Ebert, one of the classiest people and smartest interpretive thinkers to put pen to paper, backed off a couple of years before his death. He never accepted video games as art, but a time did come when he admitted that he was in over his head and no longer knew the subject the way a critic should. In any case, forcing gamers to play at higher difficulty levels detracts and distracts from a game’s artistic value because it mutes the feelings being telegraphed by the artists. Where the real emotion when a game is too busy conveying frustration, confusion, and anger because of an asshole developer? There’s little to be appreciated in art if the artist is clouding the emotions they’re trying to convey in more conflicted emotions. If the gamer quits, there’s no point. If they push through anyway, what they’ll feel more than anything else is a sense of relief.
In short, I play video games to see different realities. I want to see the magic of a good story unfolding. I like a well-made piece of art. I don’t think I deserve to be condescended to just because my desire for those things overrides my desire to get angry with a form of entertainment.