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

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era