In Defense of Hard Games


There has been a grow­ing de­bate the past few years re­gard­ing the high dif­fi­cul­ty of cer­tain games, and how they rep­re­sent a bar­ri­er of en­try to new­com­ers (read new con­sumers) to a prod­uct. Granted, this ar­gu­ment is not nec­es­sar­i­ly new, but it has in­creased in pres­ence this decade as cer­tain pun­dits have called for things like skip­pable com­bat and an easy mode in all games — with a fo­cus on Dark Souls a lot of the time.

The re­cent men­tion that got a bee in my bon­net — so to speak — comes from Oliver Cragg via International Business Times UK, and it presents an in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tion when it presents a call for an easy mode in the Dark Souls series.

… I be­lieve the Souls se­ries should have an easy mode.”

He states, yet far­ther down he observers:

Surprisingly, I do be­lieve that low­er­ing the dif­fi­cul­ty lev­el in the Souls se­ries would di­lute the ex­pe­ri­ence somewhat.”

Now this caused my head to cock to the side like a con­fused dog. I won­dered to my­self, “Why would you pur­pose­ful­ly di­lute a game for new­com­ers to a se­ries and present them a less­er prod­uct?” To those who have not played it, the ma­jor buzz around the Souls ti­tles is the so called bru­tal dif­fi­cul­ty. I ful­ly be­lieve a ma­jor­i­ty of new play­ers would de­fault to an easy mode if pre­sent­ed with it, whether they need­ed it or not, based on that buzz alone. But in the spe­cif­ic case of Dark Souls, this gives way to an is­sue that Cragg him­self points out in his di­lu­tion statement.

The grind­ing, gru­el­ing na­ture of Dark Souls is very much linked to its at­mos­phere, sto­ry, and over­all me­chan­ics. Being reck­less is al­most in­stant death, but you are re­ward­ed for me­thod­i­cal pa­tience and care­ful plan­ning. You are parceled out bits of lore with each pro­gres­sive vic­to­ry in this seem­ing­ly daunt­ing world as you view the his­to­ry of items you find, and ex­plore new ar­eas. Lowering the dif­fi­cul­ty in Dark Souls would di­lute the pre­sen­ta­tion, I ab­solute­ly agree with this.

So why would you give peo­ple new to the se­ries the op­tion of a less­er ver­sion of the game? 

Yes, this would be an op­tion­al set­ting — of course. But why even present a “di­lute the ex­pe­ri­ence” op­tion in a game whose over­all ex­pe­ri­ence is so deeply tied to its me­chan­ics and gru­el­ing na­ture? For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Souls se­ries is all that “dif­fi­cult.” It does re­quire that you to know what you are do­ing and en­sur­ing you are aware of your en­vi­ron­ment. When I see peo­ple telling oth­ers to “git gud” in a game like Dark Souls, it is a lit­er­al thing — not a sar­cas­tic quip. Learn the game, learn the en­vi­ron­ment, learn what your op­tions are. 

If this dude can play FPS games with no hands, you can play Dark Souls. Just say­ing.

Now this isn’t a piece to just ad­dress one dude talk­ing about one game, as that would be kind of bor­ing and I wouldn’t even be writ­ing this. Nor is this some rant about how games shouldn’t have easy modes, or skip­pable com­bat at all — I am ac­tu­al­ly for them in many cas­es. I’d just like to dig a bit deep­er into this de­bate, as I feel some core is­sues are skipped over or are be­ing ad­dressed from the wrong angle.

The Dark Souls dif­fi­cul­ty top­ic just hap­pened to be the thought shard that start­ed this all off. When com­ment­ing on easy modes or skip­pable com­bat, I hap­pen to feel peo­ple are ad­dress­ing game de­sign is­sues from the wrong di­rec­tion and want to ap­ply a band-aid.

Before gnaw­ing on the meat of the next part, I’d like to give a cou­ple ex­am­ples of skip­pable com­bat and de­creased dif­fi­cul­ty that I feel is ex­e­cut­ed very well — es­pe­cial­ly giv­en that a gran­ite hard dif­fi­cul­ty is not core to their experience.

