A different Kind of Difficult
by martin (210)
April 10th 2012

I do sometimes wonder why Lovefilm.com is trying to make me commit atrocities.

When I email them they’re evasive and rudely incredulous but their dark machinations have become more and more transparent in the last year or so. Recently out of the several hundred possible DVD rentals they sent me an envelope containing Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and the remake of Last House on the Left. Clearly I am to begin my spree posthaste. The first is a meditation on violence where Tim Roth gets slapped around a lot, the second is about a woman trying to repair her psyche after years of institutional torture at the hands of a shadowy organization and the last is about a family getting revenge on some criminals who raped their daughter.  I had Scrooged on there as well, Lovefilm! I had Big Trouble in Little China, for Christ's sake! Why not leaven the misery with one of those? It’s like the infamous ‘envelope of rape’ incident where they sent me House of Flying Daggers, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Irreversible. There’s some evil plans over there and they are not subtle.

Lovefilm’s planned manipulation of my psyche aside, the fact remains that I trawled through three fairly heavy torture-tastic films in one weekend. They were as hard going for me as they were for the nurses I’ve got bound to my walls, also it got me thinking about difficulty in games.

Now, ‘difficulty’ is a slippery term here- if I were to refer to Schindler’s List as difficult you’d catch my meaning immediately but in games that term could mean anything from a broken game world, obtuse control system, Demons’ souls-esque hardcore sensibilities to the simple fact that I’ve got to the penultimate boss with no med kits and only three EMP grenades and I should be considered a noob of some kind and shunned from polite society. We seldom use ‘difficult’ in the same sense in gaming as we do in other mediums and its still largely considered a red flag rather than an indication that the game is for aficionados who are looking for tough messages presented in an emotive or uncompromising manner. There are films, TV shows and books that put the audience through the wringer, that pile on the misery and darkness and seem to dare the audience to leave (literally in the case of Funny Games) but I couldn’t think of many videogames that shared that same breed of artistic sadism.

There are only a few games that I would consider to be ‘tough to get through’ in a way that didn’t involve intricately timed jumping puzzles or dragons who simply will not let me stab them. Condemned was one of these titles where the camera, graphic style and interface left me feeling genuinely wound up and tense. Lots of people complained of motion sickness and I can see how: it was a headache-y ride from behind the eyes of an alcoholic who apparently covers his contact lenses in grit every morning, the combat was unintuitive and dizzy and I felt tetchy and exhausted at the end of the thing. To a lesser extent Silent Hill 2 managed to evoke the same high strung fear not only through its sound design and nightmare mannequin monsters but through its design choices. James Sunderland swung his stick as though he was receiving my commands through semaphore at the end of a long tunnel. He stumbled around as if he was actually reluctant to fight the manifestations of his own fears like a great big bloody pansy. The dissonance between the two of us gave an odd disconnect that paradoxically drew me in; it was as though I was fighting against a bigger supernatural force that was always in the way. Now I don’t precisely know if sluggish controls were a conscious choice for the developers and I don’t care to find out. To me they were because it was a brilliant decision and one I fear would not make it into the final product today.

In a way, most modern horror games operate from the same homogenous level of quality and polish. If you hear about a game and  see it advertised then the chances are it’s been play tested thoroughly and run through an exhaustive production system. Now, while playtesting is by no means a bad thing on its own the egalitarian ethos behind it can be damaging to a ‘difficult’ vision. Imagine playing a modern game where your character took your attack prompts for vague suggestions and couldn’t seem to hit the tentacle monster with the pipe even though he’s standing right there. Most people would call bullshit before the end of a half hour’s play. Imagine a slick modern horror like Dead Space where the protagonists’ arms shook as he aimed his chainsaw gun and he stumbled around corners like a peg legged hobo. Again, most players would assume incompetence on the part of the developers, after all if we’re in a room with a gun and monsters, why can’t I aim as quickly and expertly as Soap McTavish? No, the game’s broken.

In a way it’s a mix of privilege and distrust. Right now gamers are seeing a medium entering the mainstream with big budget releases and reviews and ads popping up in most newspapers (remember those?). It’s a great time but also a time where big developers are making safer, friendlier projects that can be played by anyone. But we still fundamentally distrust the games we buy. They’re made by massive teams of computer specialists who have honestly read books about C++ and as such there are very few guiding human identities or relatable methods to cling onto. We know who Stanley Kubrick is and how basically you film a close up of Jack Nicholson glowering at a child, we know who Hemingway is and how certain adjectives and collocations of words can create an effect. But games? What’s the guiding voice behind Deus Ex Human Revolution and would you recognize it if he did a God of War hack ‘em up? I wouldn’t.
To me it’s still a massive team of computer folk making a game by some kind of magic and printing it on a disc with alchemy and maybe lasers. So if I’m Adam Jensening about the world and find that my display goes strange in some area, my first thought is not to wonder what that could mean to the story, rather I wonder if the game will crash and if that area of Detroit is bugged out. I don’t trust them.  That’s right David Anfossi, I don’t trust you, deal with it.

The point is that the kind of experimental difficulty we would have permitted, say, ten years ago is massively filtered out now and as a result we’re getting games that are less and less able to try to make the gamer uncomfortable or reluctant . The first few Resident Evils were by far the scarier games since the controls were TV smashingly bad. I spent many hours guiding Jill Valentine into shooting a shambling corpse only to have her cap a threatening bollard  and at the time I thought it a brilliant fear ratcheting technique that seemed to evoke a panicked situation where it genuinely would be hard to calm your nerves and center your aim down the shotgun barrel. Of course later Resi games revealed that it probably was simply incompetence since their fear delivery system devolved somewhat into throwing increasing numbers of sensitively portrayed Spaniards and Africans at you. As the games have developed and become entrenched huge franchise games the slick mass pleasing mindset coupled with more user friendly smooth control schemes have stolen the factor that Capcom accidentally bumbled into that provided the memorable fear.

The homogenous ideas of quality and standard control interface does give a comfortable uniformity to certain genres but the baseline standards we expect from games can detract from these weird and difficult projects that actually want to estrange the gamer, to frustrate them behind a system and create a distance. In a period where seamless interaction between the player and the game –as in the ominously uncanny fishing trips of Project Mylo, wii motion controls, Move etc- that one of the unique advantages of the medium of gaming is the variety of ways that the player can interact with the world. And one of those is frustratingly, haltingly.
The difficult interface or unfriendly graphics is gaming’s uncomfortable close up on Tim Roth or overstuffed passage of prose and while it should by no means be the norm I think that a certain confidence in gaming is required for us to embrace the weird oddities that might be going out of their way to torture us and make us dizzy for a reason.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and watch Ichi the Killer, Seul Contre Tous and Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom

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