Image Credit: IGDB Press Kit Online
With Elden Ring’s release, the debate surrounding game difficulty has resurfaced. Whilst some argue that brutal, unchangeable difficulty reinforces gatekeeping, others argue it constitutes the essence of games like Dark Souls, Returnal, and Super Meat Boy. Inevitably, this debate turns toxic when each side views the other as negatively influencing art. As such, MUSE will take this issue head on without raised voices, exploring the essence of each (perfectly valid) argument.
All games should have an easy mode – Jack Barton
Whilst not all games should be made easy, it’s always good to have the option. Having an easy mode creates accessibility and allows us to distract ourselves from the 4000 word essay we are meant to be writing.
Game series such as DOOM (1993-2020) and Dark Souls (2011-2016) are designed to entice players with hard levels and grinding mechanics. I would argue that there is a time and place for these elements, and sometimes I don’t want a challenge. The day was challenging enough, I want to cut through bad guys like a hot knife through digital butter.
Take Minecraft for example, one of the biggest games of all time. Whilst I personally play on ‘Normal’, I know plenty of people who want to live out their lives as a communal farmer raising chickens and farming sugar cane peacefully without creepers. There is nothing wrong with farming sugar cane.
I also know that ‘hardcore’ Minecraft is a completely different world, where a baby zombie can end five years of progress. Players have the option to choose their experience. Though Minecraft stands out for its infinite possibilities, the agency to pick how we play a game not only facilitates relaxation, but also promotes accessibility to newer or younger players who want to immerse themselves without dying a hundred times to the first boss.
Furthermore, games are more than just gameplay, they are immersive stories carefully crafted to keep us hooked; with games like Batman: Arkham Knight and God Of War heavily geared towards a powerful plot. There is nothing wrong with simply wanting to experience the storyline of the game, and an easy mode allows us to do just that.
All-in-all, not every hard game should be easy, and not all easy games should be hard, so let us pick if we want to sweat for hours, or skip over enemies to feel better about our pathetic lives or take time mastering a mode.
Not all games should have an easy mode – Kyle Boulton
If we are to accept video games as an art form, we must respect the intricacies of their premise. Whilst auteurs are met with acclaim despite ‘impenetrable’ prose or ‘complex’ themes, we are far more sceptical to embracing difficulty when it comes to game design. This is not suggest every game should have Hideo Kojima levels of mindf*ckry, but that carefully curated experiences, no matter how difficult, should be seen as more than a marketing ploy.
Integral to From Software’s modern classics is death’s function within the core gameplay loop. Instead of creating artificial difficulty, their games channel the player’s failures into a far more powerful narrative of overcoming the odds. This underdog dynamic goes on to accentuate the delivery of Dark Souls’ nihilistic, yet incredibly barebones story, in which the individual player’s struggle constitutes much of the primary narrative.
Similarly, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019), as implied by the name, revitalises the archaic trope of ‘GAME OVER’ in fascinating ways. Here, From Software improves weaker aspects of their gameplay formula - such as long runs to bosses and RNG reliance - by instead allowing the player to die without obfuscation. By the 45th try, you know every move of the boss before they’ve even made it, allowing the player to truly enter the boots of a technically-astute shinobi.
Important to remember, as Jack noted, is that gaming is sometimes the best medicine for a stressful day. But if we force developers into conforming to personal preference, the artistic merit of gaming comes under threat. It would be the equivalent of an arthouse film with a show not tell visual style being forced into explaining the story through voice over, and we can all agree that Blade Runner: The Final Cut is far better than the corporate-hijacked original that does just that.
In essence, difficulty options are a design choice which should be respected according to the developer’s position, rather than its market potential. With that said, the discussion taking place is a positive sign for the industry, with increased accessibility settings - especially for those with disabilities - becoming increasingly mainstream.