I think Grand Theft Auto 5 han­dled skip­pable com­bat about as per­fect­ly as one can. If you fail part of a mis­sion a cer­tain num­ber of times you get a “skip” op­tion along­side the “retry” se­lec­tion. It’s pre­sent­ed in a no fuss kind of man­ner, and I think we can all ad­mit that there some just ab­solute­ly un­fun mis­sions in every GTA ti­tle. You won’t get any spe­cial re­wards for fin­ish­ing a mis­sion this way, but it’s per­fect if you are get­ting frus­trat­ed and just want to push the sto­ry along.

There is a action/RPG/platformer called Rabi-Ribi I have been play­ing re­cent­ly for a re­view, and it pro­vides such a great lit­tle so­lu­tion for parts of the game that one is hav­ing a bit of is­sue with, but doesn’t low­er the over­all game dif­fi­cul­ty. If you respawn af­ter dy­ing a few times, and af­ter pre­sent­ed with some tips for sur­vival, you are of­fered an op­tion for some “help” the next time you load in. This help comes in the form of a tem­po­rary buff that can al­low you to push past that par­tic­u­lar­ly per­ni­cious part of the game.

I feel these ex­am­ples are great for a few rea­sons. First, they en­cour­age the play­er to at least at­tempt to get past a trou­ble spot be­fore pro­vid­ing an as­sist. Sometimes all a per­son needs is a lit­tle prac­tice, knowl­edge of their op­tions, and/or maybe a bit of luck to ad­vance. Second, they are un­ob­tru­sive. You might not even know the op­tion was there if you were not told, or did not fail a cer­tain amount. Last, they are pre­sent­ed in such a way that does not scream “You suck at games, take the easy route!” at you. They come up as an op­tion, and are as eas­i­ly dis­missed as they came up.

So the op­tions ARE there. And if de­signed well can of­fer a no fuss op­tion for those who don’t want to both­er with pos­si­bly finicky game play in or­der to ad­vance their sto­ry. As far as I can rec­ol­lect, no­body got all up in arms about skip­pable mis­sions in Grand Theft Auto 5.

There are a good num­ber of games that also pro­vide the op­tion of chang­ing the dif­fi­cul­ty on the fly, and while this feels like a crutch some devs use to over­come a non-optimal dif­fi­cul­ty curve, I still think think its a bet­ter over­all choice for cer­tain games. I just wish more games would re­mind you to buff the dif­fi­cul­ty back up if you were breez­ing through sections

But just say­ing every game needs an easy mode, or we need to be able to insta-skip com­bat like we do di­a­log in ti­tles is a bit of a wrong — but at least well in­ten­tioned — approach.

In no par­tic­u­lar or­der, I’d like to ad­dress some of the pat­terns and is­sues I’ve seen in­volved in this debate.

Easy Gameplay Can Dilute Lore

This was ad­dressed a bit when touch­ing on Dark Souls, as this is one of the text­book ex­am­ples of this. Your bat­tles through this ex­treme en­vi­ron­ment are most­ly re­ward­ed (aside from the in­ter­nal vic­to­ry of over­com­ing an ob­sta­cle) by lore to help piece to­geth­er what you mean to this world. There are en­tire YouTube chan­nels de­vot­ed to dis­man­tling and dis­sem­i­nat­ing Dark Souls lore. This is all to say that the lore in Dark Souls is a pret­ty big deal. 

If this lore is eas­i­ly ob­tain­able, it lessens the val­ue of ob­tain­ing it. That lit­tle thread of the myr­i­ad Dark Souls ta­pes­try can have less worth to some­one play­ing in an Easy mode. This is pur­pose­ful­ly di­lut­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence. And while you may get a new buy­er of Dark Souls 4, there is no guar­an­tee they will buy a 5th as they won­der to them­selves, “I don’t even know what the big deal was about these games.” 

Now bare with me here.

Let’s take a quick look at MMORPG sto­ry­lines. MMORPGs are the de­f­i­n­i­tion of an ex­pe­ri­ence that is de­signed to reach as broad an au­di­ence as pos­si­ble. You know who I feel bad for? Writers of MMORPG sto­ry­lines. The amount of di­a­log and fla­vor text I have ab­solute­ly blown through as fast as I could click the OK/Next/Accept but­ton is as­tound­ing. And I know I am not the only one. 

