Some gamers use the term “gritty” to describe the likes of Dark Souls, or Mount & Blade, games that are often packed with a high degree of difficulty or take a long time to get anywhere. Though I like some realism in my games, there are points where realistic difficulty can go too far and be a major detriment to the game.
On the “fair” settings, meaning you have no penalties to damage taken, Mount & Blade is a very gritty game when it comes to the combat. The most health you are likely to have in the game weighs in at around 100 HP. Good amount isn’t it? Not really, without any damage mitigation in the options you are looking at 20-30, even 40 damage in the normal case scenarios. This makes combat extremely dangerous, and gritty.
This however is a good thing for the game, Mount & Blade is supposed to be a no-magic fantasy setting, and it does it well. There are no fantastic warriors who can brush aside an army, there is no method of healing in a fight, and a single wrong move on the world map can have a hostile faction’s resident ruler, duke, or prince show up. Because of how the game works, they will have more troops than you, all armed and armored to the teeth, and he will completely and utterly whip your ass, taking your army with you. This is where the game becomes the bad kind of gritty.
For a massive chunk of Mount & Blade, you have nowhere to station your troops. You have them with you at all times, and you can’t break your army out of prison like you can important NPCs. Other more realistic aspects is in how people are broken out of prison. It’s possible to sneak into town, but you’re stuck in peasant clothing, pitiful weapons, no shield, no allies, the guard is in fullplate. This is bad because any sneaking in will without a doubt end in absolute failure. It does make sense that a notorious warmonger will be recognized easily, and that carrying an arsenal of weapons or armor will draw attention. The price of armor in the game means that no commoner will ever be able to afford armor without months or even years of saving up.
A realistic part of Mound & Blade, though far from gritty, is the relationship system. If war breaks out, everyone in the enemy faction (rightly) hates your guts. However if war ends, then everyone forgets about you and they will consider you with a nod. The intention of this is so you don’t go turncoat every other month because you get tired of the Nords sending you out on bandit hideout quests. Sadly, I often decide to restart the game for whatever reason because I don’t like my build or what have you, and I’m running all over the country delivering letters to warmongers who butt heads for absolutely no reason. This is where gritty and realistic gets bad, Mount & Blade is a good game with a solid combat system, but it is ridiculously slow paced and generally dull for the start of the game. A good start is everything in a game to me. Thankfully some toying with Tweak M&B can fix this if you have 20 minutes.
Onto the Souls games, the difficulty is heavily stacked against you. Hard to where it’s absolutely ridiculous and the series is notorious for being that hard. Even though it has fantasy aspects every corner you turn, people have called it gritty. A single attack that you fail to block can do hundreds of damage, and the game has a fetish for throwing you a curveball. Now, why is this good? Dark Souls was created with this philosophy in mind: “If you can do at least one point of damage, you can kill it.”
To give an example of damage, the Moonlight Butterfly doesn’t give a damn about knocking off 60-75% of your HP in one attack, and another of its attacks is very difficult to avoid due to its speed and spread. It’s actually one of the easier bosses since its attacks are simple to avoid and it’s not very aggressive.
Just about everything that exists in the game can, in theory, be beaten with minimal stats, there are very few (if any) attacks that cannot be completely avoided or blocked. Even though this makes the game gritty, it doesn’t make it completely unfair. The hours I have clocked on it taught me “If you die, 90% of the time, it was your fault.”
Other aspects of grittyness include micromanaging. Roguelikes are especially guilty of this due to their requirements of food for the player character to prevent starvation. When done right this can be a good mechanic that you think nothing of until you run out of food. This is a bit of a grey area for me in realism as I honestly hate micromanagement. Some love it, I used to love it, but there is a point where my inventory is overloaded with more crap than my chest on Diablo 2.
Even though a gritty can can encourage development of skill far more than statistics, there is quite a good area where grittiness will add heaps to a game, and provide a break in the number games of most RPGs. Give me a few days on just about any RPG and I’ll come up with a way to completely annihilate anything without giving two damns about it.
I find the biggest fault of many modern games is that eventually, it all comes down to the metagame and elitist bastards who have a problem with anyone who can’t kill a boss in 10 seconds flat. It’s just the downside of the overall numbers game. The few games that come out where a single mistake means death often have highly unbalanced difficulty and are not newbie-friendly or attempt to ease you into the whole concept of the game. Games with no actual statistics, like most FPS games, reward skill. Landing a headshot from across the map and keeping your distance takes much more than doing 158,039 damage per second.
Do you think developers of games should focus less on the number circlejerk and have games be based more on pure skill with a slight influence from numbers like how things were in the old days?