A topic that springs up regarding video games from time to time is how modern video games are relatively easy compared to the initial video games of yesteryear. Frequently, commentators point to the fact that modern games have no relative penalties for dying within a game, that many times you simply respawn or have the equivalent of unlimited lives, but I think that is an obvious example compared to how video games grow more and more like a digital game of whack-a-mole. This apt analogy was made last year by Kirk Hamilton when he urged gamers to turn off their mini-map in Grand Theft Auto IV.
I have found drastic changes over the way games of today are cakewalks compared to the kicks to the groin I received in years previous. Most games these days have scalable difficulty settings, but this usually just determines how much damage you take from enemies and how much damage you deal out in combat, overall it doesn't affect the rest of the game. And instead of getting stumped on puzzles, the internet makes looking up solutions as easy as typing a sentence, when the puzzle hasn't been reduced to color matching or a game of connect the dots.
DANGER: Mathematics approaching!
Due to my recent forays into the Fallout wiki I've been noticing the trend even more. Let's just compare Stimpaks from the original Fallout to the modern Fallout 3. In the original, when a Stimpak was used it gave a variable amount of hit points back, between 12 and 20. In Fallout 3 a Stimpak gives a specific amount of hit points based on your skill in Medicine, but the smallest amount of hit points you can receive is 30, and the largest is 106.
My first conclusion from this is that the player is being handed a much better boon in FO3 compared to FO1, but the skeptic in me says "What about hit point totals?" If a character has more hit points in FO3 than the bigger boost makes sense. Hit points are a derived stat in both games, and an average character in FO1 will start with 30 hit points, while an average character in FO3 starts with 190. So, Stimpaks are 30-60% effective in FO1 compared to FO3 where they are 16% effective.
That's quite a difference in both HP totals and overall effectiveness of Stimpaks, but it doesn't paint a complete picture. In FO3, Stimpaks are not the only way to heal hit point loss, in fact simply drinking water will restore hit points, but in FO1 there are very few (and relatively uncommon) ways of healing up besides using Stimpaks.
This stark contrast between hard "old school" games versus modern games can be seen easily in the differences between Fallout 1 and Fallout 3, and I think that using the two versions of Fallout as proxies for the two eras is appropriate. It's very easy to break Fallout 3, and I know because I have broken it on my own without the help of a wiki or a faq. In Fallout 1, I'm still scared of getting into a fight with super mutants while using cheat codes! That really says something.
I'm remembering my struggles playing through Fallout 1 and there were times when I was playing Fallout 1 that I felt I might have screwed over my character by making too many mistakes and I would end up weighing my options about starting over with a new character, the penalties of having limbs crippled from fights that turned ugly or accidentally killing a vital NPC were permanent and not easily fixed. In Fallout 3 any mistake made can be fixed, and vital NPCs are impossible to kill. There is quite simply no penalty for taking risks or being reckless in Fallout 3, and the newer version is an exercise in mouse-clicking and loot-grabbing compared to the original.
The video games of yesteryear were very good at punching you in the face and dropping you into a thorn bush for being stupid or irresponsible, but the video games of today seem to be like overly cautious parents holding your hand through a labyrinth made of cotton candy.
I don't long to return to the days of one-hit kills or mind-crushingly difficult gameplay, but there is definitely a difference between hardcore difficult games and simply being a challenge. A game can feel like a challenge but not actually offer any penalties for losing, like Uncharted or Arkham Asylum. Even the "hardcore" mode in Fallout: New Vegas is not much of a challenge.
The only game I can think of in recent years that offered penalties for dying and thus seemed like an actual challenge with an appropriate risk-reward system is Red Dead Redemption, but it also constantly auto-saves so provided you've been following the storyline you're not going to miss out on much if you die.
I'm trying to think of games that offer actual challenges in the way of gameplay without just being super hard, and the only one that comes to mind is Shadow of the Colossus.