BioShock: Infinite and the Art of Alternate Game Modes Part 2

In my last article I talked about 1999 Mode from BioShock Infinite. It was supposed to be a love letter to 90’s shooters with a rigorous difficulty and according to the game’s creative director, Ken Levine, it would ‘not even feel like BioShock’. But instead of feeling like a unique experience in Infinite, 1999 Mode was at best a lack luster hard mode.

This week I would like to delve into Hard Modes, and Alternate Game Modes, and what makes them worthwhile.


Mass Effect 2

Let’s start with an example of superb hard mode: Mass Effect 2’s Insanity Difficulty. It places the player behind on the difficulty curve right from the beginning, your weapons and abilities feel under powered but not worthless. Insanity encourages you to rely on the tasteful strategy elements within the game; choosing your squadmates, giving them combat direction, and managing their builds is the clear path to victory. Be a better player, and you will be rewarded.

These necessary improvements are directly part of the difficulty’s curve balls and flow. There are loads more enemies, each encounter has dozens come out of the wood works at the worst times. They also have much better tactics, they separate into groups to flank you and take down your squad. To make matters worse, every enemy from Husks to Thresher Maws get bonus defenses over their normal health: shield, armor, and barrier. Insanity is exactly built around what makes the game good: dynamic encounters and strategic decision making. It cranks them up to 11 and it is so satisfying.


The Last of Us

Never have I seen such a tasteful and flavorful difficulty setting as Survivor in The Last of Us. In a game both mechanically and thematically about survival, resource denial and stealth are what it is all about. With no Listen Mode forget having any kind of tactical advantage over your foes, and with next to no ammo every silent take down is a godsend. It is brutal, some might say skirting the edge of artificially difficult, but it almost makes the game feel even more like itself. One day I might try Grounded, one day.


Fallout: New Vegas

Hardcore Mode in New Vegas made quite a splash when it was first announced. Having to sleep, eat, and drink water in Fallout was novel and it really was an Alternate Mode to the normal game. It was complex and introduced a lot of depth to the game. Ammo had weight, Nuka Cola made you thirsty, healing took place over time, and you cannot fast travel unless you have enough food and water to make it there. It made the entire experience totally different, it wasn’t simply playing New Vegas, it was surviving in New Vegas.


Fire Emblem (Rekka no Ken)

Hector Mode is the defining alternate game mode that I have ever experienced. Fire Emblem GBA was cool, had a great cast, and was epic throughout; the gameplay was classic Fire Emblem and kept me company on many a car trip. After completing the lengthy campaign and saving the world as Eliwood it is hard not to want to just start the whole thing over right from the start, if only it could be new again.

The game heard my wish and fulfilled it in the form of Hector Mode. You can start the game over in an alternate campaign where the story follows the young lord Hector instead of Eliwood. There are different missions, different subplots, unique characters, and some missions even have different starting points and objectives. It tells the same story, yet is completely different. It inverts just enough to feel new and keeps enough that it does not overstep is boundaries. The expertise of Hector Mode is how authentic it feels and how a different character can tell a different story.


A good hard mode requires knowing what the game is good at doing. Mass Effect 2 is all about the squad and working together, and Insanity is all about utilizing every ounce of the squad’s potential. The Last of Us is about survival, and Survivor makes finding items less frequent and stealth more important. They highlight strong parts of the game and give the player just enough to still feel like they have a fighting chance.

Alternate game modes can be a simple as adding the need to drink water or as complex as changing the main character, a good alternate game mode knows what can be changed and why. New Vegas gives the player more to deal with, and as a result enriches the role playing experience. Fire Emblem presents the player with a campaign featuring a different protagonist who the story, missions, and game tweaked just enough to be a new experience.

1999 Mode could have been a 90’s Mode by taking away modern gameplay mechanics like the shield, Infusions, Elizabeth’s combat assistance, and autosave. They could have made it a good Hard Mode by playing to the game’s strengths: giving you massive waves of enemies, making the AI more tactically aggressive, and incentivizing you to vary your approach to the game. Anything but what was presented to the players. 1999 Mode was neither an alternate game mode or a hard mode, it was an underwhelming and abysmal experience.

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