Most games offer modular difficulty in some form or another. As a general rule, this is a good thing- lower difficulty settings allow players who are either unable to meet a game’s demands in terms of dexterity and understanding of its systems or simply have no interest in doing so to have an enjoyable experience. Higher difficulty settings give players who want to spend more time with the game a chance to do so in a way that keeps things fresh and challenging. Overall, it is apparent that the number of hours spent enjoying games is increased by giving the playerbase some control over the challenge of the experience. I would seriously question the priorities of anybody who considers that to be a problem. I would snarkily include a Dark Souls screencap here, but for whatever reason Dtoid's editor won't let me do that without deleting the entirety of this paragraph. So just imagine one.
That said, not all approaches to modular difficulty were created equal. Today I’d like to talk specifically about the default approach to increased difficulty and the problems it entails, then look at some examples of games that do the opposite, going the extra proverbial mile to give dedicated players something interesting on which to chew. Easy difficulty settings are an equally interesting topic, of course, but one for another day (ultimately, I think that locking players into defined “Easy” modes is not a particularly good way of helping them to enjoy the game, but again, that’s not the topic for this post), as are non-modular optional tasks that present a significantly altered challenge or experience. This is the point where there was going to be an image of FFVII's Emerald Weapon as an example. Again, just imagine one. It is green and polygonal.
To my eyes, we can classify higher difficulty settings by whether they are purely restrictive, or if they introduce new problems for the player to solve. Creating difficulty by process of restriction consists of reducing the number of viable paths through a given gameplay scenario, be that a single encounter or the entire storyline. This is achieved by any combination of the following:
1: Reduced Margin for Error
Enemies deal more damage, time limits are made stricter, the player character is less durable, etc. The number of mistakes a player can make before reaching a fail state is reduced.
2: Increased Opportunity for Error
On a similar token, gameplay elements can be rearranged to push the player into making more mistakes. This could be in the form of more challenging (possibly anachronistic) enemy compositions, increased demand for dexterity on the player’s part, removal of informative HUD elements, etc.
3: Reduction in Viable (Long-Term) Strategies
In something like a character action game or shooter, the player’s success or failure can almost always be determined on an encounter-by-encounter basis- in other words, provided the player doesn’t get hit and attacks successfully, they will win. In some other genres, it is possible for a player to lock themselves out of a winning position ahead of time. If a player’s characters in an RPG have not been developed according to an appropriate blueprint, it may well be mathematically impossible for them to overcome later obstacles on unforgiving difficulty settings. Likewise for strategy games- winning a campaign on the highest difficulty of a Total War or Civilization-style game limits a player’s strategic options to those that are mathematically efficient enough to compete with the heavily advantaged AI opponents.
4: Increased Dependence on Variance
I’m only listing this one for completion’s sake, since it is quite clearly a different beast entirely to the previous three (in that they are all valid design choices, whereas this one is completely egregious). In games in which player error can be forced by random factors, or strategic development can be stymied by random factors, or anything of that sort can occur, unforgiving difficulty settings, if poorly designed, will entail the possibility that the player is unable to succeed purely because of bad luck.
Now, the first three of those are a perfectly fine way to generate difficulty. They demand that a player learn a game’s systems and apply that knowledge, and/or that they execute their gameplay with a greater degree of speed and precision than was previously necessary. For fans of difficult games, myself included, that is an entirely satisfying experience.
However, it isn’t particularly interesting from a design perspective. It is eminently possible, in addition to the above, to introduce new elements or change the rules of the game in some fundamental way, such that a high difficulty setting produces not just an increased challenge but an entirely new one. I think there’s a lot more merit in that. So, to round out the article, here are some examples of heightened difficulty done particularly well.
Silent Hill: Puzzle Difficulty
How do you meaningfully increase difficulty in a game where the combat system is basically peripheral? The Silent Hill franchise offers what is to my mind one of the best approaches to difficulty of any series- the option to increase the challenge posed by the game’s puzzles independently of the combat. It is a rare game that presents puzzles (as a part of the core experience, and thus discounting any ARG shenanigans) that demand genuine knowledge or problem solving abilities from the player. As a cryptic crossword enthusiast (yes, I am exactly that pathetic in social terms), I find this to be a tragically underexplored space in game design.
Doom’s highest difficulty mode flips one simple switch, and in doing so completely changes the experience. In Nightmare difficulty, monsters respawn. This introduces a whole new layer of resource management and route-planning to the game that creates a singular experience almost more akin to a puzzle game than to a shooter.
Devil May Cry 3: Heaven or Hell
Devil May Cry 3 also offers a more traditional challenge in the form of series staple Dante Must Die mode, but its Heaven or Hell setting certainly stands out. In this mode, all damage is increased to the point of an instant kill, both for Dante and his enemies. This entirely upends the player’s system for assessing and managing threats. Enemies that were the most difficult to deal with before become trivial, and vice versa. Environmental hazards evolve from mild obstacles into leading causes of death.
Not a difficulty setting per se, but certainly a modular element that significantly alters the challenge presented by the game. I have many fond, if painful, memories of attempting to muscle through Halo 3’s campaign on “mythic” difficulty (Legendary, with all skulls enabled) with a friend. The Halo franchise’s skulls are collectibles that, once enabled, alter the rules of the game in some way. These range from relatively minor to extremely impactful- in Halo 3’s case, the most important effect was one that prevented the player’s shields from recharging unless they attacked an enemy in melee. This negated entirely the basic “engage, retreat, recharge” loop that defined the base experience even on Legendary difficulty.
What are your views on high difficulty settings in games? Do you have any that you found particularly engaging? In the unlikely event that you read this far, I would be very interested to hear your comments.
Thanks for reading, and have a day that challenges you in an interesting and fulfilling manner.