The most common choice offered to players upon starting a new game is the difficulty; Easy, normal, hard or some variant are the most frequent options, though “casual” and “insane” often get dropped in depending on the title. The issue of difficulty in games tends to be raised periodically among gaming communities, but with this being the week that Dark Souls, a game whose marketing has centred around the numerous ways it will destroy your face, I thought it might be timely to consider difficulty, gaming and their relationship as it is today.
For some people, the choice of difficulty is simple; hit normal and away you go. After all, it stands to reason that normal would be the mode the developers intended their game to be played. For others, myself included, the difficulty screen is the first major hurdle in starting a new game. What if halfway through, the game turns out to be too easy or worse, you hit a brickwall? This is an issue easily solved with the ability to change the difficulty at any time, an ability that many games still lack. However, it could be argued (and damn it I’ll play Devil’s Advocate and argue it!) that having the choice of difficulty in the first place is an oddity, both from a historical and practical approach to game design.
Let’s look at history first. It’s no secret that video games were originally designed to take your pocket change and leave you poor. The trick was to find a level of difficulty that would pummel the player into submission, while giving them the impression that with just one more try they may prevail. Not surprisingly, a choice of difficulty would make little sense as, should the player pick easy, there was the risk they could beat the game for a few pieces of shrapnel. This imperative in game design has mostly passed by, with people paying up front for the “full experience” (excepting DLC and subscription based models, which is a topic for another post). To this end, developers now want players to see all that their game has to offer, which is no surprise, considering the cost and effort that is involved in modern games development.
Added to this, developers want players to see their games in the best light possible. Games are unique in that, unlike television or books, they actively prevent you from experiencing what they have to offer. You don’t have to beat a book or a TV show, simply progress along a linear narrative path until the conclusion. That’s not to say they are passive experiences; far from it. Books, for example, require the reader to draw out its world in their mind, using their imagination to convert text on a page into a living, breathing reality. Games however require active input from the player, where they are forced to make decisions in order to progress. In some games, this element is elevated to include deciding how the narrative plays out, but every game makes demands on the player, even in the most linear narrative. Take cover, fall back, which gun to use, which direction to walk… the list is endless. When you boil it down, difficulty in games is about consequence. Say for example, if you’re playing Gears of War or Uncharted on the lowest difficulty setting, and decide to rush the enemy. In this instance, it is likely you will succeed. However, bump up the notch to the highest setting and try the manoeuvre again. The odds swing back against the player. In the former instance, there is no real consequence for the player, while the harder difficulties punish poor decision making with death. This fundamentally alters the players relationship with the on screen character, either removing the vulnerability the narrative dictates they must have, or reducing a legendary soldier to a rookie unable to take on a small group of militia. As a result, after clearing an entire temple of soldiers and helicopters, Drake can trigger a cutscene and be overwhelmed by one or two lackeys.
My intention isn’t to criticise game design by arguing that the difficulty feature should be removed, as
I’ve said already, I think the choice should be offered to players at any point during the game, not just at the beginning, before they have a good idea of where the balance lies. However, it should highlight the oddity of having the choice in the first place. Even if you are just along for the ride, enjoying the spectacle, the reaction elicited by said spectacle is altered depending on the players struggle to reach that point. Which brings me back to Dark Souls, a game where the designers have deliberately set the bar high and removed the option to change the difficulty should the going get tough. Overcoming adversity is core to the game’s message, a message that is diminished if the game could be set to “walk in the medieval fantasy park”. It is a reactionary move from a team that feels that games have increasingly pandered to the player’s whims, patting them on the head with every minor victory. They are part of a school of thought that argues that this trend robs the players from a true sense of achievement. In life, overcoming true challenge is where the greatest satisfaction lies, and so it is with games as well. They have taken this notion to its logical extreme and the result is a game with the tagline “You will die”.
At times, I wonder if this is an elitist attitude to games. Certainly it would appear so in some cases; die too often in Ninja Gaiden and the game offers to bump down the difficulty complete with a little pink ribbon for Ryu, so the player is constantly aware they are doing it ‘wrong’, that they are subpar. Wanted renamed its easy difficulty “Pussy” mode which, although it is in keeping with the tone of the movie and game, remains offensive for a variety of reasons.
Although the vast majority of decisions lie in the hands of the game designers, the degree to which players wish to struggle is often dictated by the players themselves. However, hopefully this feature has highlighted, not just the impact the choice can have on the player’s perception of a game, but also how it seems to run counter to the designers wish to guide that perception. In some cases, for example Halo or Operation Flashpoint, playing the hardest setting is almost like playing a different game; old tactics become redundant and once tiny challenges become mountains. So next time you start up a new game, spare a second on that difficulty screen and ask how a simple choice could alter your entire opinion on the upcoming adventure.