It’s been long debated if games should have a “difficulty” setting or not, even if it is for certain titles only. Games have come a long way where we have titles that require no difficulty setting to enjoy them. Long gone are the days when developers had to rely on the difficulty to push a point. Or so we used to think before a certain FromSoftware game reared its head.
The illusion of difficulty
Game difficulties have been a sort of badge for the daring and the reckless. It was and still is a method to push your mechanical skills to their absolute limit. There was only one saving grace. Higher difficulties were completely optional and didn’t affect the narrative whatsoever. Even games like Doom with their bare-minimum plots had higher difficulty settings with no connection to the plot. Usually, the developers either increase enemy lethality or enemy survivability. Then there are those modes that increase both while including modifiers such as permadeath or progression reset upon death. These do not affect the narrative but only give a player the option to prove that their skills can be better if they put in the effort.
Live-service and MMOs have it better than single-player games in terms of difficulty and justification of such. Higher difficulty content is usually locked behind a series of content gates. These gates prevent access to said content until the player character is powerful enough to undertake such a difficult content. Live service games can also be updated and balanced as per the wish of the developers. A good example would be Warframe’s Arbitration and Sorties or Tom Clancy’s The Division 2’s Heroic difficulty that was introduced post-launch until players were capable enough.
Single-player games, on the other hand, have it much harder. Before the advent of digital markets and Steam, games had to either ship with the difficulty modes or have different versions with the altered difficulty settings pushed as a sales point. Naturally, the age of client-based, cloud-based gaming has made lives better for developers to support their game post-launch. Yet the central point remains the same, a game’s narrative effect or impact doesn’t differ when the difficulty is ramped up. And therein lies the illusion of difficulty.
The Soulsborne shenanigan
It all started with Dark Souls and the feverish hype it picked up after a couple of hours of release. Many people died fighting the Asylum Demon with a broken Sword hilt, including me. Each boss battle was tailor-made to test player patience and mechanical reflexes.
Then came the shtick of New Game or NG+ or even NG++ and so on and so forth. These game modes offered anyone daring enough to brave the same challenges again for better rewards. Yet the narrative did not change. The story continued with FromSoftware’s future releases such as Dark Souls II & Dark Souls III, Bloodborne and Sekiro.
Quite recently, a lot of game journalists and reviews came under fire from the fans of the series for wanting an easier game mode or some way to make Sekiro a little easier. As of writing this piece, Sekiro does not have an “easy mode” much to the chagrin of many and to the relief of other purists. If properly executed, this easy mode can be just as entertaining as the normal mode. Maybe players won’t be outright ditching the game due to one mistimed dodge. And just maybe, they will come back and try the harder “normal” difficulty later on.
The argument for the easy mode is that the difficulty doesn’t affect everyone. And there are lots of people out there who simply want to enjoy a game’s narrative but are otherwise unable to do so due to the steep difficulty curve. Differently abled gamers make up a sizeable portion of the community who often times are overlooked in favor of the able-bodied ones. While it’s an industry-inclusivity problem, it does co-relate to Sekiro and Soulsborne’s dependence on the difficulty to judge a person’s capabilities in-game.
When asked about his opinion on such an issue, God of War (2018) director Cory Balrog stated that “Accessibility has never and will never be a compromise to my vision.” Keeping in mind that God of War also had a rather steep curve in difficulty from the prequels which makes his statement all the more important. It’s completely agreeable that developers should retain their artistic and creative freedom while developing games. But on the other hand, there are people from all strata and spectrums spending 60$ to enjoy said games. Added to that, a certain section of the player base of these games ask others to “git gud” while completely being oblivious that mechanical skills can be hard to develop for some due to a lot of factors.
There’s no easy to settle this. While there’s a large section of the internet wants games to be accessible for everyone; the others would like to retain the purity of the concept. Both parties have valid points regarding the artistic freedom of developers and freedom of a consumer spending money to enjoy said art. Now if the balances will tip the scales in a certain direction in the future, remains to see. One thing for sure though, Sekiro isn’t as hard as the Dark Souls series. Maybe try some Dante must Die if you want to git gud.