I recently played through Submerged, which, on my computer, looked sort of like a PS2 game. My disappointment with the visuals turned to shame as I checked the settings and discovered that my computer was utterly incapable of any graphical level up to and including ‘Mediocre’. Basically I ended up playing through the whole thing on the absolute lowest graphics setting, which seems sort of rude, really. Anyway – I’ll play it again when I get a new computer, I promise. Let’s talk about difficulty.
This is something of an odd game to talk about difficulty for – namely because there isn’t any. It’s a post-apocalyptic game where the world has flooded because of global warming or something, and there’s a girl carting her injured brother around in a boat. All you really have to do is boat around, find a building you can climb up, and collect various medical supplies. The climbing’s not particularly hard either – you just hold down the direction you want to climb in. So it’s not a game where skill or difficulty really come into the picture. I’m not sure if it even qualifies as a game, in that there’s no lose-state – so it’s not competitive, in that sense.
I do admire the developer’s decision to have a game without violence – not because I think there’s something wrong with violence in games, but rather because it’s a design default. The decision to try something else is always admirable. However, I am a little concerned that they didn’t really find anything to replace the violence with. Sure, there’s climbing etc, and if that floats your boat that’s great, but it’s a menial task, in the sense that you can’t lose. Again: it’s simply not a game, and I don’t often understand what folk see in computer not-games. I’m sure they see something – I just don’t know what it is! I might’ve enjoyed it more if I wasn’t looking at graphics from last decade. Who knows.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. What I really want to talk about is difficulty. One of the things I really didn’t like about Submerged was that there wasn’t any difficulty. As I say, that may be due to the gap created by excluding violence. It just struck me as a little weird to have a post-apocalyptic world without any difficulty. There’s no threat of danger, failure, death, pain – it’s just a calm, contemplative post-apocalyptic scenario, which is weird. The immediate comparison that jumps to mind is The Last of Us, where the zombie apocalypse has hit, and everything’s post-apocalyptic in a ‘nature took over’ kind of way, much like in Submerged – but at the same time, the game respects the fact that if you don’t have a proper civilisation, life gets tough. This toughness is reflected not only in the difficulty of the game, but also in the environment that people live in. It’s not calm and meditative, it’s a scramble to eke out a miserable living.
To some extent you find this toughness in Submerged, in that you can’t take your wounded brother to a proper doctor. You just have to scavenge stuff to make him better. That said, everything you need is conveniently close to hand, you seem to have mysteriously precise medical knowledge, and – most importantly – there’s no struggle associated with getting what you need. You just have to jaunty round the buildings for a couple hours (three, in my case).
All we’re really saying here is that gameplay influences narrative, and when your gameplay is basically non-existent, it’s hard to feel like you’re living in the end-times. The developers certainly hit the money in terms of isolation, and environment – the whole game is in a really good place, apart from (in my opinion) the gameplay, which does jar a little.
So what can you do with a non-violent game in terms of amping up gameplay? To be honest, I think they could’ve bulked the difficulty of the climbing. You’ve got to negotiate your way to the top, but it’s more or less a linear path, with a few deviations for secrets, and the odd dead end here and there. If we piled in a bunch more of the dead ends and really opened up the flow of the buildings, making it a maze to be negotiated, rather than a linear pathway to follow, that could’ve been great! There’s no time factor, there’s no particular skill factor, there’s just you trying to get up top. You don’t even have to add anything extra into the game for that to be workable – it’s just more complex buildings.
The advantage there is that it respects the difficulty of travelling through the environment. It’s a way of developing plot: you’re saying ‘Hey, the old order has fallen to pieces, you can’t rely on societal structures to get you through any more. You have to make your own way.’ There could be some lovely little moments there – you might walk in through the main doors into a hotel, and find that there’s absolutely no way to get up to the next level. You then have to return outside and climb around a corner – so natural civilised behaviours, like walking through the foyer, become derelict, and you have to go off-road, as it were, beat your own new pathways. It’s simple, subtle, and it conveys everything you want it to.
I haven’t said anything about the sailing portions of the game so far, but you can see how they might fit into this model as well. You don’t have to add any extra difficulty to the sailing – the point being that, in a post-apoc situation, it’s quite easy to float along on your own terms. When you’re detached from society and civilisation, it’s not that hard to survive – you just float along quite happily. There’s no real bedrock to your individual culture – you’re just a drifter on the waves. However, that lifestyle is unsustainable – when your brother gets sick, there’s no natural medicine just growing on trees. You have to re-enter civilisation and pick your way through the complicated ruins of these man-made environments in order to survive. Suddenly you’re telling a story about the tension of civilisation – it’s both frustrating and difficult (in the difficulty of negotiation), but also crucial because of the technological benefits. There’s some real guts to that story.