Frustration Nation

Frustration Nation
The Glory of the Last Stand

Lee Petrie | 23 Jun 2009 08:03
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These days, I always play games on the hardest difficulty available to me. To play, for example, Gears of War on "casual" would be an affront, because the game has no meaning without difficulty. You become an invincible demon marching through enemy lines, killing with ease and laughing manically.

For the rest of us, playing on anything but the hardest or second hardest setting amounts to sadism. You are clearing through enemies with no resistance - you might as well be killing innocent civilians. The frustration I feel when the difficulty intensifies at least allows me to become the underdog. To completely be a cornered, shivering rat behind a small wall being raked by machine guns and rockets - there lies nobility. Many of the most popular internet Flash games are also like this. Think of all the tower defense games, zombie games - there are even a few called Last Stand. Giving a wave everything you've got? Only just survived by the skin of your teeth? Well, the next one is twice as hard.

Perhaps it's the simplicity of defense that I enjoy. A good attack in an RTS requires excellent logistical skills, multi-tasking and directing numerous units. By contrast, defending involves massing all of your troops at the narrowest entrance(s) to your base and waiting, then replenishing if possible. Perhaps I'm more of a scenic gamer - I feel much more comfortable when I have explored my environment and know it well. Being forcibly pushed through area after area in a never ending assault tends to confuse my small brain.

A videogame is often at its best when it stops dragging the player through level after level and lets them stop and savor their surroundings. A good set piece in an open environment can create some of the most memorable moments in gaming - think of defending the rocket launch in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 or barring the doors and windows in Resident Evil 4. When a game is confident enough in its A.I. to place you in a confined space, throw some enemies at you and see what happens, it often creates a perfect combination of scripted events and emergent gameplay.


In reality, Last Stands are an over-romanticized, fantastical notion, perpetuated by a selfish desire for martyrdom. Videogames, on the other hand, are another fantasy, and I will happily indulge my adolescent, Lord of the Rings-reading hero. To me, my StarCraft troops were defending everything I held dear against the merciless hordes of orcs/zerg/crazed bad guys. I may have been annihilated, gunned down bit by bit until only the charred husks of my base remained. But I loved every minute of it.

Lee Petrie is studying philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, but more importantly works part time in a shop that gives him 20 percent off of beer. Please send all discount beer requests to ernesto_juan_sanchez[at]hotmail[dot]com.

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