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.
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.
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.
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?