tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

Unlockable difficulties need to die in a fire

I spent a good thirty minutes or so trying to think of a witty title for the piece I’m about to write, at which point a phrase I had used to describe my position on the subject to a friend popped into my head. “That’ll do,” I thought.

Enough foreplay – let’s get down to business.

This is something that’s annoyingly common these days. I think the first time I came across it was in the very first Diablo, where you could unlock Nightmare and subsequently Hell difficulties after beating the game on Normal and then Nightmare. Then, it didn’t seem like a huge problem to me (especially since even on Normal, the first game was rather difficult) and I didn’t complain too much when the sequel kept the same basic structure. I blame that mostly on my being 16 and having more free time and lower standards than I do now.

These days, however, it irritates the hell out of me to finish a game only to be told that I should now go and play it all over again from the beginning, because that’s where the REAL GAME is!

Well if that’s the ‘real game’ why didn’t you let me play that in the first place?

Yes, the game actually tells you the last sixty hours you spent were meaningless

The most recent offender I can think of is Borderlands 2, a game which, after having put me through sixty-plus hours of mostly tedium (thanks to the game also being very poorly balanced) and a disappointingly easy final boss, had the audacity to tell me to do it all over again in True Vault Hunter mode. I suppose I was just pissing around for the last sixty hours, was I?

Better games aren’t immune to this either – pretty much every good 3D action game I’ve played has done this on some level, even ones I’ve enjoyed like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. In those cases I’ve basically made it a point to avoid touching the unlocked difficulties altogether, and instead move on to something else.

I brought this up to a couple of friends recently, and one of them responded “what about mastering the game?”

What about it?

Generally speaking, in single player games, one of the biggest incentives to keep playing is discovery. OK, you just beat that difficult boss – where’s the game going to take you next? What powerful foes await you? Mechanics and aesthetics are what serve to immerse you in the game (and the lack of quality of either of these can serve as a powerful disincentive to keep playing), but what generally keeps you playing is the anticipation of what challenge might come up next, and the process by which you figure out how to overcome this challenge and move on.

Given this, the thing to remember about replaying the game on higher difficulties is that with the exception of difficulty, you’re playing pretty much the exact same game again. Same mechanics, same enemies, same level designs. At best, enemy encounters will be mixed up a bit to introduce harder enemies sooner. What this means is that for the most part the game is showing you things you’ve already experienced in a somewhat different order, and asking you to play through this again. It’s like eating a five-course meal and then being served the same five courses in random order, with chili powder sprinkled over everything.

You could argue that these few differences make the game worth playing through again, and indeed, this argument has been put to me. Perhaps that’s true, but isn’t it also true that I would get far more enjoyment from playing a different game (i.e. a completely new experience) instead of a somewhat rearranged version of a game I’ve already played? If I want to continue to be immersed in a game after I’ve completed it, what I’m looking for is really brand new scenarios, enemies and mechanics, but we already have a name for this sort of thing, and it’s called a sequel, not a second playthrough.

Which brings us to ‘mastery’  – it’s not a goal in and of itself. Mastery is usually something that accrues naturally the more you play a game (as is the case with any number of fighting games that I’ve played). I’ll naturally improve my mastery of the game as long as I’m still playing and deriving enjoyment from it – but in the case of single-player games, this drops off sharply after I’ve beaten it due to the factors that I’ve mentioned above. The game isn’t showing me anything terribly new, and even if it starts to on much higher difficulties (your Dante Must Die-type difficulties, in other words), that requires so much time investment for such little marginal benefit that it really isn’t an option for me at all.

If someone’s going to claim that complete mastery is a precondition for ‘being done’ with a game, then said game shouldn’t let you beat it until that level of mastery has been achieved, and as far as I know, short of arcade games, none of the action games I’ve played have have imposed that sort of exacting standard.

So yeah – don’t ask me if I’ve beaten Bayonetta on Non-stop Climax mode or something – you already know the answer.

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