Higher risk, higher reward
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m pretty bad at video games. The hardest difficulty I’ll usually land on is normal, and even then I can have some pretty embarrassing gameplay moments. Games have come a really long way in terms of their accessibility, and offering better options for less skilled players like me, but every time a title comes out that relies on its difficulty as one of its main features, we have a whole new round of Discourse about whether the game needs easier options to play on.
The way Elden Ring has taken over the news cycle the past few months is a great example of this — it’s a notoriously tough game, and in response, we saw a whole slew of articles, posts, and tweets about how there need to be easier skill level options. Mods even started popping up for players to download that make the game more palatable for players who prefer an easy mode, like increasing damage output, decreasing damage taken, increasing healing, etc.
The inclusion of easier difficulty settings often, but not always, overlaps with accessibility. It’s important to include accommodations so that differently abled players can play and enjoy games, too, which often includes other settings outside the typical easy mode features like damage reduction. Special sound settings can allow visually impaired or even fully blind players to play through a game without any outside assistance, for example, which is only one of the ways that games have recently made tremendous strides to become more accessible to all kinds of players.
Difficulty with intent
At the same time, though, there are some games out there that include difficult gameplay as part of their artistic vision. Classic examples include all of the Soulsborne games, Cuphead, Super Meat Boy, Nioh, Darkest Dungeon, and The Binding of Isaac, just to name a few. The question, then, is whether a game’s focus on difficulty by way of how it overlaps with artistic and narrative experience means that it should never be played with easier settings. This topic has been very controversial online, with many fans feeling that such games including an easy mode would be compromising their artistic vision, and therefore mean a watered-down version of the experience the developers intended.
The challenge developers have, then, is finding ways to present players with a difficulty level that scales to them, and presents them with the appropriate level that challenges them without also frustrating them. That’s why we have so many levels of difficulty these days, usually including some equivalent of extra easy, easy, normal, hard, and extra hard. Sometimes, though, they want to throw that all out for the sake of making the game they want to make, and I think that’s perfectly fine.
Returnal‘s game director Harry Krueger just went on the PS I Love You XOXO podcast last week to discuss Housemarque’s most recent title, and the conversation turned to its difficulty. Krueger shared his thoughts on the importance of Returnal‘s difficulty and how it relates to its story:
“Celine is talking about dying over and over, and about insurmountable odds. There’s this descent into madness that is happening purely because of the challenges that she’s facing, and her challenges are the players’ challenges as well. If you were just allowed to power through a boss without any challenge, or just go like A B C through narrative points, it almost feels like that would create a bit of dissonance.”
Aside from players missing a main theme of the game if they weren’t presented with enough of a challenge, Kruger also mentions that players wouldn’t see a lot of the game’s story beats and audio logs if they didn’t die on a regular basis.
Thinking about theme
The discussion of difficulty always makes me think of The Last of Us, a game that my friends and I love to play together and discuss, particularly when it comes to the relationship between difficulty and story. On my first few playthroughs, I played on easy, because I simply didn’t have the skill to play on anything higher than that. One of those friends really opened my eyes, though, when he told me about going through the game on the Grounded difficulty setting, and it makes perfect sense in retrospect.
Because the game’s story is so much about the brutality of survival, he said the narrative hits a lot harder when you as a player are on edge the whole time, feeling like you can die at any minute. The scarcity of ever-useful crafting materials also plays a big role, because you really have to put yourself in Joel and Ellie’s shoes when it comes to scrounging to survive. I’d definitely have to train up for such a tough playthrough, but The Last of Us is one of those games that’s important enough to me, I just might do it someday.
The way we play Pokemon is a great middle ground, in my opinion. The series is intended for children, so for the most part they’re easy to play. I know for a fact that I could power through my Let’s Go Pikachu playthrough with little resistance with literally only my starter if I felt like it. There are plenty of more seasoned players who want a more challenging Pokemon experience, however, so what did they do?
They created the Nuzlocke, a series of self-imposed rules to ratchet the difficulty of those games way up. Some truly amazing, heart-wrenching, and triumphant moments of emergent storytelling come from Nuzlocke runs because of the restraints that players place on themselves. (Jaidan Animations has some awesome Nuzlocke videos that demonstrate this.) The best part, though, is that they’re entirely optional, and you can make them as hard or easy as you want depending on which rules you decide to adopt.
I am of the opinion that nuzlocking gives you an even more intense emotional connection to your own story because of how attached you get to your Pokemon, but I’ve also not been able to do one yet due to my skill level, so take that with a grain of salt.
Some games are created specifically to be as hard to beat as humanly possible, and there’s not really a way around that. I love easier games and benefit from them as someone who doesn’t have a lot of technical skill in shooting, platforming, etc, but sometimes there are games that I just can’t play due to sheer difficulty. I’ve heard Celeste is a truly amazing game, but if I’m being honest, I don’t think I could ever beat the whole thing. I don’t have a problem with players modding games to make them easier, but if a game is intended to be tough, it’s the developers’ prerogative to make it that way.
Triumph is the best reward
However, the times I have really challenged myself, like when I beat Hades‘ 32 heat optional challenge mode, I felt so incredibly rewarded by that experience. The joy of overcoming the challenge of playing a hard game is something only the medium of games can do, and I don’t think that that’s to be discounted.
Games are literally inventing new means of conveying emotions when it comes to storytelling, and when they use our investment in the act of playing a game for that purpose, it can be more powerful than some of the best writing out there.
I would encourage anyone who considers themselves an “easy mode only” person to find a game they really enjoy and push themselves a level above what they’re usually comfortable with — as someone who was scared to try new things, I promise it’s incredibly rewarding once you give it a shot. Sure, the lows can be lower, but the highs are totally worth it.
I do think that people take the conversation about difficulty way too seriously, because at the end of the day playing video games is supposed to be about having fun, so people should be able to play whatever game they want however they want. How adamant you are about playing games that are intended to be hard on harder difficulties comes down to how much you value the developers’ intent, and it can be a lot of fun to honor that intent. It’s just important to remember that while one player might enjoy difficulty and the narrative immersion it can bring, other players want to breeze through.
However you play, just don’t be a dick about it to other people, that’s all I ask.
Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.