I recently purchased the original Unreal as, to my shame, I had never actually played it up until this point. It was a bit of a landmark title for it's day and was the graphical powerhouse to beat upong it's release, though it seems to have been forgotten in favour of it's larger, multiplayer brother Unreal Tournament. But, for a mere AU$5.00, I thought 'why not?'.
Now, I've been a gamer for nearly two decades and have played through some fairly difficult titles and have all but exhausted the FPS genre, so naturally I bump the difficulty level up to 'Unreal'. I like to be challenged, and I eat console FPSs for breakfast. Funnily enough, I was challenged - however, not just by the combat. The difficult adjusts the damage dealt and received, and in some places the number of opponents, however it doesn't change the level make up - and this is where I found Unreal to be the most challenging. Simply finding my way around some of the End-game levels was a lot more difficult than I had thought, and puzzles were down right head-scratch worthy. At first, I thought this was simply bad game design - a few had me stumped for quite a while - and a bit of a commentary on the progression the quality of the Video Games industry. Until I played it's sequel, Unreal II: The Awakening. While Unreal's difficulty was in it's 'puzzles' and combat, Unreal II basically handed you some guns and gave you things to shoot. I cleared Unreal in around 18 hours and was challenged quite often, however Unreal II took half that and provided literally no challenge of any kind.
Looking back at other games such as Half-Life, which was absolutely challenging - and still is, and their sequels such as Half-Life 2, which was better designed but was also a lot less challenging except for one or two moments, I feel that as time has progressed, games have gotten easier as a whole. Now, I'm not just talking about the dumbing down of game mechanics, I mean the actual challenge presented by the games of today. Looking back at the generations of yester-year, games like Sonic basically required you to memorise the entire game and be able to finish it without dying or making many mistakes. Flash forward to today, and games like Prince of Persia actually remove the ability to fail completely. Literally, you're unable not to succeed in that game. Is this something we asked for? Is this the natural evolution of our medium? In my humble opinion, no. Looking back at those older games, it was quite the achievement to finish one because of the challenge it presented. Seeing the ending sequence was the product of hours of hardwork and dedication, but boy did it feel good when you did it. If weren't good enough to be able to finish the game, you had to practice until you were. I remember weeks in front of a game called The Ninja on the Sega Master System II, and finishing it was one of the fondest memories I have as a kid because My Uncle and I spend hours memorising and practicing that game until we had it down cold. Sure, there were moments of frustration, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun.
This isn't just for lower-scoring games like Unreal II, however. Look at some of the biggest and best on the market, like Bioshock, and we can see this as well. Bioshock featured Vita-Life chambers, where upon death you'd be respawned instantly and off you go again. If you had half killed something, it remained half-dead while you were returned to full health and able to beat it to death with your wrench at no penalty. That is, if you died - the combat wasn't terribly difficult at it's normal setting anyway, and even at it's full difficulty the real challenge came from ammo conservation rather than from the difficulty of your opponents, a trick Resident Evil used to great effect back on the original Playstation. And yet, Resident Evil was still harder than Bioshock. There is obviously a fine line to walk between challenging and frustrating, but why are so many games failing to deliver the challenge that older games packed in spades?
Maybe I'm a rare breed, but I think finishing a game should be something to proud of - something you actually have to put some effort into, however with that effort comes the pay off of the feeling of success. When I finished Unreal, I actually felt good, despite the ending being nothing more than a "you escaped - to be continued" screen. Compare this to Call of Duty 4, Bioshock or even Unreal II, where finish it generated more of a 'meh' than a fist-in-the-air-fuck-yeah! Is this the way the industry is headed as Video Games become more and more mainstream and make more and more money? Or should every person who picks up the game have a right to finish it without putting little to no effort in to it? Is the End Screen a right, or a privilege?