Kratos descended from the heavens last month and delivered another brutal entry into the God of War series with its third installment. At least I heard it was brutal. I do not own a PS3 and have yet to play it.But, oh god, how I want to play it! I enjoyed the first game immensely and flew through the second one enjoying every moment (though that game had its fair share of problems when compared to the perfect first game). According to a review I read of God of War 3, it is the most brutal game of the three. Specifically, the review mentioned a battle that has a very Irreversible (One of Gaspar Noe’s if-you-watch-this-your-life-may-be-destroyed movies) ending. In Irreversible, a man is killed via repeated bludgeons to the head with a fire extinguisher. If you look up Irreversible on IMDB, one of its “plot keywords” says just that: “fire extinguisher smashing face”. Irreversible is the only movie with that keyword, which saddens me every time I think of it. Some nights before I fall asleep, all I can see in my head is that crushed skull.
It now has become very dear to me. God of War 3 offers a similar scene of torture porn, which has the potential to send me peacefully off to dreamland many a night.
To help sate my recent blood lust, I decided to give God of War 2 another run through. I played it so long ago and beat it so quickly that I barely remember the good parts. This time through I decided upon the very hard difficulty level to see what sort of challenge awaited me (dubbed “Titan”-mode in keeping with the Greek theme).
The first thing that struck me was how powerful “Titan” mode made the enemies. I noticed this in the first level when I had to fight the Colossus of Rhodes. He was mammothly strong. Three hits would kill me. This forced me to memorize his very predictable movements. It made me nostalgic for the bosses from side-scrollers of yore. Even when I could guess how he would attack, finesse and agility were needed to dodge the incredible swath of his attacks. It took me about an hour of trial and error to eventually get past this five-minute section of the game.
God of War has an incredibly responsive control system, which prevented this mini-endurance test from being irritating. I felt like I was getting better as I went along and felt satisfaction at finally getting past the Colossus. It was aggravating to realize that I probably did not die at all the first time I played this section. The entire first level on “medium” difficulty was a breeze, something I blew through mindlessly; enjoyable because of the violence the game let me enact on the world. It was a power fantasy of the richest sort.
The power fantasy disappears when the difficulty ramps up. Kratos goes from being indestructible to being weaker than the lowliest foot soldiers he faces. The bottom-tier foes at the beginning take more hits to go down than Kratos does. Thankfully, these enemies are easy to outsmart and destroy. The numerous wing-demons, which populate the second area, are a whole other matter. They not only instantly kill Kratos if they hit him while he is hanging on a ledge, they also are powerful enough to take him out in about four regular hits. Add to this their aerial movement and occasional from-off-camera attacks, and they become an extremely deadly force. They have killed me more times than any boss so far. The only successful way to defeat them is to take a defensive position and use hit and run tactics. Playing God of War 2 in this way saps all the fun from it. The huge eye-popping combos become only a memory as I hold guard and peck at the enemies swarming around me. Only after I have killed 80% of them in a given area can I cut loose and enjoy the combat.
Two gameplay elements make the difficulty manageable and the levels beatable. On my “medium” difficulty play-through, I wondered why there were so many health and magic chests. Many times I would not even bother to open them because I was already at full health. Those chests were for the harder difficulties. In addition, the game quasi-auto-saves in the form of a checkpoint every time Kratos enters a new area. If he dies in an area, generally the player can restart at the entrance to that area. With plentiful chests and the checkpoint system, a typical level goes from being a slowly intensifying struggle, to a series of disconnected slog-fests. Each time I encountered an enemy, I thought, “Great, it will only take me four retries to finally luck out and get past these three minotaurs.” The difficulty makes the pace of every level painstakingly slow.
