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The Joy of the Hardest Difficulty

by William Schwartz

hard-difficulty

I am a monument to all your sins. Back when I was in high school, my friends and I created what we called a “club”, or more accurately, a “social marker”. It was dedicated to one singular concept: beating a game on the hardest difficulty. Originally, it was called “Monument to all Your Sins” named after the titular achievement in Halo: Reach that asked you to beat the entire game on its hardest difficulty, Legendary, solo. The only way to “get in” was to prove you beat the game on Legendary solo, which usually included people giving us their gamertag and us verifying that they did unlock the achievement. Along the way, though, the club started to evolve. Soon, more games were added to the mix to prove your worth. Call of Duty 5: World at War’s Veteran difficulty, Dead Space’s Hardcore difficulty, etc. were just a few examples of the additions we made. And throughout that time, I always wondered one thing. Why is it that we enjoyed playing and beating games on the hardest difficulty?

Surprisingly, I have yet to break a controller

I am relatively new when it comes to video games. I didn’t grow up with Super Mario Bros. 64 or Quake or even Megaman. As such, my collection of games beaten on the hardest difficulty is rather paltry compared to most: Halo C.E., Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach, Halo 4, every Call of Duty since Modern Warfare, Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3, Medal of Honor: 2010, Battlefield 3, Fallout: New Vegas (I did the double-whammy on that one; hardest difficulty along with Hardcore mode) and Skyrim. And despite all that pain, all that frustration; I enjoyed every minute of it. Yes, World at War was beyond horrible with unlimited enemies and grenade spam, yes “Cairo Station” will forever live in infamy for me, and yes, I got lost traversing though “The Library”. Surprisingly, I have yet to break a controller, but I did get close at certain points. I did utter some swear words after completion, though.

jackal-sniper-hard

And yet I still come back. Part of it has to do, I feel, with the want to challenge ourselves and to overcome that challenge. Human nature has always been one to be challenged and to overcome challenges. How else to explain why things like Sudoku or Rubik’s Cubes are so popular? Or why the best sensations of sports is the feeling that all the training paid off? I feel that the hardest difficulty feeds into that emotion. Despite all the toil and trouble (yes, I purposefully referenced Macbeth), there is truly something to be felt where you actually feel challenged, where you can’t simply go into autopilot or go through the motions. While frustrating, there’s a certain joy, a certain fun, to be had when you are using every trick and every skill up your arsenal to make sure you do not die. That in turn makes winning, whether it be just a battle, a level or even the game, so much sweeter. The sensation that all your sweat and tears have finally paid off is consistently one of the best feelings to be had. And never mind playing a game on the hardest difficulty with your friends. That will lead to some of the most frustrating but at the same time exhilarating experiences of your gaming career.

This in turn leads to a frustration I have with some current games. They aren’t as difficult as they could be. Sometimes this is just due to them limiting/removing cheap tactics to artificially make the game difficult (grenade spam, unlimited spawning enemies, ridiculous rate of fire, amazing vision) which I’m fine with. But other times, it’s just because the difficulty isn’t there. Two examples I can think of are Medal of Honor:2010 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. I jumped to playing Hard on the Medal of Honor campaign without previously playing it. I died about 20 times by my count, most of which was on the level where you are being ambushed. I was disappointed to say the least. For Black Ops 2, I felt I was going through the motions. Not once did I feel tested, just slightly annoyed by some of the ambushes. That in turn made beating the hardest difficulty comparatively unsatisfying. I didn’t get the same emotion from beating Black Ops 2 as I did beating Black Opswhich for the most part was relatively fair in its difficulty. That’s not to say I want games to return to the cheap ways of the Atari or Donkey Kong days. But rather I want a game where I feel I’m being pushed to my limits, but organically not artificially. The best examples I can give are Mass Effect 3 and Halo: Reach, games where higher difficulties resulted in better and more intelligent A.I., where I felt I had to be resourceful rather than pray for a lucky shot.

What are your thoughts on the hardest difficulty? Is it not worth it? Is it fun? Comment below.

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