I’ll be honest. I struggle sticking with games that want me to struggle.
I get it. The lonely toil of the proletariat and the bleak despair of quotidian (and undead, figuratively or otherwise) existence in places like Frostpunk, Papers Please, This War of Mine, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, The Long Dark can only be encapsulated by the brutal struggle of the player against unfeeling game mechanics that demand enormous effort, merely to remain treading water at status quo. The default steady state is an entropic (or worse, abrupt) decline into failure and defeat.
This is “challenge.” This is “ideal difficulty” for those lifting themselves above the hoi polloi. This is an artistic statement conveyed by both the game systems and the game’s aesthetic conveying a forlorn mood of winter grey and a bitter cold unfeeling world.
This is also not a game I’ll end up playing for long.
For one thing, I don’t need extra help feeling depressed, thanks. Capable of doing that all on my own. I’d rather devs spend a bit more artistic exploration and research in the opposite direction (how about taking a look at Ingrid Fetell Lee‘s Joyful for ideas?) so that I have more mood lifters to reach for besides Slime Rancher.
For another, there’s the time factor. Ain’t enough hours in the day to do everything already, why should I spend tens and hundreds of those hours working out by trial and error the narrow balancing act of timing and numbers juggling and then executing flawlessly or be harshly penalized? Or weirdly, spend a couple hours crowdsourcing the collected knowledge of the game to read as homework to cut short the above experience just to be more efficient, when another solution might be tweaking some of those numbers and timing up or down to be a mite more forgiving?
So it is with some relief that I find that some of these games come with difficulty sliders.
Currently Playing: Frostpunk
[Normal Difficulty, First Attempt] The First City was doomed from the beginning. A new overseer, heeding the plaintive cries of the city’s homeless citizenry sent its workers trudging through steep snow banks to break up wooden crates and salvage coal and steel wreckage. All the better to build temporary tents around the sputtering coal-fed Generator, the only source of warmth in miles.
The citizens fell sick, working inefficiently in the bitter cold. The overseer struggled to provide sufficient Medical Posts, while keeping the ravenous Generator fueled and the equally ravenous citizenry from consuming all available food, which was not yet sufficiently supplied or sustained by teams of workers hunting from dusk till dawn.
As more and more citizens became gravely ill, productivity plummeted, causing shortages of nearly every resource. Merciless winter storms turned the city into an icicle for days. Nonessential resource gathering was abandoned for only the essentials, but that only delayed the inevitable.
By the time news arrived of the fall of Frosthome, a distant city far more advanced than The First City, and sent citizens muttering that they might have been better off staying home in London, it was not so much the morale of the citizenry that took the greatest hit, but that of the overseer.
In a fey mood of despair, the overseer surrendered the city to fend for itself through the ravages of time. Days passed. Things got no better. To the overseer’s surprise, the city did not immediately die or outright revolt. But eventually, the citizenry sensed that something was wrong with the overseer.
Stirring themselves from their somnambulant discontent, a small posse gathered and deposed the overseer. A trial found the overseer not altogether uncaring, before their dereliction of duty, and a death sentence was commuted to exile from the city instead.
Head bent, shrugging to themselves, the overseer walked away from the city, knowing that the First City was already in the first throes of its imminent death. There had been no saving it. The remaining citzenry would find that out soon enough.
[Easy Difficulty, Second Attempt] The Second City was different.
Fortune smiled on the Second City, blessing her with less harsh and shorter periods of bitterly cold weather and citizenry of a hardier stock. Even if they had to work in the cold, they were more prone to catching the sniffles rather than lose a limb from frostbite.
Their overseer had the inspired idea to set up Gathering Posts as warmer shelter for the workers while they salvaged their steel and wood and coal. Almost immediately, efficiency shot skyward, requiring only ten workers to do the entire job instead of the chain gangs of 15 trudging through thick snow to their individual goals.
That produced a resource stockpile for the Second City to develop its necessary buildings and technology at a healthier pace. Oh, there was still effort and work on a daily basis by all parties, but significantly less desperation.
The City is healthy enough to have a scout team exploring the frozen wasteland for news. An Automaton toils in their Steelworks. All the citizenry have roofed homes, most of them are gainfully employed. There are good sized stockpiles of the crucial resources for now.
Recently, unrest among the Londoners had been stirring up a smidgen of trouble, forcing the overseer to develop a constabulary of watchmen to police the neighborhood and a prison to hold the criminally inclined. For the moment, that’s all that is required – nothing too Orwellian, just a city guard protecting the public and on the lookout for those who would shatter the peace and progress of the Second City.
As I said earlier, I get it.
I get that Frostpunk, in its original form, wants to be a game about grueling resource management, balancing inputs and outputs on a razor-thin edge between making it to the grey dawn of another morning struggling to be birthed out of the sleet frozen night or a slow, inexorable decline to entropic breakdown from the accumulation of tiny unnoticed errors.
I get that it’s trying to make some sort of artistic statement about how players might be tempted to implement morally questionable policies with unknown ramifications in order to address short term problems like not actually dying tomorrow. That survival in a post-apocalyptic nightmare may be down to equations that value cruel and harsh choices over our current conception of civilized niceties, and to question if that sort of survival is really worth it if you end up with a dystopia.
Having gotten it, I don’t actually find the above fun to play.
It feels like there is some sort of “optimal build order” to follow if you don’t want to get in severe trouble later on. It feels like a game that needs to be constantly on pause while you check every single building and the economy screen that all your resource equations are balanced, and haven’t suddenly gotten wrecked because a bunch of citizens fell sick.
