Here is a lovingly crafted guest blog from our good friend Alex...
Alex: So the Hobo and I were talking (texting actually, even though I hate it) about video games, a perpetual topic of discussion, when the subject of video game difficulty came up. Here’s the string of texts (somewhat cleaned up, due to autocorrection’s unique brand of “help”) that lead to the rant that will be following:
Alex: I still didn’t hit level 60 by the end though. (In reference to Mass Effect 3)
Hobo: Lol, as if the level really matters anyways.
Alex: True. Leveling is pointless when the game levels with you. . .
Hobo: All you get are skill unlocks, and starting at level 25 gives you a ton of points to spend.
Alex: And by the end you have WAAAAY more than you’ll need.
Hobo: Whatever happened to games with actually difficulty?
Alex: They have those. They’re Japanese.
Hobo: Haha true. So what happened here in the USA to make us so soft?
Now I really hate the Western versus Japanese video games arguments. I really think it does a lot to further concepts of “they are different from us.” This is the same kind of thinking that leads us towards xenophobia and the scary parts of nationalism, when we should realize that we’re all humans and are more similar than different. That said, I do realize there are some differences in the overall aspects of games.
People say the Japanese prefer grinding (doing the same things again and again to level up or achieve some progress) in their games. What the heck is with the millions of World of Warcraft players then? That game is one gigantic grind! However, there are plenty MORE Japanese games that require some level of preparedness and planning to get through when compared to Western games, just as there are far more Western games about just quickly moving through the experience. It’s up to individual gamers to pick their style of play, neither is inherently better than the other. Monetarily it makes more sense to buy a game that you’ll get more hours out of, but I have known people to complain when a game takes too long.
Here is where my distaste for Western RPGs comes in. I can’t STAND when games scale alongside the player‘s level. Two recent examples to this are the aforementioned Mass Effect 3 and last year’s Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. By their very nature they render leveling useless and dilute the meaning of it. Leveling up should mean getting stronger, but are you actually getting stronger if the enemies are constantly matching you? Relatively speaking (I must stress the “relative“ part of this equation), no you are not stronger.
Part of the joy of leveling is to make use of that boost, to feel stronger than the enemies you’ve fought before. What sense does it make when that dime a dozen Banshee takes as much effort for Shepard (the galaxy’s supposedly best soldier) to kill when he’s level 54 versus level 30? None. Now here’s where that laziness comes in. Having the game auto-scale means you never have to judge where the player is at in that part of the story and craft encounters that are suitable to that level. This also means the player will never have a challenge, by crafting a scenario where the enemies are sufficiently higher level than the player. Never having a challenge also negates the necessity to do sidequests, as there is no need to be a higher level since you won’t actually gain an advantage.
I completed two games recently, and I think they’re a perfect representation of this concept of scale versus true leveling. The first was Mass Effect 3 (I know I keep using it as an example, it’s freshest in my mind). The two most frequent causes of death for my characters in ME3 were terrible controls (due mostly to their awful version of a cover mechanic) and my Xbox 360 freezing. That was it. The second game I finished recently was Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2. Main cause of death? Not being prepared. Leveling up, choosing the right skill compliments, and getting better demons all factor into the game’s difficulty. You can take your time and over prepare to make it easier, or you can be curb stomped because you neglected something. Your effort has direct input on the difficulty, creating a genuine challenge. There are even optional fights that are too powerful for that point in the game, all to add extra challenge.
Ultimately, you should just play whatever makes you happy. Video games originated as a source of enjoyment, and they should always have some games that use that as their focal point. As long as you’re having fun, nobody should take that away from you--certainly not my opinions. The one thing I do worry about is what George Carlin referred to as “the pussification of America.” The idea that everyone is equal and everyone gets a trophy, even if they half-assed it. In reality there are difficult moments to life. Not everybody wins. In fact, there are far more losers than winners. It’s something you have to learn eventually. I prefer challenge to my games. I feel far more accomplished for beating Devil Survivor 2 than Mass Effect 3. If that challenge ever leaves the industry, that’ll be the day I stop buying games.