Some Thoughts on Difficulty in Games

Idan Zeierman said this on The Last of Us Part II:

Translation: I don’t know what to say. Along with the first game, they are probably two of the best works of art I ever experienced. But they come in the form of tough survival horror games that take 30 hours to complete and contain a lot of zombies. It’s not an easy bar for experiencing them properly.

I replied:

Translation: On the one hand, that is the reason why a lot of people will never experience some of the greatest works of art ever made (because they’re games). On the other hand, these works won’t be the same if you don’t experience them for yourself.

This got me thinking about difficulty in games.

I think the subject of inclusion and exclusion through difficulty has been tread enough but I think it mostly referred to gamer culture. Some Dark Souls fans would like to think that the game won’t be the same unless it was brutally difficult. Now, you can say that easy for one player might still be brutally difficult for another, but we’re still assuming the same level of potential ability and game literacy. I’m not going to talk about the players who’ve seen Dark Souls, know about it, and it’s just not their jam and they prefer to play Candy Crush or Brawl Royale.

I’m talking about my mother.

Works of art are all about the creator trying to evoke a specific emotion or thought in the ones experiencing them. Dark Souls is not above evoking those emotions but its mechanics are about getting good. They’re about figuring out what makes monsters tick, how they move, how they act, finding weak points and exploiting them; they’re about the grueling process of being a weakling and becoming a hero. I don’t think my mother would be in to that.

But I think my mother might be into Portal, or Brothers, or Life is Strange. But she would never touch any of those because they’re games and “she doesn’t understand games” or “she’s not good at that”. And that’s bullshit. And it has to do with difficulty settings. I’m not saying that every game should have “Click Button to Progress” difficulty setting. Having mechanics to manage, obstacles to overcome by yourself, and decisions to make is part of the parcel of a game. But I do think that every game should have an “Experience” difficulty where it’s the easiest it can be without compromising the intention of the mechanics.

And I also think that every game should have ‘Hint’ button. Something that will remind you of important mechanics, remind you of your current goal, explain the challenge of the moment, remind you of the relevant information you already collected, and then maybe go into recommended strategies, and even the developer recommended course of action at the present moment.

Because, when I’m thinking about my mother, I would gladly give her Life is Strange (except for a couple of stressful or timing situations), and I would gladly give her Brothers (once she’s more experienced with a controller), but I would only give her Portal if I could make the last two levels easier for someone with almost zero game literacy who doesn’t have lightning reflexes and might also have trouble aiming. And, back to the original topic, I would never give her The Last of Us until the easiest difficulty setting was much easier. It doesn’t have to be a cake-walk, but it doesn’t have to be gruesome either.

And I also think Dark Souls could be made better. Don’t let up on the need to explore, to collect items, to decide where points go, to upgrade weapons, to find the right path, to calculate strategy, and definitely don’t let up on the need to study the bosses and to approach the battle tactically. But you can definitely make the mechanically intense moments less intense, slower, and you can definitely give the player more help when it comes to knowing what needs to be done and how.


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