It feels like even when you’re barely clinging on to balance, the game will purposefully chuck stuff at you to force you out of balance and on the downward slide to nowhere good – significantly cold weather spells that either increase coal consumption or the likelihood of people falling sick, which leads to lost productivity and resource generation, which then leads to more knock-on problems… or random events where the hope you were slowly building up gets slashed to nothing because RNG has decided it is time for a bunch of people to be discontented now.
Perhaps this is fun as a challenge mode later, to those of the masochistic gamer bent.
To have it as the default introductory experience seems… odd.
For my first attempt, I lasted about two RL hours, approximately 20 in-game days, before I decided that I was in a slow death spiral loop of not having prepared sufficiently enough and decided to fast forward time until everybody died or the city collapsed from discontent or something.
I ended up exiled from the city, apparently thanks to some moral policies I had made, rather than put to death. Since the city itself was on a fast declining road to nowhere good, having been purposefully ignored by its overseer for days, this was a better end than I had expected.
I was ready to call it there, being not exactly keen to start the scenario again and attempt to repeat the linear process, just with more optimizations, in order to cling on longer.
A stray Reddit discussion caught my eye and revealed the existence of an “easy” mode. Oh, really? I had not seen any difficulty slider in the settings. Apparently it was masked within the Customize Settings button after choosing a scenario.
Since I was attracted by the aesthetic and the city-building premise, I resolved to give it one more chance on its easiest available difficulty, to see if that offered any more room to breathe, relax and make newbie mistakes that aren’t unforgivingly punished seven days later.
The Second City went much more smoothly, with faster progress and less random monkey-wrenches that were hurled solely for the purpose of screwing up the machinery and then forcing a harsh choice between shutting off the machinery in order to remove the wrench, or letting it rattle around in there until it broke important parts of the machine, or making the operator snatch the wrench out while the machinery was still running and wind up with a pulverized hand and a long term disability.
I suppose some of it was due to a slightly more enlightened Reddit-hinted experimental start, where I ignored the tutorial and began building resource gathering huts right away, instead of my trusting naïveté of the first game that the tutorial would teach me how to play.
But I’m also sure a lot of it was due to lower chances of civilians catching a chill and falling sick, and general improved tolerances for inefficient play.
Since my main purpose is to explore whatever a game has to offer, I found the quicker progress and checking out the new unlocked systems a lot more fun than the struggle to clamber out of the tech equivalent of the Stone Age.
Started at 11pm, played till 3am. On a work day. Regret would only hit in the morning when the alarm clock went off.
As The Second City still isn’t dead yet, I guess I’ll be happy to play on for now.
After that, I’m not so sure if I can be bothered ramping up the challenge level any further when there are other games and other experiences to be had.
Maybe one day I’ll be in the mood for a roguelike permadeath city-building survival game where the goal is to keep restarting to see how long you can survive. Then again, given that roguelike restarts offer more variety where this seems to be more akin to a ‘hypothesize, develop and master a theoretical ideal build order’ strategy, maybe not.
Play if you like strategically juggling meters while struggling barefoot uphill, both ways, in the snow.
Play Again, Later (Maybe): SuperHOT
SuperHOT is weird.
I was expecting relatively quick and simple arcade sequences where the main schtick is its advertised slow motion “FPS that moves only when you move!”
For the most part, I got that. The gimmick is cute enough. It starts out easy and progresses on to challenges where even just turning your head with your mouse may be split seconds of time wasted, resulting in a bullet to your chest and forcing a restart.
I could easily see a subset of people obsessed with performing and recording increasingly stylish maneuvers for later playback to others. Me, I was good just going with whatever worked to get me to the next stage.
I was NOT expecting an overly clever attempt at some sort of subversive AI/hacker storyline, complete with superliminal messages in giant white block letters, overlaid on top of the arcade scenarios.
This, I was not prepared for. In another frame of mind, I might have perhaps enjoyed the conspiracy theory setting of meddling with things one does not understand.
Instead, I have to term the attempt “overly clever” because the messaging practically tells you that whatever you’re doing is not merely a game, is probably wrong and immoral, that you’re hacked into something big that you definitely don’t understand, that they’re both controlling you and watching you, and that you should stop. Right now.
On a meta level, I suppose they expect the player to respond to the dare as a challenge and rebelliously continue.
I am really curious to know just how many players, like me, said “Ok” and quit out instead.
I mean, presumably going further would have revealed some sort of deteriorating storyline along that weird vein (I googled the plot synopsis, I don’t think I would miss much) with more puzzle levels to get through.
And while I found the gimmick interesting in a novel sense, I also found the gimmick gimmicky.
I was mostly resorting to the same strategies of an FPS, just in slightly less exciting slow motion and forced to restart over and over when I turned my head to look around a bit too much or mistimed strafing out of the way of some bullets.
In essence, by the time that first option of “quit or not” came up, I had pretty much had my fill. So I agreed with the big boss man in my head and exited the game.
Never to return?
Full disclaimer, I went a little further just to get some screenshots because I realized I forgot to take any. But then I pulled out beyond what seemed like a point of no return – or at least the point where you get a special ability (so hints the guide.)
Perhaps when I am bored and looking for more along the same vein, I’ll come back. But equally possible, I may get distracted by a whole load of other things and never quite continue from where I left off. Perhaps it is better in VR. Perhaps it is just not for me.
Play if you like slow motion Matrix sequences and Pony Island-like fourth wall-breaking metastory.