The Difficulty of Difficulty

I’ve been playing Fallout 3 recently, and it’s got me thinking, because it’d be more accurate to describe it as trudging through Fallout 3.

I, like so many others, have an offensively long backlog on Steam, and nowhere near enough free time in the next three years to play them all fully, even without the new purchases I will inevitably pick up over that time. I’m not kidding when I say I could quit my job today and not be done with that backlog by next Christmas. So my gaming time is a fairly precious resource, and if I’m not enjoying something, I have plenty of other games waiting to do that for me. But I’m still trudging through – 60-odd hours in now with no end in sight. Why?

It’s not the story, such as it is. I have no interest in the tale it is telling. There are some nice little vignettes dotted about (such as the Dunwich building) but a lot of it is either Straight Up Serious Cliché or Knowing Pop Culture Reference, and it doesn’t feel coherent as a whole. It’s not the world, either, although atmosphere is my favourite thing about games. Something about Fallout 3’s world just doesn’t strike true for me. Perhaps as a Brit I don’t have the relevant reverence for seeing The Mall so destroyed, the relevant suburbs around me for the wooden wrecks to truly resonate. Perhaps all the brown just gets a bit dull.

I think the reason I’m still playing, beyond a sense of duty to finish games I start, is that it really was fun at the beginning.

(I don’t meant Vault 101. Vault 101 can go fuck itself.)

Any time I start playing a new game, I go all child-like again and want to know everything I can about it. I used to take the manuals from my N64 games into school to read; now I waste a work day or three on GameFAQs and Wikia sites. I read articles on builds. I look at equipment. Something about me doesn’t want to do it half-arsed, so I preload my brain with loadouts and statistics before any of the terminology even makes sense. So it was that I knew the Intelligence Bobblehead lived in Rivet City, and that the sooner I got it, the better, for all the extra skill points. After stumbling out of the tunnel into that bright daylight and stopping in at Megaton, I duly set off on my trek to Rivet City.

I skirted South, meeting the cannibalistic lot in Andale before turning East, swimming the river by the Jefferson Memorial and making it to the iron bridge of Rivet City. So far, so read from a guide. Once I’d gotten lost amongst the warren of iron corridors and finally stumbled upon the exit again, Bobblehead in hand, I figured I’d take a different route back just to see if there was anything interesting.

It’s worth pointing out at this juncture that I’d never actually played any Bethesda games before. I’ve owned Morrowind for years and never played it. I just got Oblivion in the Steam sale, so not played that yet. So as I started my journey back to Megaton, I had no idea Fast Travel was a thing. And bugger me, living without it was glorious.

Coming off the dilapidated warship I stumbled across the Anacostia underground station and thought – eh, why not. There were super mutants on the surface that I’d just passed and they were tough, the underground can’t be that bad can it?

And it took me hours. I was level 3 when I left Rivet City, and about level 11 by the time I got back to Megaton. It was probably a week of evenings creeping back across Washington DC, a good dozen hours in total, underpowered and badly equipped and on my own. It was tough, it was delicate, it was frequently lethal, and it was, to the best of my recollection, the only point in the game I was having fun.

Now, I’m level 21 with about 300 Stimpaks, various special guns, Dogmeat and Charon and a healthy buffer of action points. And I’m just going through the motions now – fast travel to nearest point on map (I’d have gone mad if I didn’t revoke that personal rule upon my return to Megaton), saunter over to new location, open door to building, VATS, click on bad guys, tour the building, check every locker just in case (and there is a special Hell waiting for the person who decided I needed to see the desk drawers rattling for half a second before just showing me the contents), more VATS, more getting lost in identical corridors, lockers, VATS, lockers, VATS… there’s no risk in any of it. I don’t even bother crouching my way round any more, having spent the first dozen levels tip-toeing everywhere, because sod it, VATS!

I know I could just play without VATS, but the game is so designed round it, so reliant on it, that the gunplay without is vastly unsatisfying and hollow. There’s no difficulty to it anymore, so I’ve just stopped playing.

Being a post-apocalyptic game, I’ve inevitably been reminded of my beloved (and now mourned) Stalker. They’re two very different beasts, united only by a similar theme, although an entirely different atmosphere. Fallout is an RPG with guns, and Stalker is an FPS with an inventory. There are lots of things that Stalker does better than Fallout – the ballistics model, the setting (in particular, the familiar-on-the-surface sensation slowly being peeled away), but there’s one aspect in particular that stands out for me now. Until the very end of the game, where there’s suddenly a normal shooting gallery of men-with-guns, Stalker never stopped threatening me.

(Not personally, I mean, it never made knowing references to my kneecaps or anything)

No matter what guns I was carrying – because they were all a bit naff and broken – I was always scared. I played with the LURK mod on, and in the true dark of night, in the pissing rain, seeing the outline of a Bloodsucker against a sudden lightning-lit sky is enough to make you shit yourself, no matter how long you’ve been playing. Especially with the noise they make. *shudder*

It made it feel like a real achievement to survive the Zone, let alone conquer it. Even though it was largely an open world game, it was balanced enough that everywhere was always threatening. Even going back to the starting collection of buildings, you had to be on guard. That this was achieved with the A-Life AI and not just by level designers dropping spawns is even more incredible.

It’s true of other games as well. Late game Civilization is dull, not just because it becomes a nightmarish juggling act but because it’s going through the motions until you meet the relevant victory condition. Particularly with that game, if you’re not in the lead by 1000AD you’re not going to win. There’s no close calls in Civ4; there’s whitewashes and disasters.

It’s true of life as well. It’s power creep in AD&D, it’s driving an automatic car, it’s nothing easy ever being worthwhile.

Some of the best gaming is when you face impossible odds. Replaying The Force Unleashed on the top difficulty level makes it a completely different game. Learning EVE Online is the most bewildering, fascinating experience you can have with your graphics card.

Yes, I play video games for the escapism and the power fantasy, but where’s the joy in torturing ants? Without meaningful competition, why compete? It’s why multiplayer console games are so hard to have a genuinely good time with. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve played a game where my opponent and I were evenly matched (in fact, I think it’s only twice – one evening of Dead or Alive 2, one evening of Fight Night 3). There’s no fun in walking all over someone or holding back artificially, just as there’s no fun in being continuously beaten.

No-one likes massive difficulty spikes – The Force Unleashed falls apart at the second world boss, who is just plain unfair – but that constant struggle is the finest art in videogame creation. It’s possible to maintain momentum through other means such as story or character (e.g. Mass Effect 2) but that’s a rare occurrence. Without a challenge leading me on, without the difficulty curve gently lifting me up, it’s just no fun.

God is dead, and it was boredom what done him in.

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