Thursday, April 18, 2019

On "Difficulty"

Last night I felt like playing a little Pillars of Eternity. I got it last year as a free Amazon Prime/Twitch offer and I put quite a few enjoyable hours into it before I got stuck in a quest cul de sac and stopped.

The Twitch Prime promotions have been considerably more successful in re-introducing me to single-player gaming than my own efforts over the past few years. On the few occasions I've tried to branch out into non-MMO territory on my own I've mostly chosen games that look, feel and play like MMORPGs (Yonder, Tanzia) but don't have anyone in them but me. Unsurprisingly, that leads to feelings of isolation and pointlessness.

Through Twitch Prime I played The Banner Saga. I thought the plot was thin and predictable. I was unimpressed by the writing in general. Perhaps the stellar reviews led me to expect too much. As for gameplay, the combat was labored and the resource management tedious.

Visually, though, it was very striking. The best part of the game was the atmospherics, which kept me interested long enough to finish it. The last video game I can remember actually finishing before that must be Baldur's Gate 2 back around the turn of the century.

I certainly didn't get enough out of The Banner Saga to want to play the second one, which also came free with Twitch Prime. So far the only other freebie on offer that's appealed to me at all has been Pillars of Eternity.

PoE was Kickstarted as the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate. From what I've seen so far it pretty much hurdles that very high bar. It looks and feels similar and the questing is all but identical. There are some oddities but on the whole it's a lot more "BioWare" than anything BioWare are known for nowadays.

I ought to love it. I don't. I like it. When I'm in the mood. And I really do have to be in the mood.

The thing is this: Pillars of Eternity is demanding. It requires effort. A lot of effort. There's an inordinate amount of inventory, skill and party management. There's not an awful lot in the way of handholding. Travel, which is frequent and required, takes forever. Combat, when it occurs, goes on and on and on.

Then there's the talking. A lot of NPCs are partly voiced and the voice acting is not bad. I like to listen to the spoken parts but it slows things down. And when the voiceovers stop the conversations carry on. There's a lot of reading.

And choosing. So. Much. Choosing. Choices with consequences, too. I hate that. Always have. I don't mind flavor but I like to know I can't screw things up by making a stupid decision on a whim. The inevitable result is that, whenever I reach any obvious nodal point, I have to go check a wiki to be sure I take the right turning. Which makes everything take even longer.

Last night I fired the game up for the first time in months. It was surprisingly easy to get back into the swing of things. In a few minutes I was questing. Well, I say "questing"...

It took me around an hour to finish a single quest. It took place in two adjacent districts of the same town. It involved no combat whatsoever. All I had to do was talk to a guy, walk to a building, take a thing from a place, take that thing to another guy, talk to a third guy and finally go back to the first guy and talk to him again.

I did that using a walkthrough and it took me an hour. Partly that was because, during all the walking and listening and talking, four members of my party levelled up. Independently, at separate times, for reasons unclear. The time I took to allocate their various points is included in the hour.

When it was over I sat back and thought. That was one, tiny side-quest at around level five. I knew from previous experience that it was entirely typical. If I did nothing else with my free time but play Pillars of Eternity, finishing the game could probably keep me occupied for the rest of the year.

Twenty years ago that would probably have seemed like a positive. Not any more. Or not so much, at least.

Before I fired up PoE I spent a while on EverQuest II's new Time-Limited Expansion server, Kaladim, where similar time-to-entertainment issues were evident. My Dirge there is Level 21. There's plenty she can do solo but none of it appeals.

Transport options are limited. It takes a long time to get anywhere. It's not practical to dart around looking for interesting quests. Leveling alone is excruciatingly slow, despite Kaladim supposedly having accelerated xp for a progression server. It's also not very interesting, consisting mainly of grinding slowly through various native species - bears, snakes, hawks, wolves...

It's hauntingly close to how I remember the game a few months after launch. Among other reasons, it's why I left. Daybreak Games have done a disturbingly good job in recreating the feel of pre-Hartsman EQII although why anyone would want to is another question.

Most mobs that used to be tuned for groups have been returned to that state. Intentionally, everything worth doing, above and below ground, relies on groups. I've been in a few and they weren't horrible but it mostly served to remind me what I felt back in 2005: EQ2 is not a great game for grouping.

The pace and flow of group combat in EQ2 has always felt off to me. As a healer I never felt I had time to adapt to situations the way I did in EverQuest. As a DPS I'm never really sure how much of what I'm doing is effective or required.

I think EQ2 combat absolutely shines in a duo or trio, where there's ample opportunity for tactics, strategy and subtlety. Full groups always seem to devolve into either mincing machines that move through corridors annihilating all in their path or fractious, failing collectives that fall apart on the first bad pull.

