The Westridge Trail "single track" in the Santa Monica Mountains traces the spine of the hills, rising about 700 feet in waves of ascent and descent. It's narrow, with dirt and brush breaking down occasionally into rocky scree, and on a bike the steep and craggy drops are challenging. After weeks of attempts, I finally learned how to master it. My teacher was an alcoholic ex-cop who wreaks havoc as a hired gun in Sao Paolo -- the title character of "Max Payne 3."
Most people who grew up playing video games experienced that level, the one that made you want to bash your controller and head through the television. In 1990, my mother decided she had to intervene after watching her otherwise cheerful son seethe and curse at "Prince of Persia:" I was being killed, repeatedly, by that tubby dude with the cagey blocking. (I finished the game in secret sessions, like some 8-bit samizdat.)
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If you went over to a friend's house to play "Battletoads" or "Mega Man" back in the day, you expected to reach stages that took hours, or a boss that only the best players could take down. These expectations have changed. Today, even big action games -- gamers' games -- favor advancement over befuddlement. In other words, they're kind of easy.
Demanding video games have not gone extinct, but lists of the hardest games ever skew heavily to older fare. Today's most challenging titles, like 2011's "Dark Souls," are increasingly seen as annoying outliers. To anyone who stopped playing games in the '90s, "Dark Souls'" trials -- you die a lot and have to repeat stuff -- sound unremarkable. But in today's market, they're noteworthy. Cliff Bleszinski, design director on the "Gears of War" franchise, recently said that games have "taken a lot of steps to grow the audience and [as a result] have become more linear and easier." Bleszinski followed with a question: "When was the last time a game really challenged you and asked something of you?"
Like Bleszinski and others, I'd observed these changes and shifted my own expectations. Games now tell great big stories and present massive open worlds. If I seldom died, even on hard settings, that's because we were now dealing with grander concerns than the attack pattern of some round guy with a cutlass.
I felt this way until "Max Payne 3" changed my life a little bit, demonstrating the narrative and moral value of hard video games -- the ones that make your loved ones fear for your health and sanity. I'm never going back.
In "Max Payne 3," you play a gun-toting lunatic whose shattered life has devolved into a series of bloody firefights he doesn't fully understand. It's a third-person shooter, meaning you can see Max on the screen as you control his running, hiding, and shooting through various urban landscapes. You survive by murdering attacking gunmen before they can murder you. You don't automatically heal, and it takes just a few shots to ice you. The bad guys are smart. If you hunker behind a cement slab to pick them off, they will a) flank you, b) shoot the slab into rubble, and/or c) lob grenades. You have to move, prioritize threats, and react quickly. You often die not knowing what hit you. The game is an ensanguined carnival that demands focus. After a few hours, you feel the way Max is supposed to feel: hounded, confused, adrenalized.
If the game weren't close to impossible at times, the story wouldn't land. An easier version of "Max Payne" would have allowed for quicker progression through stages and narrative. But slowing a game down with tough challenges arms a unique storytelling asset. Instead of using cut-scenes to tell you that Max is in harrowing situations, the game puts you in harrowing situations. This demanding gameplay transforms a stock confrontation between the honest Brazilian cop and the battered, out-of-his-depth American into a lived-in moment: You experience it with tired exhilaration, having gotten there by figuring out that blowing up that gas canister in the Panama Canal will decimate those sharpshooting death squad goons.
Hard games are about repeating challenges. You growl and shout, particularly when some dude with body armor and a howitzer mercs you umpteen times, booting you back 10 minutes and 10,000 bullets. Naturally, there's satisfaction in completing that level. But that's just the beginning.
And that gets us back to the Santa Monica Mountains. I'd been trying to ride the Westridge single track for awhile. Its steep, crumbly hills require a technique of throwing your weight back that I haven't mastered yet. Before "Max Payne," I lacked neither pluck nor fortitude. If I wiped out, I'd move on down the trail, knowing I'd have another crack at that bit next time. But the first time I skidded on shale-y rock after Payne, I did not push on. Instead, I marched my bike back up to the top of that same stupid hill, studied the ledge that had pitched me, marked an alternate path, and tried it again. And again. And, on another drop later that ride, again and again and again and again.
The thought here is old: Practice makes perfect. But it's amazing that something a lot more recreational than, say, practicing piano imparts similar lessons about diligent repetition. Playing this game, this hard game, reminded me that "trying it again" was not weird or a waste of time: It was the best and perhaps only way for me to become the kind of person capable of going down these hills on a bike. Mastery requires error and segmented iteration. This isn't some woolly life lesson. It's simple, practical advice that I learned by realizing that I had to dive here, no here, no, here to take out the guy with the howitzer.
Games have unique influence because we do them, and doing them can change us. Being hard isn't the only way games can use doing to trigger growth. 2011's "Deus Ex: Human Revolution" broke my heart by dramatizing the weight of non-repeatable choice. My decision to let some hostages die affected how other characters perceived me for hours of subsequent play: I lived with shame and vowed to redeem it. But games' most potent pedagogical tool is their ability to be hard: to demand that we learn and improve if we want to be rewarded. (You can always ratchet down the difficulty settings, of course. But cakewalks don't build character, weakling.)
Let's be clear: None of this teaching need come at the expense of pleasure. "Max Payne 3" is fun. Bonkers fun. The point, as Bleszniski says, is that games should ask something of us. Big games that don't require us to do anything -- ones that are just shattered movies that we walk around in -- forgo one of the medium's best attributes. Not every game need be as difficult as "Max Payne 3," but the light expectations that many of today's AAA titles place on players -- long-familiar play mechanics, few real challenges -- deprive us of things we may not even know we're missing.
So ratchet up that difficulty to your personal max. Find a game that's set forums alight with frustrated invective. Oh, you'll yell. But you'll finish with something to carry, maybe right up into the mountains.
James Carmichael is a writer in Los Angeles.