Here it is, homies. What Makes A Good Hard Mode?
So I've been on a bit of a binge playing through old games and the question has occurred to me whether or not Hard Modes are actually much more difficult. I think that for the most part they don't necessarily ramp up difficulty in a way that rewards skill, they just condition you to play in a way that exploits the system.
I've recently played through The Last of Us and figured "why not try the hard mode?" How it Went:
I found that the Hard version of TLOU doesn't create a rewarding reaction within the player. Those of us who like hardmode-ing survival games are familiar with this.
- You never really use ammo except in absolute emergencies.
- You consequentially ALWAYS have max ammo/crafting resources
- You move very stealthily and slowly through the game.
- You seem to only ever heal if you find a spare health pack or resources for one beyond max.
- That Restart Encounter button gets a lot of action
You basically play the game at maximum efficiency, exploiting what weaknesses the game has to scout safely. You don't use 80% of the weapons, and rarely take risks because you frankly can't afford them. That's fine.
A lot of people enjoy this different experience, but I would argue that it's not how the game was meant to be played. There are so many interesting weapons you plainly don't use, and the stuttering progression because of that Restart Encounter button kind of robs the game of its tension. My first playthrough of TLOU was on Hard rather than Survivor, and I have to say it was much more fun. Less punishing, but just felt way more like the game it advertised itself to be. You would stealth when advantageous, fight when you had to, explore when you felt like it. It didn't feel like the Silent Hill 2 corner crawl when you get to slide along the geometry mashing the triangle button just in case there's duct tape that you didn't notice. I played through TLOU2 on hard mode also, and it was incredible. Exploring Naughty Dog's impeccable level design felt fun and dangerous even if I rarely ever died or restarted. I felt like there were real stakes. I went into a room that had a big fat killer asshole in it and shot him to death with my badass super boom cannon just to find that the room didn't have anything interesting in it, and I didn't reset or anything.
I just said "damnit" and accepted the waste of ammo. I would argue that introducing acceptable loss creates more rewarding gameplay. We get used to playing at the bare minimum consumption, and just get frustrated when we waste resources. There's really no dopamine release in it, right? Guys, I'm all about the dopamine. Maybe there's something to be said about removing the Restart Encounter button, or the option to load entirely. BUT THAT'S FOR ANOTHER POST
So I started thinking and I realized that "Hard" and "challenging" don't really belong in the same room as one another. Take Civ VI for example. I play this game with a buddy, and every time we play he has this wild superiority complex because he plays against high difficulty enemies in single player. I asked him how he manages it, and he said "the only way to do it is to buff your military in the early game and absorb one or two small civs immediately, or stunt the high difficulty civ." ....I mean yeah. Basically the AI doesn't adjust based on difficulty so you just lean into military to match their advantages or rob them of the bonuses directly. Then it becomes normal difficulty Civ for the rest of the game... This doesn't feel like only max skill players can win.
And this isn't really a criticism of Civ or TLOU. I think that gamers like the carrot of "this is harder and only more skilled players can beat it". We like being good at things and succeeding where others fail. The achievement hunters out there feel this deeply. It hits just right when you get that random gold that 0.2% of players have gotten. But I worry that maybe this Hard Mode stifles our enjoyment of the game experience. That's not equitable, homies. I look back on all the games I've ever played and I wonder how many games were designed for a certain experience that I sprinted past so I could slog through it and get that Hard Mode achievement. And say "yeah I did it" or whatever.
As an opposite point, Shadow of War has a truly skill based difficulty system. Ramp up the difficulty setting on that badboy and enemy captains will flat out one-shot you. Not to mention they'll have very narrow vulnerabilities, and they'll adapt to how you exploit them. It's not really that hard to find yourself in a fight that you can only win with speed and perfection. But again I ask, is this the most fun way to play the game?
Are we gaining more than we lose? Is challenge always
its own reward?
Let's look at Hard Mode culture though. I know what you're thinking. We gotta talk about it. It's Dark Souls
But guess what Bloodborne is my favorite one so that's where my research took me. If you don't think Bloodborne was the right pick for this one, then I'm sorry homie, this is my post. Bloodborne rocks. #teamBloodborne #hoonter4LyfeBithces #Mariaishot
So the Soulsborne series is famous for its difficulty, but any of us who have played it know that difficulty isn't why it's great. It has a seriously prohibitive learning curve, and the hours spent climbing it tattoo themselves into the dark recesses of our minds forever. BUT
if you look at the presentation of Bloodborne it's actually quite genius. First you wake up and a werewolf eats your ass and you die. And THEN
you get a weapon. Maybe you killed the werewolf without the weapon, dope. Good luck punching everyone in the face to death forever because there's literally no reward for winning that fight. It is just there to tear you in two and say "You're in the jungle baby". You take your cool new weapon and run into a labyrinthine city so that every one of its denizens gets the opportunity to beat the shit out of you. You die again and again. Why? Frankly because you have no artificial ways to overcome the challenge. YOU CAN'T LEVEL UP.