Part of this is due to how eas­i­ly it is ob­tained, at least when think­ing about my spe­cif­ic case. I run through, col­lect ten of what­ev­er I need, press some but­tons, see some flashy ef­fects hap­pen on screen to some bad­dies, re­turn the quest, and head off to the next mark­er on my map. Hell, there have been large chunks of MMORPGs where I played by the mini-map most the time, be­cause it was so mind numb­ing­ly easy. And the lore I would get from this sim­plis­tic game play meant noth­ing to me. Do I feel bad about that? Sometimes, but those writ­ers got paid ei­ther way, so I don’t cry for them too much. 

So while hav­ing vary­ing de­grees of ef­fect on a prod­uct, and not be­ing true in every ex­am­ple out there, I do be­lieve that in quite a few cas­es a de­creased dif­fi­cul­ty can de­val­ue the sto­ry and lore that is pre­sent­ed to a player.

Yeah, I don't care about any of this. Just give me a way point to move my dot on the mini-map too
Yeah, I don’t care about any of this. Just give me a way point to move my dot on the mini-map to

But There Used To Be Cheat Codes!

Gamers who have been around for a bit, or who jour­ney through the games of yes­ter­year, may rec­ol­lect a lit­tle thing a lot of games had that was col­lo­qui­al­ly called “cheat codes.”

I’m go­ing to be brief here, be­cause it does­n’t take long to ex­plain that these were not “cheat” codes. These codes were large­ly im­ple­ment­ed by de­vel­op­ers to test their games, just not al­ways re­moved be­fore push­ing the re­tail ver­sion. When you don’t have a con­sole (com­mand con­sole, not game con­sole) to is­sue com­mands to test your game, these were necessary. 

Now de­vel­op­ers have many av­enues to test their prod­ucts, and things like in­fi­nite lives and stage se­lect codes are not need­ed to de­bug a prod­uct. Simply put, these codes were re­al­ly nev­er in­tend­ed with the play­er in mind. And when de­vel­op­ers didn’t have to use them, they stopped in­clud­ing them. 

You Are Just Cutting Off Paying Customers By Not Making It Easier

Whenever I hear this, I have to chuck­le to my­self. Because there is ab­solute­ly no way to prove this on a ti­tle by ti­tle ba­sis. Even far­ther, if there is an in­crease in copies sold be­cause of the op­tion of an Easy mode, there is then no way to en­sure that the new rev­enue would off­set the cost of en­sur­ing that prop­er test­ing was done so that the “Easy” mode doesn’t just turn into an “I mash the but­tons and win” option. 

This is an ar­gu­ment I see thrown around a lot by sec­tions of the games press (Oh, I am go­ing to get on them in a bit), and it’s just an ap­peal to prob­a­bil­i­ty. Not even a very def­i­nite probability.

While I agree that games made for more gen­er­al au­di­ences should have some sort of dif­fi­cul­ty se­lec­tion, or op­tion to skip par­tic­u­lar­ly hard sec­tions, I just don’t think that it works for every ex­pe­ri­ence, and de­vel­op­ers need to make sure these Easy modes are still prop­er­ly test­ed and bal­anced experiences. 

This is not even touch­ing on the fact that there are many games out there for folks of all types, and one doesn’t need to di­lute an ex­pe­ri­ence that’s dif­fi­cul­ty is in­ter­twined with its pre­sen­ta­tion by of­fer­ing an easy route through it.

I just have se­ri­ous doubt when it comes to dif­fi­cul­ty be­ing the only thing that keeps non-fans of ti­tles like the Souls games away. 

I’m A Reviewer, And Games Are Just So Long. 

Fuck you. Review games as they were in­tend­ed, and if you feel the dif­fi­cul­ty is too high then let that be known in your write­up. Let your au­di­ence know of any ways they can off­set the dif­fi­cul­ty if it’s too high. But I have lit­tle pa­tience for games press who want to skip a lot of con­tent, or play games on their eas­i­est pos­si­ble set­ting for the ease of plow­ing through reviews.

Just. Do. Your. Job. 

And that's all I have to say about that.
And that’s all I have to say about that.

X Game Is So Hard In Certain Parts, But Not Others.

This is the more in­ter­est­ing part of the de­bate, in my opin­ion. This ar­ti­cle high­light­ed on Kotaku Australia men­tions this more than once. What the au­thor is de­scrib­ing is a wob­bly dif­fi­cul­ty curve in parts of the Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC and in Destiny. This is also some­thing else I part­ly agree with, at least in that a dif­fi­cul­ty curve that re­sem­bles a sine wave is just no fun.

