my hot take on the game difficulty discourse

Taken from Kotaku; not linked though because they’re striking against their venture capital owners and I ain’t crossing the line

As you all know, Fromsoft’s Elden Ring came out to much acclaim. And of course, with a new Fromsoft game coming out, it brought something that everyone’s sick of hearing about: game difficulty discourse. Every like, 5 months, everyone on the internet starts hollering about video game difficulty and for some reason it turns into a culture war because nobody on the internet knows how to be fucking normal anymore.

My only proper experience with Fromsoft games so far is playing 2 hours of Bloodborne, so I’m immune to the discourse. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own thoughts on it. I just don’t have a solidified opinion on it – that was until I saw this tweet. And you know what? I agree.

Game difficulty is not arbitrary, but something that’s designed. Well, sometimes things can be hard because of bad design, but when a game actually is well designed and it happens to be hard, it’s hard for a reason. A game can be hard for the sake of creating a message of overcoming, a hard fight against somebody could say something about that person or the effects they have on the world, etc. Or maybe it’s just hard because the creators just like it that way. Whichever the case, there’s intent put toward the difficulty of something.

I started getting an understanding on creator’s intent and difficulty when I started working on my own stuff. If you’re making a game, you have to ask yourself what your intentions are with the game, and difficulty is part of that. Multiple times I made something that feels right to me that players wound up having a hard time with – and it made me realize that I just like challenging RPGs, and that my main intended audience are people that also like them.

And that’s the thing: some people should acknowledge that some types of games just aren’t for them. Like, there’s plenty of people that only play things for the sake of gameplay and don’t care for narrative regardless of how great they are – and typically, those people would never play stuff like visual novels. Similarly, there are plenty of people that hate violent games, so a lot of them reasonably turn away from most shooters.

So, would it really be controversial to say that people that complain about hard games should play something else? Like seriously, I’m not even gatekeeping here, I’ve barely played Souls games. I’m not going to be a freak about it and say “git gud,” I’m saying that it’s probably not for you – and that’s okay.

If you want to play something really hard but don’t like that it’s hard at its core, maybe examine why you want to get into it. Do you just like the lore? Well, there’s probably someone out there with a bunch of videos or writings on that lore to engage with instead. For me, I like to hear about details and set pieces in horror games, but I can never play a horror game because I am a really skittish person. It’s not as if I could ask the developer to make it less scary, because that just goes against the point. If I could handle the atmosphere but found the game too hard for me, I wouldn’t ask for an easy mode either because the contrition you face in a survival horror is part of the horror itself.

Do you just want to engage with it because everyone else is? Well, maybe you’re just getting caught up in hype. You don’t have to play the same thing everyone’s playing. Hell, you don’t even need to play it immediately. Maybe you could play something similar yet easier and build up experience so that you could feasibly play that game later on.

Sourced from tweet by @matt_roly

And that’s not to say that hard games can’t open the doors to other people. Celeste is typically cited as a difficult game that made itself accessible, with its options for people that aren’t good at hardcore platformers to let them play. While the game’s a favorite for hardcore speedrunners, Celeste aims for broader appeal.

However, it was within the dev team’s intention to do so. Besides, I think an assist mode works in the context of Celeste because the game’s difficulty was a metaphor for the protagonist’s quest of overcoming her problems. Whether she gets to the end the easy way or the hard way, the most important part is that she overcomes at all.

Going back to my own experiences of working on things, I have Slimes. There were people that found it too hard but liked the story. And the thing was, as much as I enjoyed creating the encounters, my intent was for the story to be the main draw. So, I decided to make a concession of adding weapons that let you cheese every fight at the start of the game, because if I wanted something to be taken away from the game, it’d be the story. However, I have not approached my current project, I Hate You, Please Suffer, with the same philosophy because, well, look at the name. I want to make people upset and mad with me with that game.

The point is, difficulty is an artistic decision that’s up to the creator. If the creator has the intention of broadening their game’s appeal in terms of difficulty, that’s fine. And if a creator doesn’t do the same thing because it’d go against their own design intentions, that’s also fine. Not everybody has the same intentions in making something, and not everyone aims for broad audience appeal.

But that said, there are reasonable concerns to be had with accessibility that even people that like difficult games can have trouble with. Like hey: it sucks that you can’t properly pause a Dark Souls game. Yeah, it makes sense that you can’t pause if you have online features enabled, but there’s no good reason for there to be no pause menu when you’re in an offline situation. Sometimes something can come up while you’re playing, or maybe you have a hell brain like me and just need to briefly step away from a game for one reason or another.

And then there’s the question of whether or not people could physically play games. There could be people that like hard games but may have hand problems that get in the way of playing them. So, there should be room for people to play said games with different controllers or set-ups, like the Xbox Adaptive Controller pictured above.

I can actually cite a case that I had with Citizens of Space. The game’s difficulty was fairly reasonable, but then my hand started cramping up after I took my vaccine shots for a while, which kept me from actually doing the battle minigames effectively, making the game harder. However, if there’s a good thing I can say about Citizens of Space, it’s that it acknowledged that some people can’t do those minigames and let me switch them off, allowing me to treat Citizens of Space more like a normal RPG that I could actually play.

You can argue for an artistic choice for difficulty, even if it’ll exclude some people. But there’s no artistic choice in maintaining difficulties that just arise from or create real life problems. You can’t “git gud” at like, playing with only one hand or playing something with flashes as somebody prone to epilepsy. If there’s a problem with difficulty that should actually be addressed, it should be the artificial difficulty of design that’s only inclusive of able-bodied people.

At the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that some games aren’t for everyone. Hard games are hard, some creators want it to be hard, and we should respect that. However, sometimes there are bits of difficulty that are difficult because of actual handicaps and feel arbitrary in the grand scheme of things, and if there’s something to be addressed about difficulty in games, it should be stuff like that.

One comment

  1. Another thing about difficulty is that it’s a way to enforce mechanics, if the player doesn’t suffer any consequences for not comprehending an important concept that’s endemic of the game then they won’t really learn. Some players might give up and others might question “Hmm maybe there’s something I’m doing wrong.”

    In a game like Kirby you almost don’t even need to learn about the star puff that bosses leave behind if you abuse copy abilities, which is fine, Kirby is supposed to be easy and doesn’t care what way you accomplish your goals. But it can be hard for a designer to accept that all their hard work isn’t even being used if the player doesn’t notice or care about them. What makes Kirby good despite the low difficulty is that there’s a lot of content made to offset the lack of “nesscary” content, which not every developer has the resources to do. It’s also what kirby as a game is: being an empowered puff ball of destruction.

    It’s interesting to discuss but I do not enjoy the way the discourse reveals itself and I wish more people understood that difficulty isn’t some linear barometer that you can just turn on and off. Good article.


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