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

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon