Here’s a badly kept secret about me: I’m actually pretty bad at video games. Depending on the genre and game itself, I can sometimes be deemed average, and sometimes I…really can’t. Correspondingly, where I get the choice, I usually play on easy difficulty levels, with the occasional normal thrown in there.
This is the best choice for me, since I personally prefer to play games for the story, and I don’t have the patience for dying and reloading over and over again, nor the time for it. But I can also understand that some people might prefer the thrill of the challenge and the feeling of accomplishment from playing on a harder difficulty level, and that’s great for them! So the solution should be simple, right? A set of scaling difficulty levels that make the game appealing to the widest possible set of players. And that is broadly what we have…except, like everything in the video game industry, it’s never that simple.
Most games have a difficulty choice within them. However, video games are competitive by nature. This is part of what creates the demand for the highest difficulty levels, and it can be harmless. It can also lead to some serious superiority complexes among those who consider “hard” the only way to play, and who want the world to know that everybody else is playing “wrong.” Even if you haven’t been targeted by these types, you probably know someone who has, or have seen these kinds of comments online. It’s just one more way in which the gaming community is hostile to players who aren’t considered to fit exactly into the imagined “gamer” archetype.
Although anyone can be ridiculed for their playing choices, the problem also plays into the larger problems of exclusion in the gaming community. I asked for comments on this topic on Tumblr and the results were fairly unanimous: if women and non-binary people play on easy, it’s further proof in the old argument that they can’t be considered real gamers. Along with discounting “casual” gamers – whatever those are – it’s a way to silence the segments of the community that are considered undesirable by…that other segment. You know which one I’m talking about.
However, That Segment can also turn on men, who are expected to prove themselves. If men decide to play on easy, they’re often not considered real gamers, but moreover they’re not considered to even be real men. The hypermasculinity that is central to this kind of viewpoint cannot understand what possible reason a man could have to prioritise his enjoyment of the game (or lack of time to put into a game on a more difficult level) over an obsession with ‘being the best.’
Judgemental fringes in the community are, sadly, an ever present reality, and can be found doing their judgemental thing for just about any opinion you can think of – what genre you play, what platform you use, which installment in a series you prefer – the list is endless. What makes difficulty levels unique is that the problem extends beyond the community, and is relatively prevalent in the industry itself. Developers, for some reason, seem to love to restrict and change their games for those who choose to play more simply. There are no fewer than 236 entries (by my count) on the TV Tropes page for Easy-Mode Mockery, which details ways developers punish players who play on easier levels. These range from locking off levels and good endings, to changing the graphics of the game itself, for example from blood to flowers. These developers thus encourage the community to be hostile to players who “aren’t playing properly” – justifying their arguments that those who play on easy aren’t getting the most out of the games.
Representations of difficulty levels in Wolfenstein 3D; top left is known as “Can I Play, Daddy?”
Sometimes, professionals have also verbally thrown their hat in to the ring. For example, Alex Hutchinson, lead designer for Assassin’s Creed III, claimed that easy modes can “ruin” games. Chris Carter, the writer of the linked article agrees to an extent, stating that in some games, easy modes “cheapen the experience.” Both of these people seem to miss the point that players should nonetheless have the choice to play as they wish. If the easy mode feels cheap to you, no problem! No one’s forcing you to play on easy. But if there is no easy mode and I get stuck on the same level for hours, that pretty seriously cheapens my experience, if it doesn’t outright ruin it.
There are, however, some games without difficulty levels, where the game’s set level of difficulty is part of the game itself, whether that be because they are particularly difficult or particularly easy.
There are countless forum threads and YouTube videos dedicated to detailing “easy” games, particularly those that can be beaten quickly and without too much effort for those who choose to play to boost their gamerscore or trophy collection. Other times, games that don’t have determined end conditions, and those in which things can’t really go that wrong, such as the Animal Crossing series, are considered “easy.” Games like these are oriented towards relaxation, and choosing your own objectives.
Searching for difficult games, on the other hand, spring up a bunch of articles listing the 10 or 15 hardest games ever. Many of these are from the days when there were no easy modes; the era of Nintendo Hard. (Side note, I’m pretty glad I wasn’t around to play games in the ‘80s. They were hardcore, and, as I mentioned already, I just wouldn’t have enjoyed them.) However, the modern games most associated with their difficulty are Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series. Although dedicated fans will tell you it’s all marketing hype, it’s pretty clear that these are not games for the fainthearted. Being one of those fainthearted people myself, I haven’t played them. But the main selling point among those who have appears to be the sense of achievement when clearing a particularly hard section, after perhaps dozens of deaths that can set the payer back by hours. Clearly, they require time, dedication, and patience.
But then, doesn’t Animal Crossing also require these things? Building up a perfect town and paying off your mortgage can take years, and hours of gameplay can result in very little obvious advancement. Three hours of fishing and collecting shells and fruit might get you a just a little closer to paying Tom Nook what you owe him, in the same way that three hours of fighting enemies in Dark Souls might progress you just a little further in the direction you were heading. In Animal Crossing, regular play is needed to prevent weeds from growing in your town and angry villagers feeling abandoned. If you’re planning to put the 100+ hours it takes to beat Dark Souls, you’re going probably going to be returning with the same kind of regularity. Both series motivate the player with short term achievements (you returned a villager’s lost item!/you reached a checkpoint!) building up to a larger goal (you have a perfect town!/you beat the final boss!). There probably isn’t a huge overlap in their player base thanks to the variations in genre and platform, but I’d be willing to bet that some people who have perfected Dark Souls also have an absolutely beautiful Animal Crossing town. However, for most, one or the other (or neither) will appeal.
Oh look, we’re back to player choice. There are a wide range of difficulties in games: from impossible to fail, through the vast majority that have their own difficulty settings, to those that are purposefully taxing. And that works well, because it gives players the opportunity to play whatever kind of game will be most rewarding for them. My choice to avoid the Dark Souls series doesn’t feel like missing out to me, since there are so many games that I can set to easy and enjoy that way. Other people can choose to play Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and then perhaps Dragon Age: Inquisition on nightmare mode. But none of the choices are any more valid than the others. In fact, many of the games at opposing ends of the spectrum have surprising amounts of similarities, which further undermines the “point” (not that there was one in the first place) of disparaging players for their choices.
It is worth noting that I was happily surprised while researching for this article to find a number of gamers, both in general discussions and those who are professional writers, who were embracing easy mode in their own gaming lives. As this develops, the community and game devs may begin to realise that punishing player choice has no benefit, and in turn more people will realise that there is no shame in playing on whichever difficulty they find most enjoyable. And anything that makes people enjoy gaming more is a huge plus in my book.