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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Unmasked: the subtle bitchiness of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 500-page memoir

To my horror, I found myself smirking in amusement or “Mmm!”-ing in agreement on damn near every page.

Poring over pictures of Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been a pet perve of mine, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the fevered manner in which I pawed through this tome on its arrival, desperate to find some photographical representation of him – the more the better. But it was dismay rather than lust that drove my actions; weighing in at a whopping 500 pages, the book is the size of the Bible. So imagine my astonishment on reading the prologue to discover that this is by no means the end of it – this volume of memoirs ends on the opening night of The Phantom of the Opera. Never have the phrases “merciful release” and “fear of the future” come together in one instant.

The size apart, I’ll admit I started this book with beef against ALW; I love musicals, but only those big overblown beauties which came from Broadway via Hollywood in the middle decades of the 20th century. When a musical gets out its library steps, it loses its soul; when it dresses people up as cats, it becomes musical theatre. And from there it’s a short step, spiritually, to doilies and antimacassars, because while musicals high-kick, musical theatre sticks out its pinky.

But before I had finished the first page, I was already warming to his bright and breezy, slightly spivvy writing style, which contrasted pleasingly with both the size of the book and my preconceptions about him: “Quite how I have managed to be so verbose about the most boring person I have ever written about eludes me.” Imagine my amazement when the pre-teen Lloyd Webber becomes spellbound by those very musicals that I declared the antithesis of his work: South Pacific, Carousel, West Side Story. I ploughed on, hoping that this was a momentary accord, but to my horror I found myself smirking in amusement or “Mmm!”-ing in agreement on damn near every page.

ALW came from an enviably colourful family: a grandmother who was the founder of the somewhat niche Christian Communist Party; a great-aunt who was a member of the Bloomsbury Set and ran a transport cafe; an ancestor who wrote “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck…”); a working-class father who won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and had such a fear of authority that after accidentally calling the fire brigade he hid in a cupboard; a mother who became variously obsessed with a Gibraltan tenor, a vicious monkey named Mimi and a boy genius who she insisted on bringing into the household and glorifying to the distress of her husband; and, most of all, his adored Auntie Vi. The latter was, apparently, the author of the first-ever gay cookbook, one chapter of which – titled “Coq & Game Meat” – was headlined “Too Many Cocks Spoil the Breath”.

Then into this glorious Cold Comfort Farm-like ménage, Tim Rice turns up with his shockingly poor lyrics – “And when Joseph tried it on/He knew his sheepskin days were gone/His astounding clothing took the biscuit/Quite the smoothest person in the district” – and we’re back with a whimper in the horrendous middlebrow hinterland of musical theatre. Happily, the introduction of Rice brings out Lloyd Webber’s subtly bitchy side, which has so far lain dormant. “Like so many of Tim’s songs, it told a pessimistic story,” he remarks of an early lyric. Later he can barely conceal his glee when Rice becomes understandably cross because Melvyn Bragg gets a screenplay credit for the film of Jesus Christ Superstar due to the insertion of the words “Cool it, man.” Their song “Christmas Dream” gets limited American radio play due to Rice’s couplet, “Watch me now, here I go/All I need’s a little snow.” Indeed, the reprinting of Rice’s lyrics throughout the book could be seen less as a tribute to a long-time collaborator than as the ultimate clever throwing of shade, achieved solely by turning the other party’s conceit on themselves.

You can’t spend five decades in show business without seeing the seedy side of people, thankfully, and the drop-dead walk-ons are a highlight of our hero’s sashay through the bazaars of Thespus. Impresario Robert Stigwood “was holding court as if the fabric of Manhattan society would rend asunder without him”; the singer Dana Gillespie “was rumoured to have organized a cock measuring contest in her dressing room. I didn’t enter… bad form to enter a contest you know you’re going to win”; Prince Edward was “stage-struck and hadn’t a clue what to do about it”; a good divorce lawyer “should be firm but sympathetic. Mine turned out to be a right pig”.

He writes without special pleading or shame about his adultery; “Whatever else money can’t buy, it can buy you freedom and with freedom comes the chance to play.” His account of his meeting with Sarah Brightman – both of them married to other people and already putting it about elsewhere when they first connect – is pleasing in its simplicity and lack of bogus romanticism: “I was in love and I proposed to Sarah – well, in truth it wasn’t so much a proposal as a ‘we’re in love, we’re both married, what the fuck do we do about it?’’’

It does – of course, at 500 pages – go on a bit. He trowels on the heterosexuality to an extent he probably wouldn’t had he not chosen the theatre as a profession – and perhaps because he looked so much like gay-bait when young – to the extent that ALW even comes across as a dirty old man when writing of himself as a 21-year-old, with a fair bit of drooling over “schoolgirls”. It’s hard to warm to anyone who buys their first flat on the back of a trust fund from “Granny”. And his obsession with big houses, which he portrays as a fascination with architecture, seemed to my cynical eye to have more to do with simply wanting to own a succession of ever bigger houses.

But the image of the lonely little boy creating a toy theatre based on the London Palladium becoming the man who wakes up every morning marvelling that he owns the actual London Palladium is the stuff of beautiful theatre – far more magical than anything he has actually staged. I found myself pleasantly surprised by this book, but having said that, I’ll be swerving the next one. Life’s too short to take a liking to people whose work you loathe, let alone to do it over the course of a three-volume memoir. 

Unmasked: a Memoir
Andrew Lloyd Webber
HarperCollins, 517pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game