Another note on the Half-Life 2 Episode 2 stats from yesterday: About 75% of players leave the difficulty on Medium – the default. 15% play on Easy and the last 10% play on hard. (It’s actually a pie chart, those are eyeballed percentages on my part.)
When I was young and poor I tried to get the most out of my games by ratcheting up the difficulty. I’d play through on Medium, then Hard, then “Nightmare” (or whatever super-hard was called in the given game, if it was available) and then continue to play at the highest difficulty with various self-imposed limits.
The most obsessive was when I beat Quake on Nightmare difficulty without dying. If I died, I started a whole new game over from the very beginning. I suppose you could call this “Sisyphus” difficulty. It took several tries to make it, but it did a good job of squeezing some additional hours out of the game. I can’t believe I did that. I would find that sort of thing infuriating and tedious now, but as I’ve aged I’ve been increasingly stingy with how much time I’m willing to spend re-experiencing the same content.
In fact, I seem to do the opposite now. I start on Medium, but on subsequent play-throughs I’m not really interested in the combat. I’m usually experimenting with scripted situations, looking for hidden areas, and testing alternative solutions to problems and puzzles. When I do this I usually play on “super-easy” by cheating my way through the thing.
In Half-Life 2 the main sort of cheating I enjoy is upping the allowed ammo restrictions so that I can carry tons of whatever weapon I’m currently interested in, and then going to town with it. Allowing myself tons of grenades or (better) alt-fire explosives for the machine gun is a favorite of mine. Those are very powerful and tend to be severely rationed in the normal game, and it’s fun to cut loose and bomb the enemy senseless. It would ruin the game if I did this on the first play-through, but on later trips it can be fun. Giving myself a pistol that does 2,000 damage is also stupid in a hilarious sort of way.
But all of that is just a diversion. The real goal on later trips is to is see how the game behaves when you do things the designers don’t expect. You have to be careful with Valve games, because they are very tightly scripted and thus not very flexible when you leave their tightly scripted rails. (In HL2, during the final push to the Citadel, you have to fight your way past a bunch of Striders. If you kill them before the game intends – before you reach the crate of rockets – you can get trapped because the Striders aren’t around to blow open key walls for you.) Note that in this case being “tightly scripted” (or railroaded, if you will) is not a bad thing. It enables them to fill the game with lifelike reactions from the NPCs and movie-like pacing. The more sandbox the game is, the more generic it has to be. With most games I’m always wishing for more freedom, alternate paths, open-ended play, and divergent choices, but in the case of Half-Life I’m willing to trade freedom for story because they do it so well.
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