How Hard is Hard?

Opinion by Marc_Pilkington,
"You Died."

Christmas Day 2011 was the very first day that these words from the infamous Dark Souls emblazoned themselves on my TV screen. The punishing RPG series prides itself on being a tough-as-nails set of games that spare no expense in flattening you at every opportunity. However, five years on from then, I have managed to fully complete the title along with its two sequels, and my PS4 even has From Software's gothic version of Souls, Bloodborne, sitting there with a platinum trophy. I would never proclaim myself as a talented gamer by any means, but a series of games that focuses on being hard by nature has been well and truly played to the death by this very gamer. I might even go as far as to say that Dark Souls isn't hard. What is "Hard" anyway? Do we all possess the same skill set, therefore establishing a universal understanding of the toughest difficulty setting in gaming? Of course we don't, so what actually is it?

Thanks for letting me know, Dark Souls...Thanks for letting me know, Dark Souls...

A simple Google search of the adjective "hard" gives us one such definition: "Done with a great deal of force or strength." Another reads "With a great deal of effort." Translated into the world of gaming, to play something that is hard is to overcome a challenge with a great deal of effort, or rather, the game itself is going to extreme lengths to cause you to fail. Of course, we know that the AI of games themselves and their developers have understood this in different ways, so they have implemented varying degrees of challenge for the player. To grasp the idea that bit further, we'll put three different titles in the spotlight and explore how they present the idea of "hard" to the player that is in search of it.

Dark Souls

Where else would we start? A series that is all about challenge and dying again, again and again has "hard" running through its veins. After the PS3 exclusive Demon's Souls, Dark Souls was available to anyone with an Xbox 360 or PS3 nearby. Unlike many titles where a tough difficulty is selected through choice, this game gives you no choice. It is what it is. This is where Dark Souls' understanding of difficulty changes to the majority of modern games.

Let's take Modern Game X. X allows to walk over enemies without a scratch on its easiest difficulty, but on the highest difficulty setting, enemies spawn at a quicker rate, a graze to the arm causes as much damage as a fatal shot to the brain and enemies themselves appear to eat bullets for breakfast. It's a scenario that automatically leaves you at a disadvantage and may even be argued as unfair. Dark Souls knows the balance (well, almost). The game demands focus and understanding of both the combat system and the enemies that stand before you. Although ambushes can strike an unsuspecting player, the majority of deaths are down to you and you alone. Learning from mistakes brings valuable knowledge, valuable knowledge brings progress, persevering to gain more progress eventually brings victory and with that victory brings a unique sense of accomplishment. Gaining that knowledge makes the impossible possible. Finally defeating Ornstein and Smough after hours of failing feels worth it. The game justly rewards you in such a way that it perfectly parallels the original feeling of failure and frustration. In this way, the game retains its difficulty, but it is always fair. Anyone can beat it if they stick at it. It is certainly not impossible.

This takes me back to my introduction. I'm not a masochistic gamer. I don't find unending pleasure in torturing myself on every game I play by ranking up the difficulty setting the second I'm able. However, Dark Souls is one of my all-time favourite titles and because of that, I powered through and beat the entire series. This game's understanding of "hard" isn't something to be feared. Rather, it is something to delve into and overcome with perseverance, thus coming out victorious.

Dark Souls: Hard by nature, fair by nature.Dark Souls: Hard by nature, fair by nature.

Mass Effect 2

This may not be a title that immediately comes to everyone's minds when thinking about tough difficulty, but I have very vivid memories of my time through Mass Effect 2 for that coveted difficulty achievement. The entire trilogy names its highest difficulty setting "Insanity", conjuring all sorts of horrific images. A difficulty of that name surely shouldn't be taken lightly.

Mass Effect, with your imported Shepard from a previous playthrough, caused this so-called Insanity to be a rather sane affair, never destroying you time and time again. There were certainly moments of difficulty (do we all remember our first encounter with Matriarch Benezia?), but it wasn't anything memorable. Mass Effect 3 was tough if you allowed it to be, but there was a sneaky workaround with the use of an unbelievably overpowered DLC weapon. The particle rifle was able to obliterate the likes of Banshees, Brutes and Geth Primes in mere seconds, thus making your Insanity playthrough more of a luke-warm challenge. Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, had no obvious hints or workarounds, so this stuck out as something to be wary of when going for the Insanity run.

