When I moved to back to Chicago, IL in 2004, I brought with me an old hand-me-down Nintendo 64 Video Game Console (or, more accurately, hand-me-up, since it came from a younger brother). After sending out a batch of job applications,
I’d reward myself by playing a level of Goldeneye 007 to unlock the cheat. I’d played the game eight years earlier when it had first come out, but even though I had several “new” games in ’05 for the N64 and PS1, I kept going back to Goldeneye. Improving the efficiency and elegance with which I could navigate the levels while seeking the cheats brought a new appreciation for the excellent design of the game – my many, many (eventually successful) attempts at cruising through the Facility on 00 Agent felt like handling, well, a Bond car around the curves on a narrow cliffside road.
Down into the bathroom, opening three doors, into the hall for your first kill and a keycard, opening the checkpoint security room to unlock the way through then out into the main facility…playing the game this way felt almost completely different, more like an intricately choreographed ballet (the kind where you kill people) than the experience I’d had playing it more casually in the ‘90s.
Yesterday I was playing pickup Ultimate Frisbee with a large group of friends and acquaintances when a conversation started about The Last of Us. I fled, covering my ears and saying “I haven’t played it yet!” to put some distance between me and any potential spoilers, but before the group of three or four got into their discussion of the game, one stopped and shouted across the field to me, “When you play it, you have to play it on Hard!” Another added, “That’s the whole thing—it’s not the same game if you don’t!”
I recently started a new Bioshock Infinite (reviewed here) file in 1999 Mode, and already it’s a very different experience than my first playthrough on Medium, which was focused mainly on giving myself room to explore the world and soak in the skillful storytelling. It’s a more brutal experience, of course, but I’m finding it adds something I hadn’t expected to my appreciation of the story as well: in this Booker DeWitt’s trip through the lighthouse into this Columbia, the story is no longer always the priority—often it’s something that happens in the background while my attention is on trying to survive. I’m playing a harder, more desperate Booker, so the tone of the narrative experience is colored by the unforgiving experience of the gameplay.
In addition to gaming, I spend a fair amount of time with books, movies, theater, and other forms of expression and entertainment, and I’ve recently grown to appreciate more consciously that this is a pretty new thing video games are bringing to the table by offering different difficulty levels. Great books and movies can be rewarding to return to because you’re different when you reread them, you’ve had new experiences and you may see things that you overlooked or interpreted differently before. Well-written games can do this too. But you can also select an option and make a game actually be different, which offers a different kind of repeat experience. Along with story-revisitability, challenging multiplayer, and multiple enjoyable strategic approaches in single player, this is one reason why replayability is such a big part of the experience of gaming (and discussed so often in game reviews).
What video games have you decided to replay at a new difficulty setting because you thought that simple alteration would lead to a newly rewarding experience? Which games did it work for and which weren’t so fun a second time around? Which games have you replayed for another reason only to find that switching the difficulty also led to new interesting gaming experiences? Do you think games are getting better or worse at providing distinct experiences at different difficulty levels as the industry matures, or is it more a matter of individual developers than the industry as a whole?
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