Difficulty occupies a… difficult position in today’s video game world. Video games are a booming industry with consumers spending more and more and producers pumping more and more cash into their games. Production expenses have reached such astronomical highs that all action/adventures, first person shooters, and RPGs are expected to be big budget affairs—grand spectacles that make the player go completely gay-gay (“ga-ga” is way overused). These huge monstrous creations stuffed to the brim with capital can only be profitable if they are immensely popular. In an effort to make a game appeal to a greater range of players, developers have increasingly made their games easier.* Patience, skill, and memory were the tricks to clearing a level in the days most “big” games were ports from the Arcade.
In the current market, it seems developers think that long, leisurely games are better than short, challenging games. Challenge still plays an important role in video games, but rarely is it the main focus of big budget properties. Most games add difficulty through time-gobbling, obsessive-compulsive achievements or competitive multi-player modes—two elements that simultaneously lengthen the game experience. As anyone who has played the Arcade ports of yesteryear, games have gotten much, much longer as they have gotten easier. Games are longer in terms of both single run-throughs and 100% completions. Compared to old games, modern games are brimming with content. But what is the point of content if there is no challenge?
Furthermore, action/adventures and RPGs have become less like games and more like interactive motion pictures. With the development of CG technology, games can craft visuals as lifelike as any big budget sci-fi movie. With the success of early cinematic games, games have increasingly taken to aping the real world in order to reach new levels of immersion. The importance of plot and pacing has precipitated a decline in games that require lightning reflexes or an agile mind for puzzle solving. When narrative push becomes the main agent for immersion, a difficult and thought-provoking puzzle will take focus away from the story and pull the gamer out of the game.
It is not impossible to reconcile cinematic storytelling with challenging gameplay. The golden era for such games began with two of the first cinematic games to appear (and arguably the two best games that fused the two worlds), Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid. Both of these titles were game-changers. Final Fantasy VII took a beloved RPG franchise and successfully brought it into the realm of 3D with one of the first save-the-world stories that felt as huge and important as it said it was. Metal Gear Solid relaunched a somewhat forgotten series back into the mainstream conscious and crafted an experience that pays homage to war epics, spy films, nuclear paranoia, giant robot anime, and potty humor. It was Japanese Tom Clancy. Both these games were brilliant and both had the difficulty just right. They never held your hand. They presented the intricacies of their game play subtly. Metal Gear was the first action game I played where I knew that no one had played and beaten it exactly the way I had. During this golden era, many other great games came out that incorporated filmic devices, including Final Fantasy VIII, Resident Evil 1 and 2, Devil May Cry 1, and God of War 1.
I want people to remember the challenge that used to exist in games and the authenticity that came with it. By carefully crafting the game play and using subtlety when describing mechanics, gamers themselves were able to figure out the best way to beat the terrorist, get from point A to point B or solve the puzzle. Even the most linear games like Final Fantasy VII made the player feel like (s)he, (the player not the character) was growing into someone uniquely capable of saving the world.
Difficulty plays a huge role in this. Difficulty shows the player they are playing wrong. Difficulty teaches the player to think about the tools at his disposal and the choices he makes. Difficulty brings down the iron fist of discipline, which makes the gamer invest in what he is doing.
God of War 2 fails as a difficult game. It challenges the player in none of the ways I mentioned above. Instead of being honestly difficult, it seems it was crafted to hate me. It makes me not believe in my own power, but in my weakness against the forces of chance and chaos. Maybe God of War 2 opens up when my powers grow and I have more at my disposable than the weakest blades. It is futile to consider that future, because killing these beasties no longer gives me satisfaction. If this was my first play-through, I would have quit long ago. Luckily my first play-through had more than enough blood, guts, boobies, and violence to satiate my own lust for such things in the real world.
*A notable exception to the “softening” of games comes in the form of MMORPGs. High-level MMO play includes quests and enemies that require the concerted efforts of several players to beat. However, these games are subject to constant tweaking and expansion through regular debugging and updating. They have the potential to be infinitely difficult and are outside of this discussion. With the increased popularity of DLC, it can be argued that any game has infinite difficulty, but since most games that are locally-focused receive only superficial enhancements and a limited number of expansions, their difficulty is bounded.