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The Tyranny of Challenge

Like most middle-aged gamers, I cut my teeth in the noisy, garish world of coin-op arcades. When each play costs anew, game designers and manufacturers had a vested interest in making them tough. Not too tough to put off potential gamers, but enough to require repeated coins pumped through the slot.

It was a delicate balancing act but we lapped it up, living for those sweaty moments of exquisite agony where new and unexpected situations taxed your muscle memory and you twitched instinctively over the joystick. Trying desperately to keep that personalised bunch of mindless pixels on the screen burning brightly for one second longer, fired with the knowledge that pocket change isn’t that easy to come by when you’re a teenager.

The same ethic of toughness pervaded the early home computer games. Partly it was inherited from the coin-op world, and partly it was down to technical constraints. But neither lasted. As early as the end of the 8-bit era there were games where progress could be saved, where the focus was more on brave exploration or engrossing story or cunning conundrums than it was on mastering movement patterns.

At a stroke this should have altered forever the culture of difficulty. Where is the value in setting up artificial barriers to progress when they can be overcome eventually with the repetition of saving and reloading? Anyone could master anything with no more skill than a reserve or patience, or obsession. And yet difficulty not only remained a shibboleth of game design, it remains celebrated now.

For evidence, look at the number of titles that hobby gamers repeatedly celebrate and marvel over from the most recent console iteration which are feted for their extreme levels of difficulty, such as Dark Souls and others. Observe the worry about input lag on modern TVs, and how microsecond differences can make difficult games unplayable. Look at the exhortations you see in columns and articles everywhere to play games on their most punishing settings.

I first started thinking about this when I saw a fairly heated discussion about the merits of doing just that on Max Payne 3. There was a minority of dissenting opinion that the best way to experience the game was to actually do the exact opposite, make it as easy to play as possible, and just sit back and enjoy the story and those cool bullet-time visuals. And I thought, why not? What’s wrong with just loving a game because its immersive and clever, treating it more like an interactive film than a traditional game experience?

I was reminded of that train of thought recently, playing Dear Esther for the first time. It’s an odd thing which defies easy classification, and I admired to hugely for its inventiveness and artistry, probably more than I enjoyed actually playing it. But it has no difficulty whatsoever, beyond the demands that piecing together the intentionally fragmentary, incomplete story places on the player. It may not even be a game.

But whatever it is, it wouldn’t work anywhere other than on a computer. I was dumbfounded to read that some of its critics felt it would have worked better than a film. How would a film incorporate the elements of exploration that reward the player with more clues on Dear Esther’s tantalisingly incomplete characters and plot? How would it randomise the monologue to ensure repeat value and different interpretations on each analysis? How would it draw the viewer into the central driving seat of the experience? It is fundamentally a digital experience, and must remain so to preserve its value.

But on consideration, its astonishing that it took so long for something like Dear Esther to exist. The ways in which it leverages the medium to create an absorbing yet highly creative and aesthetic experience seems obvious after the fact. And it’s not like artists haven’t tried using games to make important, interesting statements before although the results have been far more art than game, worthy of analysis rather than play. Why did no-one create a playable art-game hybrid like Dear Esther earlier?

Some of the blame rests with the deservedly dreadful reputation that the term “interactive movie” garnered early in its life. Games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace might have looked very pretty by the standards of their time but they were clunky, linear things with little replay value and the bad smell they left after their initial vast hype is only now beginning to dissipate. Recent titles like Dear Esther and Heavy Rain leave me wondering what that amorphous combination of film and computing could have managed in the intervening years were it not for the long shadow of the laser disc.

But mostly I suspect that the lack of progress in this space is due to the worship of difficulty on the part of game designers everywhere. The people in the driving seat of game releases have, up until very recently, been my generation, that same generation who had an association between challenge and gaming seared onto their developing adolescent brains from hours of coin-op play. To people raised on that cultured that celebrated challenge as the be-all and end-all of games, the idea of something sedate, easy, to be consumed and appreciated for reasons other than its difficulty is anathema.

The same people are doing a lot of work on mobile and tablets. They’re responsible for games like Super Hexagon, a game of such intense difficulty that progress for most players is measured in terms of seconds, not even minutes. But the interesting thing about this is that in many ways mobile gaming is a return to the early days on coin-ops because both formats have an inherent interest in keeping games short, albeit for very different reasons.

As a result high challenge games work exceptionally well on mobile. And as the format eats further and further into console and PC gaming it’s worth remembering that while difficult games have value, they don’t entirely play to the strengths of those platforms, which is rendering long, compelling, media-rich experiences.

This isn’t about bashing difficult games on consoles. When they’re built around the concept of their challenge, cunningly designed as Dark Souls is to make it a central feature of their game on top of which other involving aspects of play can be assembled, they can be superb. But the continued existence of fake barrier erected in many other games can simply lead to repetition. Don’t be phased. Enjoy games on whatever difficulty settings appeal to you most. And hope that now a new generation of developers is leaving the old god of challenge for mobile, where it properly belongs, we’ll see a whole lot more experimentation and innovation in the next hardware generation.

