Get good or get beaten: in praise of brutally hard games

In games like <em>DayZ, Dark Souls</em> and <em>XCOM</em>, there's an enormous sense of accomplishment involved in just not freezing to death or managing to stand up. Is it time for a hard games renaissance?

Some games are incredibly polite. If I’m running from the police in Bioshock: Infinite or I’m about to carry out some wanton imperialism in Call of Duty, and I just stop before a new fight starts nothing will change. The world will wait. In Skyrim if I decide I want to take my time and smell the flowers a bit before confronting the dragon that wants to burninate the countryside then he’ll wait. He won’t get bored and end the world while I’m cheerfully shouting fire at goats on a mountainside.

But not every game will stop the world for you. Indeed there are some games out there that, all things considered, don’t really seem to want to be your friend at all. In this era where games so often seem mollified in pursuit of universal appeal, or are simply so formulaic that gameplay is an afterthought, it is these mean, unwelcoming games that really tap into what playing a game should be all about.

One of the greatest examples of this is Dark Souls. This is a game that sneaked under the radar for a lot of players because, well, it’s not an easy sell. It’s the Nelson Muntz of video games. Players are confronted with a benighted, broken world, oozing with a sense of hostility. Everything here resents you, even the art style. You are small, you are gaunt and you are filthy. At the start of the game you struggle under the weight of your own weapons. The enemies don’t and most of them, and indeed the weapons they wield, are bigger than you.

My first experience with the game was a humbling one. Starting out, getting to grips with the controls, failing to do so, and then being killed, often. The bosses, the traps, even the regular bad guys, approach them casually and die. There’s an unwritten rule of games design, the scrunty little enemies, the skeletons, the zombies, the first level boss, they aren’t supposed to be hard. They aren’t meant to win. Apparently nobody explained this to the developers of Dark Souls.

Dark Souls was every bit the bully. It would not just find brutish and ruthless ways to win. It would seem pleased with itself for doing it. It would put me back where I started from and bring all the enemies back just because I zigged when I meant to zag and a dragon ate my face.

A strange thing happens with a game like that, you hate it, but you respect it, you want to master it, you want to beat it. Beating a game used to be difficult. For years, in keeping with their coin operated arcade heritage, games were not meant to be beaten. You got as far as you could, you ran out of lives, and you tried again. Dark Souls does not confront the player with a Game Over screen, but it feels no compunction about slapping you back down every time you try to stand back up.

Cruel and unusual punishment is not the preserve of nightmarish Japanese imports; there have been recent developments in western gaming also towards tougher games too.

The recent XCOM remake caused a stir because in a marketplace full of games where your team is largely invincible outside the perilous world of the cut-scene, it brought permanent character death and an ironman mode. Ironman play-throughs for games are something that plenty of people attempt, no reloading a save if something goes wrong and if you die, game over; but it is very rare to see it actually coded into the game in this way. By placing it there, in plain sight, XCOM was extending a challenge. Dangling it there to see who had the moxie.

XCOM is an interesting idea, a turn-based squad combat game wrapped in a flexible narrative about an alien invasion. The combat compares more closely to board games than similar video games. Even a quarter century ago games like Rebelstar Raiders and Laser Squad, from which the modern XCOM can trace a direct ancestry, were more nuanced in many ways, featuring more complex systems even back on a 48k Spectrum. The modern form is unencumbered, faster, and for the characters involved often deadlier. Where the complexity of earlier XCOM and other turn based strategy games allowed a player to outfox the AI, in the simple mechanics of the new XCOM there are fewer places to hide.

What XCOM brings to the table is a game where you can see characters created, levelled up, trained, customised, and ultimately killed over the course of the story. Every loss will be felt to a greater or lesser extent and unlike even Dark Souls; too much failure will lose you the game. A campaign of play lasting many hours may have to be binned and restarted.

In the grand scheme of things however it is impossible to talk about games that hate the player without referring to the Arma series and its phenomenally popular zombie survival spinoff, DayZ.

The Arma series is an infantry combat simulator developed alongside the Virtual Battle Space software which various militaries around the world use for training. It has always been, in its own right, a very challenging game and the latest iteration, currently in alpha, shows that this has not changed. The difficulty in Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead, the most recent finished version, is mitigated by a forgiving desert landscape in which enemies are easy to spot and a setting where you employ state of the art military gear against rebels and insurgents who are outgunned in all areas. You feel protected, superior.

However what happens to that difficulty level when Arma 2 becomes a persistent multiplayer zombie game? When you are washed up on a beach at an unknown location armed with a pistol, a small amount of supplies and a fistful of signal flares? When death for your character is permanent, when anybody you meet could murder you on the spot on the off chance you’ve got something to eat, when any supplies and weapons have to be searched for in zombie infested buildings, and you can freeze to death, and you can bleed to death, and the nights so dark you can’t see ten metres in front of you.

What you get is probably the most systemically difficult game ever made. Not in a cheap way but in the way you are always under threat, danger is always there in the game, and even when you do get a moment of calm you’re just getting nearer to death by starvation or cold. This could just be a miserable experience and in some ways it is, but at the same time the difficulty sweetens the victories. Successfully finding the North Star in the realistically mapped night sky and navigating to somewhere you actually wanted to go across the huge map feels like an accomplishment, creeping past a few zombies to search a building carries more of a concentrated buzz than an entire Splinter Cell game, finding a fresh corpse potentially laden with supplies is like being a kid right before Christmas. Until it turns out that somebody with a hunting rifle has been lying in a hedge two hundred metres away, watching the body, waiting for somebody to take the bait. And then you get to start over again.

Not every game needs to be so brutal, but it is good that such games exist. Games that test players, that demand their players either get good or get beaten, these are good things, they improve us.

With DayZ, Dark Souls and XCOM all proving to be popular because of, rather than in spite of, their difficulty level it begs the question if hard games could be due for a comeback.

In Dark Souls, even the art style seems to resent you.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State