These two experiences, PoE and Kaladim, contrast sharply with my choice of gameplay for this morning. I ummed and ahhed for a while over what to play before deciding to level my EQ2 Shadowknight on the Antonia Bayle server. He'd just dinged 86 and I'd been taking him through Stonebrunt Highlands, a zone from the Sentinel's Fate expansion of 2010.

Rather than carry on there, I took him to the Chronomancers in Freeport and had them drop his level to 80 so he could start the main quest line from an even older expansion, 2008's The Shadow Odyssey.

In a couple of hours of extremely enjoyable questing my SK did just under two levels. I was never bored, always entertained. I read most of the quest text, even though I've done all these quests before, because much of the writing is amusing and because I had plenty of time to appreciate it.

I was soloing and there was no-one around me (I saw one other player) but I didn't for a moment get that "why am I doing this again?" sensation that comes when you realize you're teetering on the edge of an existential void. Twice I had to turn the general chat channel off, not because of anything offensive (conversations were relaxed and friendly) but because I was enjoying what I was doing too much to countenance distraction.

As usual, I'm not going anywhere with this, or not anywhere specific. I'm recording my thoughts so I can refer back to them later. This is an ongoing project. I do find the way that both my expectations and experiences have changed over a couple of decades fascinating. I'd like to understand those changes better.

I could really use a compulsive, new MMORPG with an old-school approach to benchmark against. Am I becoming less and less interested in "difficulty" (or is it "complexity"?) because my jaded palate needs refreshing from a fresh, pure wellspring? Would all the old love of slow travel and painstaking detail return if prompted by something genuinely inspiring?

Or have I finally matured to the point where I understand that life really is too short for all that. Cut to the chase, get to the point, are we having fun yet?

I guess I'm going to find out if a playable version of Pantheon ever appears. Until then I'll go on running experiments on the limits of my patience and writing up my findings here.


  1. A lot of that sounds like me with strategy games. Back in the day I loved strategy and wargames. Heck I was the strategy/wargame editor at a magazine for a while. The more complex, the better.

    These days, every so often I decide to "get back into" them and invariably I last one or two sessions. What used to feel like rich immersive complexity now just feels like pointless micro-managing and don't we have computers to do this stuff for us now!? Let's get on with the good stuff! Of course there are simpler games that do take care of all that micro-managing but some part of me feels like that is cheating; I am a hypocrite even to myself. :)

    1. The issue of complexity is where I'm moving to from "difficulty", I think. It's a lot harder to say you don't want MMORPGs to be "complex" than it is to say you don't want them to be "difficult". The longer I play and the older I get, though, the more it seems to me that quite a lot of the things I thought I loved about the genre are beginning to annoy me.

      I called this blog "Inventory Full" for a reason and I've written, often about how much I actively enjoy inventory management, but there's satisfying tidying and, as you so accurately put it, "pointless micro-management". Same applies to a whole lot of aspects of the hobby I used to endorse uncritically and unironically.

      I think I may be at a bit of a watershed. We'll see...

  2. I wonder if this is because you've lost the habit of "quick-saving". I remember back in the day, you'd quick-save before a decision, make the decision quickly, and then revert back only if things turned out badly.

    But if you play mostly MMOs, you can't go back, so every decision needs to be given more deliberation. If you're now used to that, maybe you don't really think about making fast decisions with the safety net of the old "save-reload" cycle.

    1. That is a really interesting point and one that I hadn't thought of before. I could do a whole post on it and I might, too. In short, I always strongly disliked the whole concept of "saving" progress before a decision point in offline games. I considered it pretty much indistinguishable from cheating. I did it, because the alternative was usually even more unpalatable, but it was a major detraction for me from enjoyment and satisfaction in the games that necessitated it.

      Fast-forward on to MMORPGs and to this very day I consider any narrative, instanced content which my character fails to complete in a single run without deaths or restarts to be a failure. If my character needs to penetrate a stronghold, find and rescue a hostage, then get the hostage to safety, that has to be done without second chances. There's some nuance in the innate world lore, where player characters usually have some kind of accepted serial immortality, and it's acceptable to die, revive and try again, but those systems, like GW2, which leave the instance in the same state it was when the PC died so you can incrementally chip away are just so obviously game-like I can't begin to take anything that happens in them seriously.

      Anyway, there's too much in this to discuss in a comment, but yes, I do think the absence of "saving" before decision points strongly affects my discomfort with MMORPGs that employ meaningful choices even though, ironically, I also strongly object to being able to avoid those choices through saving. Fundementally, what I prefer are narratives that do not branch, where the outcome is inevitable and your choice, while they may affect how you feel about the outcome, do not affect the outcome itself.

    2. You certainly make playing games hard on yourself, from the sound of it.

    3. Hehe! Well, I've certainly turned that around with SW:TOR. If it was any easier you'd have to call it an idle game.


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