It's punishing, but it makes a lot of sense. This game is going to keep challenging you with new absurdly deadly enemies. You must dodge well and dodge often
. Eventually you'll carve your way deep enough into the city that you'll encounter a boss. For 99% of us that's the (say it with me) Cleric Beast
. This boss is forgiving, telegraphing dramatically and pacing its swings with pleasant regularity. Not to mention it has some very visible flanks that offer some safety. It's the training wheels boss. Only once you let this guy kick your shit in can you level up and start really digging into a build.
See, it's nice because all the mechanics tell a story of the badass hoonter you'll one day become. You can regain health after getting clocked if you counterattack, so you learn to do that often. There are differently effective ways and timings to dodge, so you learn them. Enemies telegraph differently and grapples have slow and painful animations so you clench your teeth through them praying you'll have enough health left to get away. You're meant to become this frenzied killing machine whose only defense is a good offense, and it feels so right to fulfill that prophecy. It's also nice that all the ways we hardmode-ers cheez other games are baked in. Your dodge gives invulnerability frames, but less of them if you're locked on. Enemies will occasionally multiattack to say "fuck your i-frames". Enemies also get i-frames of their own, making it an even playing field. Some enemies have a weak side. It's not cheap to exploit it, it's the only way to survive. They know how you'll play and they challenge it.
Beyond that, once you find a boss and can level up
there's an interesting economy to your ability to do so. If you're stuck on a boss and think "I got this, I've played Kingdom Hearts before, I'll just head to the Colosseum and level up and wipe the floor with this boss," think again. Levelling up takes progressively more resources, and the level leading to the boss can only offer so many. Yes, you can farm, but with such an incredibly diminishing return that farming itself begins to feel like a boss fight. At some point you'll be 6 farming runs out of 7 away from levelling up one last time, and you'll die. And then you jump off a cliff or something stupid and you waste 6 runs worth of resources. Time to start over I guess. But you'll have to wonder if the boss would take 7 tries. If you can beat it in less than 7 tries then the farming run is actually much more effort. [I would argue that there's a single level late game that offers absurd farming potential to round out your build, but we'll ignore that].
See, the difficulty in this game rewards you by either getting more powerful, gaining actual skill with mechanics, or diving further into the game they built for you. Even when you can't cut the mustard and decide to use the workaround of powering up it's just as challenging in a different setting.
(While I'm gushing over Bloodborne, it's worth noting that unless you really fuck up, the game almost never requires you to farm. Just by exploring the world and adapting to its new challenges you'll almost always be at an adequate level).
Okay, so I love this game, sure but why does it matter? Well it's because Bloodborne is a game with a perfectly balanced gravity that always draws you back into its best features. When it gets seriously punishing, you may destroy your television or something, but there is no 'formula' for scraping by. You always have to earn it.
It could not achieve this balance with a difficulty setting. You can still add in those gamebreaking barriers yourself. Google some of those no weapon runs, they're insane. But the game never pushes you in a direction that causes you to react in a way that lessens the fun. I'm beginning to believe that games should only ever have two difficulty settings:
- I'm New To This Setting: I don't play videogames but I want to enjoy this game
- Let's Do This Thing: let's do this thing!
I want videogames to be accessible to people who don't have the muscle memory for mechanics that proper hobbyists do, but beyond that the game should be built as a specific, challenging experience that steers you back into itself.
Now I know what you're saying. "What if I LIKE
that super prohibitive slog?"
I do too. And it's called NewGame+.
Maybe I'll explore the value of NG+ in another post, but suffice it to say that NG+ should give an extra hard experience that changes the nature of the game. I don't really like God Mode NG+ runs personally, and I think that God Mode kind of has its own place as a feature. Beat the game? Cool now you can: New Game+, God Mode Run, Concept Art, Watch the credits I guess??
I don't want to get rid of that experience, but let's stop pretending that our gaming experiences and ability can be baited and suppressed by somewhat arbitrary difficulty settings. The vast majority of us will adapt no matter what, and I'd rather succeed with the experience the artists had envisioned than with a flashy achievement. [jk i'm all about that plat babyyyy]
MY ONLY CONCESSION: in the event that a developer wants to release a game with a meaningful above-average AI for higher difficulties, they'll get my approval. So, Hard Mode. What do you guys think?