By Godlyawesomeguy 11 Comments
From around the beginning of this console cycle, developers began, slowly but surely, dropping the standard “Easy”, Medium” and “Hard” difficulty levels in favor of a more, in theory, tailored gameplay experience. Such examples of games include Gears of War, Metro 2033, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and F.E.A.R. On one hand this is a very good trend as it provides more options for players to choose the difficulty that is more appropriate for their respective skill levels and it allows the developers to have an “extreme” difficulty unlockable for those that beat it on the “Hard” difficulty or the equivalent thereof. On the other hand, it has made the difference between the difficulty levels more nebulous and in turn has made some games’s “hard” mode the new “normal” and the “easy” mode more-or-less obsolete to anybody familiar with gaming.
This new shift is difficulty norms has lead to some games almost being required to be played on the “Hard” difficulty in order to get the best experience possible for that specific game. Take, for instance, Metro 2033, a survival horror game which is purposefully designed to make you count every bullet as you fire it and scavenge the battlefield like an animal in order to ensure your survival. The game makes finding three cheap bullets off a dead body feel like Christmas and it is very effective in making it feel like you are surviving rather than Superman with a gun on a battlefield. By putting this game on Normal or Easy rather than the other three higher difficulty levels, the sense of survival is severely diminished and the game feels different as a result, and much to it’s detriment. This is further illustrated on the game’s website in which it describes the normal difficulty as the following: “A challenge to new FPS players and an adventure for experienced players. Ammo is found in large quantities and you won’t run dry easily. Enemies do not usually pose a major threat and are fairly easy to kill.” Again, that is for the normal difficulty level even though, in some respects, it reads similarly to how an “easy” difficulty level description might read. This difficulty is also emphasized in the shooter genre as shown recently in Halo 4 where the “Heroic” difficulty is strongly encouraged in the difficulty description. This effects the gameplay in a rather significant manner as the typical “shooter puzzle” of the Halo series is in full effect in this entry. While I can see one just banging their head against the wall until they eventually progress as I occasionally do in Halo, there is definitely something to be said for experimenting with different weapons, different up-close or more long-ranged approaches or deciding to use vehicles, turrets, etc. until you conquer the relatively smart artificial intelligence. The “normal” difficulty (in comparison to the “heroic” or infamous “legendary” mode) is, while not a total cakewalk, significantly easier than the two aforementioned modes and the means of dispatching enemies is much easier than it would be otherwise, and I would argue, less satisfying of a gameplay puzzle as a result.
Games can vary so much from product-to-product that, even with the increased level of difficulties, choosing the easiest difficulty is, occasionally, the difficulty to play on regardless of how mind-numbingly simple it may be. A fantastic example of this is Spec Ops: The Line, a game which is to be played purely for how it handles the story, and characters therein. The gameplay is pretty generic third-person shooting with basic, poorly controlling squad mechanics that I never used because they, to put it simply, blow. That is not to say the game is bad by any means, but rather, that it is generic and kind of boring, and I say the latter adjective fully realizing how facile and vague it is. By playing on the easiest difficulty, one is experiencing the part that is worth experiencing while minimizing the part that is not worth experiencing unless you’re achievement/trophy hunting. The same can be said for games such as the Call of Duty series, specifically, Modern Warfare 3. The parts that are worth experiencing in that game are the batshit, insane moments of major landmarks blowing up, enormous conflicts in major cities with you in the midst of the chaos shooting ten guys a minute in the face while practically invincible. Pushing up the difficulty really doesn't add anything to the gameplay other than punishing you for running into grenade which you could have done nothing about or reminding you that you should have taken cover for longer. The “recruit” mode gives you nearly unlimited ammo and the ability to run across the battlefield and individually stab enemies at will, and directly opposed to the survival instinct Metro 2033 requires, this game turns your into superman and it is an awesome power experience. The larger number of difficulties has turned this typically “easy” mode into something that might as well be called “movie experience” at this point and while that scares even me (it terms of the gaming industry in general), it definitely works for some games.
The increased number of difficulties has even changed the way I, personally, play video games. In the past, I would typically play the default “normal” difficulty setting as I never really preferred a challenge or I wanted to play as the developers intended. Recently, however, I’ve found myself desiring to play on the harder difficulty settings for reasons that are ill-defined to me, but that i suspect to be a combination of the encouragement to play on higher difficulty settings and a desire to have more satisfying gameplay experiences. An example of this is Alan Wake, where I played on Hard where I would usually play on normal but because of a truer “survival” experience and wanting to unlock the “Nightmare” difficulty, I challenged myself and succeeded. Some other games I have played on higher difficulties include: Metro 2033, Max Payne 3 (I even went free-aim along with the hard difficulty), Dust: An Elysian Tail, F.E.A.R. and Dead Space 2. Again, when I was younger, I wouldn’t have even considered doing such a thing, but because of these new polarizing difficulty options, the choice is becoming more and more important to tailor to what I desire from the game in question, and speaking in generalities, I have been wanting more challenging, and subsequently satisfying gaming experiences.
What does this say for video games moving forward? Well, it is widely believed that video games, as a whole, have progressively gotten easier as the industry has grown towards a wider audience that may not play video games regularly and need more help. For the most part, this rings true even though there are the obvious exceptions including The Souls Series, and as I have very recently experienced, They Bleed Pixels. I see video games, as they grow even more towards mainstream adoption of the medium, become even more hand-holdy. I may not particularly enjoy the fact they will be doing that, but who can blame them? Looking back at a game like the original Fallout being released now (with a budget on par with the big games of today) seems insane with it’s level of difficulty and explaining virtually nothing to the player besides basic exposition (yes, I am well-aware of the Wasteland kickstarter but I am almost positive it won’t be nearly as unforgiving if it ever gets a release). With the player base expanding further and further, theoretically, all developers can do to assist the new player base is to make games that aren't difficult for them to get into. While I believe that big budget, popular games will get, somehow, more streamlined, my hope is that we will see a continuation of games expanding difficulties so that the core fanbase can play a game that might cater to their skill level more accurately. A fantastic example of this is Hitman: Absolution. Regardless of what you think about the game as far as core design principles are concerned, it’s hard to argue with the fact that they did an admirable job in having multiple difficulty levels (from “easy” to “purist”) so that the players new to the series could ease their way into the pool while those familiar with the series could jump into the higher difficulties right off the bat.
In the ideal future I create in my head, all games cater to people who play games everyday and discuss them online with strangers with the same frequency. However, realizing the business aspect of the industry and what developers have to do in order to connect with a growing mainstream audience, it just isn’t going to happen that way. My genuine hope for the future is that games will continue along the path of expanding the difficulty levels to cater to multiple audiences simultaneously, so that all the crazy people reading this rambling, verbose blog can be satisfied with the remake of their favorite game from their childhood, and the average-Joe Walmart shopper can be satisfied with that new "Demon’s" Souls 2 game he heard was okay from a buddy of his.