When starting a new game in Tom Clancy’s EndWar, the player is faced with three options for difficulty: Normal, Expert, and Hardcore. When I saw the choices for the first time I immediately choose Expert because I had been conditioned by numerous games over several years to know that the middle option was always the medium difficulty. Sure it was labeled “Expert” but I knew it was just a label. Before getting into the game proper, the player is encouraged to play through the Prologue, what is essentially a series of tutorials familiarizing the player with the various mission types. I did, and I could not beat the third mission. I lost so fast, so many times that I turned off the game in frustration and didn’t touch it for a month. When I finally went back to it, I started a new game on Normal. I beat the Prologue, I won World War III, and I had a blast doing so. As someone who usually never plays a game on the lowest difficulty setting, it was easy for me to rationalize the switch because the setting was labeled Normal. This was the setting the game was meant to be played on, right? Be that as it may, there’s no denying that I had to switch to lowest difficulty setting in order to get past the third tutorial mission. But I don’t really mind anymore, because I loved conquering Europe and Russia and I’d gladly choose that experience again any day.
Mitch Krpata at Insult Swordfighting wrote a series of posts in which he tried to come up with new words to describe people’s gaming habits since “casual” and “hardcore” are horribly inadequate. He wrote, “Some people play to master a game—to perfect its mechanics, to explore every inch of the game world. Some play to “see the sights”—to hit the high points and not get too caught up in the minutiae. Let’s call these groups ‘Skill Players’ and ‘Tourists.’” There are further subcategories, but for now these two terms effectively describe two distinct (though not mutually exclusive) styles of play. One plays for the experience, the other for the challenge.
These differences in play are exemplified in the blogosphere in people’s reactions to Red Faction: Guerrilla, and the news that New Super Mario Bros. Wii will incorporate Nintendo’s new “demo play.”
Russ Frushtick at the MTV Multiplayer blog and Chris Kohler from Wired’s GameLife blog both write about why they played Red Faction: Guerrilla on the Casual difficulty. Kohler describes what a difference the switch made, “I could absorb far more of the enemies’ bullets, meaning that instead of having to hang back and pick them off from afar, I could run up to the soldiers swinging my sledgehammer, taking all of them out with brutal bashes to the head. I could destroy enemy buildings with impunity, not having to worry that I’d be sniped as I was gleefully reducing a communications tower to splinters.” Frushtick writes about his frustration with the game on Normal, “What did get old was getting shot and dying. Having to run around corners to wait for my health to recharge. Having to take cover and use strategy when all I want to do is rush forward and bash the world in the face with my large hammer. If the difficulty impedes access to the greatest part of a game, just toss the difficulty!” That sentiment more effectively describes the Tourist gamer than any dictionary definition. Sometimes it’s fun to just play. The mere act of messing around, of shooting and jumping and climbing and smashing and exploring and discovering and dying and doing it all over again, is enough.
But what then, if free play such a good thing, is one to make of Nintendo’s “demo play,” which clearly takes that away from the player. “Demo play” is a kind of help system that would allow players to get past a certain parts of a game by essentially letting the game play itself, and then jumping back in when they’re ready. Reactions by gamers have been mixed, with some supporting it, some indifferent, and some despising it, but the one complaint that caught my attention was the worry that certain players would just watch the game play itself all the way though, treating the game as a movie.
Even if a player watches a game play itself to the end and only jumps in to participate in the final battle, he’s still embracing the very thing that separates games from movies: Interactivity. The player is being given the option of choosing which challenges he’ll face. Skipping certain sections of any game will certainly change the experience for the player, but changes it for the better. For players who find pleasure in watching a game unfold, and not in the challenge of beating it, skipping a hard part only adds to their experience.
Maybe I’m alone in this, but I like the more extreme possibilities of “demo play.” As much as I would like to play Mass Effect, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty 4, or any of the Splinter Cell games again before their sequels come out, I just don’t have the time. I would love to experience those games again in some condensed form, to refresh myself on the stories and characters without having to commit eight to twelve hours to each game. Maybe just a half hour here and there to fight a Big Daddy, assassinate a 12th century politician, or shoot down a helicopter. Just for the fun of it.