A multitude of games have taken over this household for the last few weeks. Usually I prefer to play through one game at a time. Focusing on one game lets me really get into the various details of the world, work with the mechanics to find my favorite strategies, and pay more attention to any story or lore going on (which I have a bad habit of neglecting – especially if there is a good combat system that I’m enjoying). Lately, however, there have just been too many “must play” games in this house! Initially I just focused on one (Horizon: Zero Dawn), but by the time I finished that there were so many games on my backlog that I just couldn’t bring myself to only pick one. Currently, I’m in the middle of playing (and baking for) Overcooked, Lords of Waterdeep, Doom 2016, 5 Minute Dungeon, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Mass Effect: Andromeda. If you’ve been chatting with me lately, you’ll note my current obsession in that list; surprisingly its not Zelda, its Doom. I’m taking my sweet time with Doom because I’m enjoying it; however, it has crossed my mind that perhaps I should lower the difficulty so that I can get through my growing list of games quicker. A few days ago I was in a long car ride with my husband, so I quizzed him about what he would do with difficulty. He suggested lowering it, and then made a statement that truly shocked me, “I don’t think difficulty options should exist.” My mind was blown. How could anyone not want difficulty options? We discussed our viewpoints, and I thought it would be interesting to look at the concept of difficulty here, since what I thought was a straightforward concept, isn’t so straightforward.
*Please note that we will be looking primarily at campaign-style games/modes. Difficulties in multiplayer games and MMOs are a completely different beast.
Growing up, I never thought much about difficulty. I suppose most of it was because I was playing a lot of multiplayer, and not so many campaigns. Normal was just fine for me. Then my world was expanded when eventually I was playing a coop campaign with a roommate whose default was to always start on the hardest setting available. What kind of crazy person does that?! Turns out he was onto something, and lead me to adopt a similar stance myself. In most games, harder difficulties force you to change the way you play. Strategies become priority and the combat system (and game mechanics) suddenly become essential to learn and use. I’m not a super-skilled player, I want to get that out there; but, combat tends to be what I enjoy the most in games. So while it may take me much longer, I have thoroughly enjoyed harder difficulties. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy that bonus achievement that pops up after completing a game on hard-mode?
Sometimes harder difficulties are just plain too hard. When it stops being fun, then its time to take the difficulty level down a notch. In most games that’s as easy as opening up the settings, selecting a lower difficulty, and then continuing on your merry way. This lets you start games with the mechanics and combat in mind, and then adjust if necessary. The downside right off the bat, I suppose, is you have to be aware of that option as you go, and be willing to adjust it. It can also be used as a crutch. Sometimes we may be tempted to turn the difficulty down, which would deny us the play experience the developers wanted us to have. That is, so far, the greatest argument I’ve heard for getting rid of difficulty levels.
When designing a game, developers generally have an experience in mind for the consumer. Oftentimes, difficulty levels can get in the way of those experiences, sometimes resulting in the consumer never even getting a taste. I’ll use Doom as an example, since I’m currently playing it, so it’s on my mind. When creating Doom, it is obvious that the developers wanted the game to feature movement that highlights glory kills. In the beginning of the game you start with only a pistol, and you are very clearly taught that when a demon starts flashing, that’s your cue to rush in and melee them for a glory kill. You are invincible while the glory kill animation is playing out, the animations can be different depending on your positioning while glory killing, and each demon has different (which means more fun and interesting) glory kill animations. Most importantly, glory kills are farther incentivized by resulting in health pack drops (which is important because your health doesn’t naturally regenerate). This means that oftentimes when you are about to die, your best recourse is to rush towards your enemy for that sweet sweet health. Glory kills also force you to keep moving, which is meant to be the only way to play this game. In other words, glory kills are obviously supposed to be a key element and experience in Doom. They work great and are fun on a normal difficulty. Unfortunately, glory kills take valuable time – time that the demons use to close in and bombard you location. This means that on the harder difficulties, glory kills become less and less plausible, unless you’ve managed to single out a demon in a space where you won’t be bombarded by all the others. On higher difficulties, it becomes a different game, and although certainly more strategic and challenging, it loses that fun and iconic “glory kill feel” that you get in difficulties where they are more manageable. So if we are looking at it from the “experiencing what the developers want you to experience” perspective, Doom suffers from its difficulty options (even though I still think its more fun at a higher difficulty).
Dark Souls is another prime argument against difficulty options. This game is well known for its unrelenting difficulty, with no way to adjust it… and it rocks it. The lack of “easy-mode” forces players to learn to be patient and think about how they are playing. It forces the player to adjust their gameplay, rather than forcing the game to adjust its gameplay. That makes Dark Souls a prime example of difficulty done right. Keep in mind, at the moment, we are looking at games as a piece of consumable art. Art that is meant to provide an experience to the consumer. If we look at it the opposite way around things change. There are many people who have cried out and pleaded for difficulty settings for Dark Souls. For some players, it is too challenging and it becomes impossible for those players to experience the rest of the game because of it. The lack of difficulty setting acts as a barrier to entry. In Dark Souls (and now its successors and sister games), its a very purposeful barrier to entry; the developers and the core audience enjoy that sense of a barrier. For other games, though, getting rid of those options would be a huge slap in the face to a large part of their audience, unless they found a different way to scale and balance the challenges the game provides. Even Dark Souls gets a lot of push-back from people wanting those options (both easier and harder).
There is also something to be said from the way games scale. If well made, games with difficulty options should adjust more than just health/damage. We should also see adjustments in the AI, or in the maps or puzzles. Games without difficulty settings should feature either dynamic difficulty scaling, or challenges that naturally ramp up and progress with the player. A poorly made game is a poorly made game, regardless of whether the difficulty is manually adjustable or not.
There are lots of games that feature a lack of difficulty setting and pull it of really well. Zelda and Portal are two of my favorites. For the majority of games though, I appreciate having adjustable difficulty… both for when I want that extra challenge, as well as when I have other things going on in my life and I want to get through a game quicker than normal. I can also appreciate developers wanting you to play how its meant to be played – it just means that some games I would either have to pass on or hold off on (which is a bummer but not a deal breaker). I am curious to hear more opinions. What do you think? Do you think games should have difficulty settings? Let me know in the comments!