Back in the earliest days of gaming, the original difficulty curve was in Space Invaders, where it was actually a programming error: creator Tomoro Nishikado was originally disappointed at how slow the aliens moved due to insufficient 1970s hardware but discovered that the fewer aliens left on screen, the faster they moved as there was less for the system to process, to the point that the last alien whizzes around as an ultimate test of skill.
Later, during the boom of arcade gaming in the 80s, many games were intentionally made hard as a means of extorting coins out of player. The more you died, the more likely you were to add more money as a way of continuing or trying again. It’s why classic games like Galaga, Ghosts n’ Goblins and Ninja Gaiden feel like some kind of divine punishment to get through. Otherwise, there were games that scaled the difficulty because the hardware simply couldn’t handle players surviving very long, like how the screen would become a pixelated mess in the earliest versions of Pac-Man.
Then home consoles were released, companies could get enough money from just selling the console and games, and after a wobbly transition period most games comfortably settled by the mid 90s. Players could freely choose easy, medium or hard in most games, with each actually resembling this label, and so the difficulty was up to choice. Of course, they would all have a difficulty curve as the player became more skilled, and some sections would be tougher than others, but rarely were these challenges insurmountable. My earliest gaming memories were on the Nintendo DS, where my 10-year-old self would almost always choose easy mode because I was there for the adventure and escapism, not frustration.
Nowadays, however, a new crop of hard games have emerged. I’m not talking about games that are specifically designed to be joyless tests of a player’s dedication unless they’re willing to shell out cash for better weapons etc. – Star Wars Battlefront II is an infamous recent example of this kind of game with predatory microtransactions, at launch forcing players to either pour hours into attempting to earn beloved characters or pay up. I’m talking about games where difficulty is one of the most notable aspects.
One of the most famous instigators of this trend was 2011’s Dark Souls, a grim fantasy series that will grind the player to a fine pulp unless they get to grips with its combat system, learn enemy attack patterns, and have ironclad morale. In the decade since, a slew of games that are punishingly difficult by default have released. Diehard fans of these games are infamously considered a smug, hostile bunch, loudly denouncing anyone who struggles as an inferior “scrub” and being personally insulted should the possibility of introducing an easier mode be considered. Some games that have easy modes even directly mock players who choose them – 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order named its easy mode “Can I Play, Daddy?” and called it a setting for “the spineless gamer”, whereas other games may hide their best endings behind higher difficulty settings.
I can see the point. In the last few years I’ve developed a taste for some trickier games. I have yet to complete gorgeous little indie gem Hollow Knight, largely because sometimes after dying 20 times to one boss I need a six month break, but I adore it and when I get sucked in hours can go by honing reflexes and reaction times, and winning a battle is all the more triumphant. There is certainly a special kind of enjoyment to be found in games like this that are tough but fair, excruciatingly difficult but never insurmountable if you’re willing to work at them.
But the simple fact is that video games are meant to be fun, and for some people dying repeatedly is the opposite of fun. Or people simply don’t have the time to commit to mastering a game’s systems, or just want to enjoy the story and design. These people are just as valid members of the gaming community as others, but are the bane of self-appointed gatekeepers.
True, perhaps a less tough version of something like Dark Souls wouldn’t be the same experience. But if one particular battle completely destroys any enthusiasm a player had for the game, that’s a huge chunk of content that is lost. Shouldn’t someone who paid for a game have the right to experience it a way that suits them? Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a more recent release from Dark Souls developers From Software, costs nearly £60 for its game of the year edition. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and the dilemma of whether or not they’ll actually be able to experience the whole thing hangs over potential players.
Accessibility in games is an important discussion that can sometimes receive backlash, with claims that something “isn’t how the game is meant to be played”, and perhaps easy modes are too broad a solution. “Dynamic difficulty” is a system by which games adjust their difficulty based on the player’s skill – this was used as far back as 2005 where Resident Evil 4 would give players who died repeatedly more ammunition and healing items, a system that the game itself never made explicit. 2018 platformer Celeste, meanwhile, features an adjustable Assist Mode that allows players to do anything from slow the game down in 10% increments to make their character invincible and skip whole chapters. The game gently encourages the player to not use Assist Mode, but remains non-judgmental, allowing you to freely toggle these options in gameplay to get past tough sections and not blocking assisted players from gaining any achievements. These two examples show that difficulty variation can be much more fluid than set modes, and adjust to what individual players are challenged by. A player might still be challenged by their own standards, even if these adjustments are made, but they won’t run into a brick wall of difficulty.
The gaming industry is fast growing, and is currently bigger than film and music combined – as of 2019 it was worth £3.8 billion, more than double its worth in 2007, and those numbers are fast increasing. As more people start to take up gaming, it is natural for purists to become defensive about the experience somehow becoming diluted. But ultimately, isn’t it better that people get to explore the same games and fall in love with them just as others do, even if their experience may be slightly different or easier? For a more accessible and welcoming industry, allowing these kinds of adjustments is essential.
Feature Image: spectrummanimations via Flickr