Difficulty options in games: Are they necessary?

A couple of days ago I read an interesting article about difficulty in games, which proposed that all games should have an easy mode. You can check it out here if you’re interested.

Games had difficulty options for ages and everybody has gotten so used to it, that it’s not even thought about anymore. But there are a few titles made by the japanese developer “From Software”, that seem brutally difficult in todays gaming landscape and also don’t offer a clear difficulty option.

Difficulty: From Software

Many gamers used to the current, approachable games of today, are arguing that games like the Souls series or Bloodborne are too hard and should offer a difficulty option. The article gives plenty of arguments for including an easy mode in Bloodborne and games in general.¬†While I personally don’t think that the Souls games or Bloodborne are actually hard, and also think that they do offer many options to lower the difficulty, albeit more obscured, that might be material for another article.

In general, I agree. If you like a game/genre/setting and want to enjoy the experience, you should be able to and not be hindered by unreasonable difficulty. An option to make the game easier or harder makes sense in most cases and games are usually designed around that choice.

But there are exceptions where making the game easier would have a significant impact on the experience, for examples the Souls games and Bloodborne.

Difficulty by Design

These games aren’t arbitrarily difficult, they’re build around that difficulty. Games like Dark Souls have little to none storytelling in the traditional sense. Most of it is done by exploring the world and defeating enemies. The architecture, enemies, item lore and dialog allow the player to put the story together piece by piece. The “flavor text” on items isn’t just enhancing the story, it IS the story. But the difficulty heavily supports the armosphere and story in these games.

The depressing hopelessness wouldn’t be as apparent to the player if he could slice his or her way through the enemy hordes with ease. Enemy placement, item placement and architectural design also play a huge role in telling the player more about the place. From Software makes very deliberate choices with very minute details. The difficult gameplay forces players to proceed with caution and explore all nooks and crannies of the levels, often more than once.

Of course you could still do that at a lower difficulty, but you would be less focused on your surroundings, because not spotting a trap or item doesn’t make a difference.

Another factor that people usually forget about the Souls games:

They are actually ridiculously short. From Software isn’t a gigantic development team with insane budgets, although they’ve surely grown since the unexpected success of Demon’s Souls.

These games don’t get their play time from long levels and cutscenes but from difficulty. Players slowly progress through the levels, inching forward death by death. If you know the games, you could plow through them in a matter of a few hours. The levels are really small, but not strictly linear and very complex. Exploring that takes time and with the ever present danger of enemies, you can’t just run through everything.

Difficulty: Demon's Souls

Let’s say the current default difficulty of these games would be the new hard oder very hard mode and there would be new normal and easy modes, making the game much more accessible and less frustrating to newer players. The level design would also be changed by setting checkpoints more frequently and directly in front of boss fights.

Look at the review scores for From Software’s games since Demon’s Souls: They’re really high. With a new easy mode, these games wouldn’t have anything to offer. Graphics aren’t really great, the game length would be very much sub par, the storyline isn’t really clear and why would you give a sub-average title a good review?

The enjoyment comes from the difficulty, which is connected to the story and environment. Taking away the difficulty would remove an integral part of the game design.

Which brings me to my main point:

Games, like Dark Souls, being designed around their difficulty, should be viewed as their own genre, or at least sub-genre within their respective main genre.

I don’t complain about strategy games having too many strategic elements and decisions, right? It’s part of the game. It’s supposed to have strategy and it wouldn’t work without it.

The same is true for Bloodborne and Souls games. Difficulty is part of the core design and the game just doesn’t work without it. These games don’t have the production value to support an easy mode.

Difficulty: Flamelurker

Coming back to the article I mentioned in the beginning:

Games should be enjoyed by everyone and difficulty shouldn’t be excluding players from enjoying a game.

This is usually true, I agree. But like I said, there can be exceptions. Of course the “get good” argument is dumb. Many players don’t want to or just can’t “get good” due to time constraints or other reasons.

But if you meet someone who says “I really like Jump’n’Runs, but in this Forza game, which I want to play because of [reason], there’s too much racing and I don’t like racing.”, your reply would probably be “Dude, it’s just not for you. You like JnR titles, go get one and enjoy it instead of deliberately frustrating yourself with a genre that’s just not what you’re looking for.”

If someone plays Demon’s Souls, and it just doesn’t “click”, I would just say that the game isn’t what they like. A difficult game, designed around that concept, can very well be a genre that just isn’t for everybody.

There are hundreds and thousands of games out there, from all genres and levels of difficulty. People accept that they don’t like all genres and don’t demand that all genres should be adapted to their liking, but it’s hard to wrap your head around difficulty being a factor in that equasion.

Some people see the enjoyment others get out of the Souls series and they hear their excitement when they talk about it, try the game for themselves and get frustrated to no end due to the difficulty. They want to have the same enjoyment, but forget that it stems from the difficulty. Wishing for an easy mode to be able to enjoy the game that’s good because it’s hard, won’t work.

Besides, I still think the Souls games aren’t that hard once it clicks and you realize that you just have to play differently than you’re used to. But since modern games have conditioned most players to expect a certain level of difficulty and handholding, it’s very very hard to undo that.