basement blog

difficulty in video games

When I start a new video game, I feel paralyzed the moment I reach the difficulty select screen. I want to play the game the way it was meant to be played, and sometimes that means playing it on something other than the hardest difficulty, but there's another part of me that wants a real challenge.

This month I started playing God of War (2018), and I began the game on the "hard" difficulty. After getting through the first 5-or-so hours, I realized this difficulty was sucking the fun out of the game. Not because it was so difficult, but because all the enemies had large health bars, meaning it required too much time to get through a fight. So I ended up switching to the "normal" difficulty, and it's been more enjoyable.

Don't get me wrong - I can definitely handle challenge in a game. I completed The Last of Us on "Hard" and The Last of Us 2 on "Grounded," which was 2 levels up from "Hard." But playing on "Grounded" was interesting because there were some game mechanics that were taken away: bullets were more rare and "listening mode," a feature that helped you pinpoint where in the room the zombies were, was disabled. Was it more fun playing with a stripped-down experience? Probably not, but there was a greater sense of pride when I completed it on the hardest difficulty, without a doubt.

God of War (2018) creates an issue that I see in too many modern games. Enemies with too much health create an aspect of "artificial difficulty." The game isn't actually hard, but it's going to make the player think it is by pumping up the time required to take down an enemy. And that is detracting from the experience.

Dark Souls 2 is another game with an "artificial difficulty" problem, but for a different reason. That game was notorious for creating situations where you had to fight an ass-load of monsters at once, which caused you to die if you made one wrong move. This was a huge departure from the first game in the series, which had enemies in fewer numbers, but required more strategy. It felt like a lazy design choice to swarm you with hoards of monsters, rather than create encounters with interesting enemies that required unique approaches to defeat.

I also mention Dark Souls because that series actually has no difficulty selection screen, and it's better for it. This is my preferred approach because the player knows they're getting the definitive experience. And I wish more games adopted this strategy. Just optimize the game for the way it should be played. I think the second best approach would be to include difficulty options, but label the choice that is going to play the way the developer intended. Halo did this 20 years ago:

halo difficulty select screen

Point is, if the packaging on a frozen pizza tells you "for best results, cook in the oven," then video games should be doing the same.

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