Article by Kris
I got myself a new gaming laptop for Christmas. The old one was seven years old (which meant it had lasted for purpose beyond most of my adult relationships) and was starting to drag along a little bit. Never one to let insufficient tech stop me from getting a payday bargain, the new computer has freed up a dozen games sitting in my Steam library that I’ve previously been unable to play. Among them is a robust release about running a mercenary company in a time of greatswords and goblins. It’s called Battle Brothers.
I rather liked the style and visual appearance of the game, and it didn’t really matter to me that I was a fairly incompetent tactician. After getting my arse handed to me on Christmas Day by what seemed to be a fairly innocuous ragtag bunch of bandits (they’d bought helmets, in fairness, but I thought my numerical advantage of 2-to-1 should be enough to deliver a victory of sorts), I tried to rebuild a squad (three survivors, two noses, four legs and one shield between them) but rather than see the difficulty scale back to adjust for my reduced circumstances, instead it seemed to go the other way. After scraping around the map looking for missions of an appropriate level, my remaining squad members were quickly savaged to death by direwolves and I retired to the study with my pipe and a book about the Empire until my British superiority complex had restored itself.
Battle Brothers is a hard game and I had perhaps brought suffering upon myself by choosing a medium difficulty setting from the off. (This approach also resulted in a fairly frustrating experience on XCOM 2, a franchise that I adore but one that failed to deliver on the promise of previous games.) A replay of the game on the lowest difficulty setting bought survival for fifty days, before I was crippled by the actions of a noble house who were obviously better equipped for a fight.
Losing at games is something that happens, but it doesn’t normally bother me as much as it did this time. It was hard to put my finger on exactly what felt unjust about the experience, but I tapped the phrase ‘battle brothers too hard’ into Google to see what other players thought. The response was interesting – a large number of people who seemed to echo my own feelings about the game, and a significant number of others telling those of us that felt the game was too hard were pansies and should man up. One even joyously celebrated our collective mercenary incompetence, saying that making games deliberately hard was taking gaming back to the ‘good old days’.
I remember the good old days, and here’s the thing. The good old days were … not as good. Certainly not as much fun. The good old days were full of games that were badly ported from one system to another, plagued by bugs that meant they were unfinishable or that key areas couldn’t be accessed. Don’t get me wrong – in retrospect, it’s great that many of these things happened as they’ve played a significant part in gaming culture. Anyone like me, old enough to remember playing Smash TV or RoboCop on the C64, will know about the hours spent trying to access the unreachable Pleasuredome in the former, or the wall cheat required to get to the unplayable garbage level in the latter. Sure, those early pioneer systems had their charms and some genuinely clever games that were wonderfully playable (Paradroid! Creatures!) but would I rather play them forever, with their poor collision-detection, propensity to bug out and fail to load, or would I rather get my teeth into a modern AAA classic? It’s not a hard choice. The beautiful worlds of Horizon Zero Dawn or the sparkling, star-filled universe of Elite Dangerous are going to win out every time.
So what’s behind the recent push for harder and harder games? The first time this was brought to my attention was in the Yahtzee Croshaw review of Dark Souls from 2014, in which he bemoans the game as being ‘like walking into a dark shed full of rakes – immediately stepping on one and being blatted in the face.’ What’s apparent (and this is kind of key to the whole debate) is that he clearly came to love the game – but it took time, and cliff notes in the form of Wikis and Let’s Plays. He mentions a steep initial learning curve that inevitably is a turn-off for entry-level gamers – a criticism that I find increasingly valid in an era of DLCs, patches and ongoing balance issues.
Inspired by his example, I went online to watch people play Battle Brothers on the expert levels. The first thing I saw was people who were ostensibly among the best players of the game saying, ‘Oh no, I don’t like this map. I’m going to restart.’ Again, this mirrored my experience on XCOM 2, where I’d seen a great player reload a level from scratch because in their words, a map they’d been given was ‘unplayable’. I realise this goes back to comments I’ve made in previous entries, but gaming games should not be necessary to proceed. You can’t reload a war for convenience when you find out the enemy have bigger guns.
Now, some may say this is all as it should be – expert players are more likely than the rest of us to know when they’re outgunned, and react accordingly. But here’s the thing. There’s a world of difference between saying, ‘I don’t like this situation, I am going to retreat’ (which in Battle Brothers at least, is both allowed and expected) and saying, ‘No, this whole situation is just unplayable, I’m going to restart until I get favourable conditions.’ The latter might make for better YouTube viewing, but it still amounts on the player’s part to savescumming (which is called that, I would argue, for a reason) and on the part of the developer, it suggests to some degree that not enough thought has gone into designing the game so that it’s, y’know, actual fun. The same forums that I’ve seen denouncing players who are calling games too hard are the same ones discussing builds in which successful squads all contain the same character types and weapons. Variety of approach in these environments inevitably results in failure, and only a single narrow-minded style of play can be rewarded.
Don’t get me wrong – Battle Brothers and XCOM 2 (particularly with the excellent War of the Chosen DLC) are both good games, both worth your time and the money that you’d spend on them, even if it is time spent on the peewee difficulty setting. (Whereas there are some titles that just represent suffering for the sake of it – I’m looking at you, Sunrider Academy – and those can suck my balls.) The eternal battle is one of harshness versus fairness – the difference between punishing the player in arbitrary ways (bad) and giving them enough scope to punish themselves by failing to adopt an appropriate strategy (good, unless there is only one viable strategy to progress despite potential alternative builds, which is bad). It is a battle for developers to be accessible for new players while still offering a reasonable level of challenge to the advanced end of the player spectrum.
This presents a particular challenge since it is the more hardcore players who arguably make up the most dedicated, determined and outspoken fans. If you check out gaming forums, you’ll frequently see players (often with edgy usernames like ‘DatTrollTho’ or ‘AggroBadger69’) saying things like, ‘Of course it’s not fair! But that is like life! You are meant to die horribly four hundred and seventeen times in order to develop a workable starting platform’ and so on. And those people may just have a point. It’s true that life can suck. But here’s the thing. I play games for fun. If the game tilts too much in favour of punishing people for playing, that’s not escapism, it’s masochism (and I remind you that I already have that down pat thanks to Mrs H’s unquenchable appetite for Hallmark movies).
Does the recent trend for difficult games represent a barrier to enjoyment for new gamers? I would hope that clever design should be able to offer the best of all worlds. Most developers are savvy enough to offer players a low difficulty setting so that those who don’t relish a ridiculous challenge can see all of the content. Meanwhile, I have a soft spot for those gamers at the hardcore end of the difficulty setting, who should be appreciated and cherished in the same way as us slightly odd types with fringe interests, so it would be a shame to see games generally nerfed to such an extent that a core demographic can’t maximise their own enjoyment.
Still, it would be nice if they could be a bit kinder to noobs on forums.