Final Thoughts on Max Payne 3

I’m not going to call this a review of Max Payne 3 even though my time with the game is finished. I played the single player, on easy, and completed it. I didn’t touch it on the harder modes, nor did I attempt New York Minute mode or arcade mode. The former was not unlocked due to my meager difficulty setting, the latter may have been unlocked, but I didn’t check. I also didn’t touch the multiplayer for even a second because seriously, why would I do that? Other people may be interested in new multiplayer experiences, but not this guy. We can take it as a given that I’m going to suck at multiplayer, regardless of the new bells and whistles implemented therein, so why waste everyone’s time?

Don’t get me wrong, I have a pretty strong opinion of the game, I’m just not comfortable calling this a review given that there’s so much of the game I didn’t touch. That being said, let’s get to it.

I played the previous Max Payne games on the PC and while I remember loving the hell out of Max Payne, there is very little about Max Payne 2 I remember, save for the cover. I know there was someone named Mona although that may be a lingering memory of that terrible Max Payne movie. I have a feeling that the new setting and the diversion from the noir-heavy feel of the previous Max Payne games may hamper long time fans’ appreciation of the game. For me, though, all I remembered was bullet time and James McCaffrey’s excellent voice acting.

Both of these things are back in spades, so if all you want is slo-mo shooting and gruff, sarcastic delivery, there’s more than enough of both here to keep you entertained. If what you want is an excellent story and deep character development, prepare to be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, there is a story here, and it is thankfully devoid of the larger thematic attempts that traditionally dog Rockstar narratives but by the time the big twist is revealed, a story element that is as trite as it is financially untenable, you’ll likely be looking to see things through just to give Max something to be successful at, and less because of some sense of moral outrage.

Despite the narrative stumbles, I still really, really enjoyed this game. Half of that has to do with the portrayal of Max and the game choosing to get away somewhat from the noir roots. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good noir tale, but I seem to remember Remedy choosing to make the game noir by giving Max a mouth full of noir phrases, each one more clichéd than the last, a choice that wore on me as the series moved on. This game has noir elements, certainly, but Rockstar chose to tone it down, instead portraying Max as less of a noir anti-hero and more as a guy who completely screws up everything that he touches.

Any by everything, I mean everything. There’s a reason Max was chosen to come and protect the Branco family, the roots of this choice explained via flashback missions that have Max and his new friend Passos shooting up beautiful Hoboken, and while Max’s ability to wield pistols has something to do with it, his constant state of drunkenness makes up the rest of it. As the game progresses, everything Max touches turns to shit but he persists, doggedly chasing the notion that if he keeps at it, maybe he can fix the next thing, or the next thing, or the next thing. By the end of the game, I wanted to finish it because Max wanted to see it through and I thought that maybe if he could do something right, he’d find some measure of peace. The fact that Max understands why he was chosen for the job, and he sees that as coming back to bite those responsible on the ass gave me an incredible sense of satisfaction. As Max says, “Say what you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism. You buy yourself a product and you get what you paid for.”

The game’s use of Tony Scott style, “Man on Fire” cuts and drawing spoken words on the screen may further push away those looking for the noir angle, as will the bright streets of Sao Paulo but for me, it worked. I admit to being sometimes enamored with style over substance, and in this case, I think that’s a fair criticism but at the same time, it allowed the environmental artists at Rockstar to flex their technical muscles and create the best looking Rockstar game to date. When your main character is only good at one thing, killing bad guys, you can’t rely on a steady progression of powers or abilities to keep your player interested, interest has to be maintained via a selection of excellent set pieces and gunfights.

It is here that players of the previous Max Payne games will feel right at home. Max can still enter bullet time, charging up his ever dwindling meter with precision shots, as well as perform shootdodges, slo-mo dives for bite-sized chunks of ballistic mayhem. Max still chokes down painkillers to restore health, but with the added twist of Last Man Standing, by which you can automatically restore some health via painkillers provided you can single out whoever fired the last bullet with your name on it and kill them before you bleed out. All of the combat elements combine to form glorious, violent dances where men crumple where they stand, drunken heroes dive for cover and the last enemy is dispatched with a slow motion symphony of cold steel, cordite and exploding brain matter.

I have a feeling that your enjoyment of the game will come down to whether or not the excellent gunplay and voice acting is enough to make up for the lack of story or supporting characters with real depth. Plenty of other games have excellent gunplay. Plenty of other games have excellent voice work. I’m having a hard time coming up with a game that had both in the same amount as this game does, but I’m sure there are some out there. For me, it was more than enough. For others, particularly those that have a deep affection for the series, it may not be enough.