Warning: pseudointellectual mumbling from someone who does not play From Software's games or know or understand the human psychology one bit.
Back when Star Fox Zero was announced to have some special mode with invincibility or something - I didn't really care, just noted that a lot of heated words were being typed - I didn't see the point of getting upset. But I ended up thinking of cheating and such in the back of my mind.
Did you ever play solitaire when you were a child? And I mean with real cards, not the computer variant? Did you cheat? And when did you stop?
In my case, fast-forward a number of years, and I see a lecturer on research ethics telling when her father caught her cheating in solitaire, he asked, "how is it that a person can fool themselves?"
A while back I wrote a post on New Style Boutique 2. One of my issues with it was that the game probably didn't even try to see if the makeup I chose for a woman was suitable in any fashion. But I still tried my best. In that way, the game offloaded responsibility onto me: if I put in only the minimum effort, I won't get as much out of the game as I could.
If you play a solitaire on a computer, chances are you can't cheat in it. The player is given no responsibility to follow the rules - they can do nothing but follow the rules. With that, the rules become a part of the adversary. You're not playing a game, you're playing against a game.
How about we look at what could count as cheating from this perspective. Cheating is one way of changing the level of difficulty, so here's a number of other ways to accomplish that without modding. Some of these I'd call cheating and some not so much. You be the judge of what you consider cheating yourself.
As I noted, the single-player game programs and the rules they impose appear as the player's adversary. No mercy, no quarter given, the only unfair advantage is the one the other side has and all that. If an enemy gets stuck in a corner or a bug lets you hit them through the wall (or jump over obstacles like Knuckles in Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric), no worries and no regrets. We're not cheating or fooling ourselves, instead, we're beating the game. But are we cheating the game?
What about when the game openly provides you with the easier option? Will you take the continue, load an old savegame or retry a one-credit clear? Tone down the difficulty if it is an option? Let the game show how to pass the hard part of a stage? The way I see it, this is harder because I'm not trying to beat the game program: instead, my opponent is offering to handicap themselves. It's like me playing tennis with a buddy and them offering to start each match from 15 - 0 in my favour, not to mention how amateur golf handles handicaps.
I admit to having used a continue in the second-last stage in Tachyon Project. But afterwards I got back and cleared it without continues. Likewise, with Sonic Lost World, I took the wing bubble in Lava Mountain zone 3 to get past the parts with rising lava. And came back to beat it later without aid.
Personally, I don't think some of the aforementioned options are cheating. Not the continues, not the aides, not the grinding, not the lower difficulty levels. But I'm not fooling myself to think that playing through the game with them is the same as without them.
So... do you think there's any merit to this line of thinking - that overall the less intentional (on part of the game devs and designers) some way to adjust the difficulty is, the more acceptable using it becomes, and this comes from seeing both the game rules and the AI as the adversary? Grinding and continues seem to be the strongest counterexamples to my eye.