What Mass Effect 2 on Insanity forces you to do is use every aspect of the combat to its utmost efficiency. A normal run permits you to let your squad run around a little and use their powers at their leisure, but on Insanity, you must give commands to your squad mates for specific cover and manually use their powers at the opportune time, otherwise they are most likely toast. Every combat encounter became another practice drill on Mass Effect 2 combat 101, punishing you if you did something slightly wrong. The final battle on Horizon caused me to despise husks more than I could ever imagine. A solid hour of failing on one encounter on the "abandoned" Collector ship had me jumping for joy when I finally beat it. A tactical way of thinking was needed and knowing what worked well on every single enemy was also of great importance. This was a high difficulty run that was worthy of the name.

Mass Effect 2 sees "hard" differently to Dark Souls. It may not be fair at times, but you are still forced to compile all your knowledge of the combat and really use it properly to come out as the victor. Mass Effect is my favourite series of games of all time, but one stand-out moment of my time with trilogy was still seeing Shepard and his companions get their butts kicked by the Collectors far too many times. Hard is most definitely hard in this game.

Mass Effect 2 on Insanity: Shepard gets his butt well and truly kicked.Mass Effect 2 on Insanity: Shepard gets his butt well and truly kicked.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Dark Souls is a naturally tough title, Mass Effect 2 gives us a difficulty setting that actually plays as it should but then there's the likes of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, the easy version of hard. This game is one of many titles that takes the highest difficulty and completely trivialises it. Despite this, I remember my time with it well, but not because of the challenge.

When I got my hands on Enslaved, I was immediately captivated by the relationship between Monkey and Trip. The two grew closer as the game progressed and that stuck with me more than the gameplay ever did. With that progression, Monkey gained better skills and his set of abilities became stronger, causing enemies to be less of a threat. That first playthrough of a linear action adventure game is always the longest. You explore for any collectables you can find on your own, you watch every cutscene with great concentration and you get to grips with the combat. By the end, you know exactly what is what and Monkey is the gladiatorial beast on the battlefield. For the sake of achievements, I jumped in once again for a playthrough on the highest difficulty but thanks to the wonders of modern gaming, I was able to play on New Game Plus.

With New Game Plus, every single upgrade, ability and weapon gained from the previous playthrough sticks with you. Dark Souls and Mass Effect 2 share the same mechanic, but the difficulty wasn't trying to play catch up. Enslaved, on the other hand, was. With my knowledge of the combat already in place, and my superior Monkey, I was able to rip through opponents at a moment's notice, never raising my heartbeat higher than normal. You could even argue that the game was easier this time around, as the ratio of the hard difficulty to Monkey's own strength was far more askew to that of the medium difficulty. I had no qualm with this, of course, so I gleefully ran through the game, finding challenge only in those sneaky tech orbs that liked to hide away from me. Another achievement bites the dust.

Enslaved is not alone in this. Many games of the last generation (and even now) had a hard difficulty thrown in without any real thought as to how challenging it could become. We can call them "The Easy Hard Game". Genuinely tough games, through the sheer brutality of gameplay, will implore you to adapt to the challenge, causing you to hone your skills and therefore hopefully make your time slightly easier the more you progress. The Easy Hard Game will shamefully let you play at your leisure, providing no real danger no matter how hard it may potentially attempt to do so.

Enslaved: Hard in name alone.Enslaved: Hard in name alone.

What is your version of hard?

Three games, three very different concepts of "Hard". According to these titles, hard difficulty is whatever the developers decide it will be, whether that's a natural challenge throughout, the demand for adjusting the way you play the game, or simply letting you walk through. However, we all know that it is extremely subjective. Where one player may perceive something as hard, another player may laugh at the supposed challenge. Particular genres are designed more with difficulty in mind, like puzzle games, and ask that players take their time and think about what they're doing. Others let your brain switch off completely, shunting the idea of a challenge. How hard is hard? There appears to be no definitive answer. It all comes down to you, the player.