But I don’t think the so­lu­tion is as sim­ple as of­fer­ing an Easy mode. That is just gauze wrapped around the gap­ing head wound that is bad game de­sign. If your dif­fi­cul­ty curve is a shit, then hav­ing an Easy mode will make the eas­i­est parts just that much more mind­less, es­pe­cial­ly if not prop­er­ly de­signed. And let’s face it, if a de­vel­op­er has a poor­ly de­signed nor­mal dif­fi­cul­ty curve, why would the Easy mode of­fer any bet­ter design?

What we should be call­ing for is bet­ter game de­sign when it comes to dif­fi­cul­ty curves, in­stead of just stat­ing that every­thing needs to be eas­i­er for some peo­ple be­cause a cou­ple sec­tions are frus­trat­ing. I don’t un­der­stand how hav­ing the same bad de­sign, just eas­i­er, makes a game more appealing. 

There Is Skippable Story Content In A Lot Of Games, Why Not Skippable Gameplay?

I’ll pref­ace this sec­tion re­it­er­at­ing that I do feel there are cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences and ti­tles that can eas­i­ly do with an op­tion for skip­ping game­play. But with caveats. I feel the game should en­cour­age the play­er to try it a few times, and even of­fer some tips on get­ting past pos­si­bly. I think it should be un­ob­tru­sive, and it should nev­er make a play­er feel like they are “less­er” in some way for choos­ing that option.

That said, skip­pable sto­ry con­tent and cut scenes are nor­mal­ly not de­signed with new play­ers in mind, as far as I know. These parts are skip­pable be­cause you may be play­ing a ti­tle for the 2nd or 30th time, and hav­ing to go through the sto­ry bits every sin­gle time is a slough when all you want to do is play the game‑y bits. 

But what about peo­ple who want to skip the game play to just get to the sto­ry? Well I very much non-sarcastically of­fer a sug­ges­tion for peo­ple who pre­fer their ex­pe­ri­ences like this.

Visual Novels.

Seriously. If what you are look­ing for is a sto­ry pre­sent­ed in a more in­ter­ac­tive way where you can make choic­es that still af­fect the out­come — un­like movies, TV, or nov­els — then vi­su­al nov­els may well be for you. Over the past year there has been a ton of them re­leased on Steam, and if you ven­ture into non-Steam ter­ri­to­ry then there is a cor­nu­copia of sto­ries for you to ex­pe­ri­ence. The vi­su­al nov­el form has been around for decades, so there is lit­er­al­ly genre for every type out there. Serious to com­i­cal, slice of life to slice of hell, ro­mance from sap­py to bit­ter… it’s all there.

Now VNs are not my usu­al cup of tea (if I am do­ing some­thing text heavy, I’d rather be read­ing a book), but even this griz­zled PC vet­er­an has en­joyed a hand­ful of vi­su­al nov­els over time. I don’t think enough peo­ple who com­plain about game play in games ex­plore this op­tion for in­ter­ac­tive experiences. 

And if you hap­pen to think that play­ing VNs some­how doesn’t make you a real “gamer”… why are you wor­ried about oth­er people’s la­bels on you any­way? You do you, and en­joy the type of ex­pe­ri­ences you like.

Despite the over two thou­sand words here, this is only touch­ing light­ly on the top­ic of dif­fi­cul­ty in games, how it can im­prove, and how to in­clude more and more peo­ple into the ex­pe­ri­ences a lot of us en­joy. I just pre­fer the dis­cus­sion to in­clude ways to im­prove on game de­sign, rather than ap­ply ban­dages to poor dif­fi­cul­ty curves, and call­ing for the “di­lu­tion” of an ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause the dif­fi­cul­ty of a cer­tain ti­tle may turn off some hy­po­thet­i­cal Schrodingers consumer.

What do you think of this whole af­fair? What games get it “right” to you when it comes to how they han­dle dif­fi­cul­ty and dif­fi­cul­ty curves? Do you think that low­er dif­fi­cul­ty de­val­ues lore re­wards in games?

Let us know in the com­ments be­low, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a fo­cus on A/V pro­duc­tion. Amateur pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a pas­sion to make things work… by any means nec­es­sary. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand

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