I think this post is going to be a little meandering and disorganized because this is a complex question and there's a lot I want to get across, but I'll do my best!
Having played a lot of Elden Ring over the last month and getting into a lot of conversations on these boards about difficulty and the way it's handled, I started to think more about one of the reasons I like its open-world structure, despite its drawbacks: it really allows you to break the hell out of the game if you want to. Sure, you could play the game along its suggested route and be power-appropriate for all the content. Or you could run to a late-game zone, pick up some amazing late-game weapon with high stat requirements, find a good XP grinding spot and level up for a while, and then start mopping the floor with everything. I'll let you guess which one of these I did.
It made me think of an old Kirk Hamilton Kotaku piece titled "Why Everybody Loves Final Fantasy Tactics". It's a fun article and you should read the whole thing, but here's the most relevant bit for the point I'm making:
“Saying Final Fantasy Tactics is your favorite Final Fantasy game is like saying Jed Bartlet is your favorite U.S. president,” said Darius Kazemi, game designer at Bocoup, in an email. “It is at once obviously correct, and obviously cheating.”
In particular, Kazemi loves how Tactics is so unbalanced. “The thing I like best about FFT is how it’s not afraid to let the player power up and essentially break everything,” he said. “While it’s important to have a balanced combat system in a multiplayer game, it’s not nearly as important in a single-player game. FFT says “to hell with balance!” and gives you a set of fascinating systems that you can bend to your will.
He continued by detailing an exploit likely well-known to most hardcore Tactics players: “My fondest memory was building the ultimate Calculator (the coolest mage class ever), who would cast Holy on every character standing at an elevation that is also a prime number. This would often one-hit kill every single enemy and ally on the map, including the Calculator himself, the only survivor being the one party equipped with an item that absorbed Holy damage.”
And, well, yes, this exactly.
I think there's something here that a lot of people including myself really enjoy, but that is also just very dependent on personal tastes and what you're looking to get out of the game. One could easily argue that if you're using the OP thing or are grossly over-leveled, then you're sort of cheating yourself out of the experience the developer intended you to have. But speaking only for myself, I enjoy breaking games in this sense as long as it feels at least somewhat earned.
E.g., getting the Calculator class in FFT required a lot of straight grinding, hours and hours of it. Some people hate grinding, but I am at the extreme end of the bell curve in terms of not really minding it at all. For me, grinding is an opportunity to put on a TV show or something on another screen and just enjoy that while I'm doing it. In some sense, to quote Jeff G, I just like seeing the numbers go up. And then when I return to the "real" game, i.e. the non-grinding critical path, and wipe the floor with my opponents, I don't feel like I've cheated myself out of anything, I feel instead like I've earned what the game is willing to give me.
It can go too far. My favorite example of something that broke a game that I thought was just plain terrible design was the Bee shield in Borderlands 2. This thing added a ginormous damage boost to every one of your shots that amounted to something like ten times the damage of a normal bullet as long as your shield was fully charged. As a result, the only attribute that mattered for any of your weapons was fire rate. Slow-firing weapons immediately became useless, and the difference between a common (white) and legendary (orange) SMG was negligible, aside perhaps for the associated element. I mean, Borderlands 2 at its core was a loot game, and here was a shield that largely made all other loot irrelevant. Nothing about that felt good to me.
Everyone has their own line, I think, when it comes to that stuff, when it stops feeling like the OP equipment/class is earned and just seems cheap, or maybe just limits you into using a playstyle you don't like in order to exploit it. That's part of the complex nature of the question, and why a good balance--or a good lack of it--can be hard for designers to achieve.
But another related issue is that I think there is also just something I like about increasing the power of my characters in games. Again, people play games for very different reasons, and some don't care about this aspect at all, but this is a driving factor for me (it's part of why I'm really looking forward to the 1.0 release of Rogue Legacy 2, which has just a ridiculous ton of progression to do, and why there are parodies on the whole concept like Progress Quest). If there's no mechanic for progressing your character in a game, I am inherently less interested. Maybe it's all just liking the power fantasy.
It's why I dislike systems like the ones in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls or Fallout games that scale enemies up with you when you level up. The idea is that the entire open-world map be approachable at any time, so players can do anything in any order. But I hate leveling up and feeling like it's a lateral move, or in some cases might even hurt me overall. I'd rather a game put unbeatable higher-level enemies in front of me and challenged me to come back when I'm strong enough, just as games like Elden Ring or Dragon's Dogma do. Again it feeds into my love of feeling like my character is getting stronger and more capable.
So, at the end of all this nonsense I've spewed, what do you think? Do you enjoy breaking games in this manner, or do you prefer a smooth difficulty curve and not exploiting the game for all it's worth? Do you hate grinding, or do you sort of like it? And is your brain broken in the same manner mine is, so that you somewhat unreasonably love watching your in-game character get stronger and the numbers get bigger? Is there a line for you with these things? Can you think of any good examples of stuff like this you liked vs didn't like?