Press X to win: today’s games are too easy and it’s spoiling us all

We hate you blade pillars, but we need you.

When was the last time you failed to finish a game? And I don’t mean failed because you got bored or lost the disc down some crumb-flecked textile crevasse – I mean failed because it pushed you to the limits of your ability. I’ll tell you when: never. Chances are, no game in the last five years has beaten you on the basis of difficulty alone. We’ve never had it so easy, and it sucks every kind of ass.

Forget multiplayer. Forget lazy, bullet-sponging ‘insane’ modes. Making games both hard and playable is a balancing act that few bother to attempt. When publishers look at their audience, they don’t see an army of lean, capable hobbyists: they see a pulsating wallet of flesh, in need of constant praise and approval. If their four-hour campaign doesn’t invigorate you like chewing on Rambo’s freshly-plucked adrenal gland, they’ve failed. Who cares if your fat-fisted attempts at heroism more closely resembles mole rats humping? Who cares if you only play it once? You still get to complete the game, they still get lovely money.

Ruined by mechanics like regenerating health, we’re no longer reticent about poking our heads out of cover. Medpacks have been replaced by a chocolate spongecake of reassurance; we know that if things go wrong, we can just sit it out and our shattered limbs will cheerily regenerate. The nature of the problem becomes clearer when something like Dark Souls shuffles out of the gloom. We burble excitedly about challenge. We praise its harshness and purity, as if these things shouldn’t be part of every game. Excellent though it is, Dark Souls isn’t the beast we portray it as. It rewards patience, punishes recklessness and most uniquely of all, actually gives you something tangible to lose if/when you die. But isn’t that the barest minimum we should ask for in a game? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, quite glaringly, a big bloody yes.

Jill's massive sack has an impressive eight slots! Containo, God of Bags smileth on thee.

Few titles embody this decline in the same festering detail as Resident Evil. Let’s go back to the first game: Hunters can decapitate you with a single froggy swipe. Ink ribbons are rationed as if Mikami himself had personally sac-squeezed each squid.  It feels generous that your tiny inventory gives you a separate slot for the lighter, which you only use twice. Thanks Capcom – it’s like Christmas in my backpack!

Things get easier in Resident Evil 4, nevertheless considered a beef-jerky tough by modern standards. The occasional bit of backtracking provides a constant, niggling threat, but the challenge has undoubtedly slackened. By comparison, Resident Evil 6 barely punishes you for dying. The difficulty elastic has lost all ping, and the spectre of Resi’s initial horror is now draped sadly around its ankles. Yes, that was an underpant analogy. That’s how bad things have got.

This will probably be fine...

This acceptance of punishment-free gaming has even infected our vernacular. Game hacks – myself included – yawn cliches like ‘poor checkpointing’ as euphemisms for ‘I died a bit’. We slap labels like ‘permadeath’ on games to ward off the milk-palmed casuals. Like WAG, mindshower or Jedward, the very existence of the term is a frightful blasphemy. It didn’t used to have a name, because it was the norm. Permadeath? It’s called death because it’s permanent. It’s not a brief reprieve so you can shovel down a Kit-Kat. You’re not having a time out so you can tweet about texture pop-in. You’re f*****g DEAD. Take the hit, start again, try being better.

Older readers will remember when lives – much like pigs, stooges and Christmas ghosts – came in threes. Some will even remember Continues when they were a novelty – the still-wet placenta of gaming’s coin-op birth. Continues were Idiot Tax, plain and simple: a second bite of the cherry, paid by 10p’s greedily munched to cover the cost of your ineptitude. Now that your cherry-bites are unlimited, you’ve grown insatiable. You haven’t just eaten the fruit: you’ve gulped down the stones, gnawed through the bark and sit gorged on the stump of challenge, picking your teeth with what’s left of the roots. Replayability is dead, because there’s not enough left for a second helping.

"You are mighty and fast, War Horse. But you must die and be skinned, because I DON'T DESERVE YOU."

Expense is no longer punishment for being a ham-handed fool: instead, our pre-order pennies get us DLC weapons that make easy games even easier. Why in the name of John Marston’s soiled union suit should we be allowed War Horse from the off? Why tame the wild stallions of Nuevo Paraíso when a deed for Dobbin LaserHoof already sits crumpled in your waistcoat pocket? We pay additional money to make our experiences more insipid, and often more brief. Like spoilt children we’ve become too used to getting our own way, and it’s ruined us. Good games don’t need diluting, and our passion can’t be sacrificed for mass popularity. Only the fastest thumbs should survive, and unless failure equals punishment, there’s no joy in winning. Get good, or get a new hobby.

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