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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism