Run! Run! Hoo, I'm getting a little winded.
Is it bad for a game to be too hard? Should the goal for a game be maximum accessibility, or should it reward high skill? What’s the right way to do things?
One of the hardest lines to walk in game development, and one of the most consistently debated topics in gaming, is of difficulty. Whether it’s the latest release’s tough third act, the hottest new roguelike, or the endless turmoil over Dark Souls, everyone has an opinion about how hard a game should be. Since everyone has a different skill level or familiarity with any given genre, these discussions almost always end up falling down into personal arguments and anguish, with the most famous example being the ever obnoxious adage popularized by Dark Souls, “Git Gud.”
As I’ve been playing through the most recently released chapter of Fate Grand Order, I was faced with a lot of difficult fights, with a pretty compelling narrative behind them. The chapter has a large focus on a nearly hopeless situation, with a ragtag group of individuals coming together to fight against one of the largest possible threats. The atmosphere around this chapter is intentionally oppressive, with most of your main cast, who had breezed through most of the other chapters with levity and ease, now feeling hopeless and endangered. It’s effective storytelling, and one of the best cases I can think of for how the interactivity of games helps foster immersion better than any other medium of art. This got me thinking about those difficulty debates, and where exactly I stood on how hard games should be.
There have been a lot of pieces over the years arguing over whether or not all games should have an “easy mode”- one where enemies are incredibly weak or the player is absurdly strong- and I’ve never quite found myself agreeing with those in favor. The most egregious were always those discussing Dark Souls, posited by players who had yet to put significant time in after being understandably disheartened by the steep learning curve and vitriolic player base of gatekeepers. While the gut reaction for many is to say the more the merrier, I’d actually like to argue in favor of challenge done right.
In Dark Souls the world has ended, and the player finds themselves drudging through a destroyed landscape of broken people. No matter the locale, the world is completely permeated by death, darkness, and depravity. The first characters you run into regale you with their failings, their surrender to the harshness of the world with lackadaisical lethargy. The atmosphere is coarse and oppressive; it feels like everything is out to get you and that pushing forward might be impossible. That’s the tone that Dark Souls is going for, one of fear and adversity, and if, say all of these imposing enemies before you all died in one attack or hit you with wet noodles, how well would that tone hold up?
My stance with difficulty in games is that of what’s appropriate or not. I believe that if a game’s tone is telling you that things are hard, that things are supposed to be a challenge, and presents all of the tools to contend with such a task, then it’s right for it to be an ordeal. Dark Souls is at its best in those moments where you finally push through a hard boss, or manage to complete the exploration of a particularly harrowing zone. Dark Souls has characters like Siegmeyer, whose character arc is explicitly focused on his failure to contend with adversity, and his jealousy of your persistence and success. If Dark Souls all of a sudden had one of these easy modes, would Siegmeyer still be a sympathetic character, or would he become a joke? Could his character arc still be able to exist as it is, or would it be completely changed to suit a new potential tone?
I’m not so foolish as to believe that everyone is capable of executing everything in a highly technical game like Dark Souls, but I also believe that there are so many options in this world to help those incompatible players still have their own experience. The Souls games feature co-op, which can greatly ease many of the game’s challenges through sheer numbers or the potential to gain a significantly stronger ally. Let’s Plays have been popularized for a reason, and one could simply experience the game through one of the many offerings online for any given game, or by even watching a friend stream or play it through. The conclusion I have come to is that not everything has to be for everyone.
There’s a lot of things in this world I’m unable to do just because it doesn’t mesh well with me. I can’t play competitive modes in most games because I don’t like the pressure, I could never play professional sports because I never put in enough effort to get good at them. At no point, however, have I ended up thinking these things should sacrifice the inoffensive qualities that make them what they are, I simply accepted that they were things that were meant for others, and that I had my own activities that suited me.
If there are demands for “accessibility” in games, it should be for the right kind of accessibility. Things like controls, performance, and support for colorblind or deaf gamers. There should be smart design in the game that makes the narrative work- for example, there are plenty of infamous difficulty spikes in a lot of JRPGs that are just flat out arbitrary instead of well-reasoned. Dark Souls could legitimately benefit from more accessible multiplayer features, since engaging with them in their current obtuse form is hardly related to any particular theme or design philosophy.
Even Fate Grand Order, for all the compliments I paid it, probably has a lot of difficulty derived from its nature as a mobile game. While the design works in tandem with the atmosphere of this particular chapter, there are plenty of examples of these types of games getting more difficult to encourage real money purchases. You can even see this in games that might not be particularly hard like Assassin’s Creed, or even potentially the upcoming Devil May Cry 5, as both feature systems that let you pay real money in exchange for in-game currency or stats. The difficulty with difficulty can often end up meaning so many different facets of a game, it can be hard to pin down just what someone is complaining about.
The culture around these games, and the never ending plague of toxicity and competition that is bred into nearly every video game circle, often paints a lot of expectations in our minds. I’ve known plenty of people who hear about the Souls games, or character action games, or tougher online games like MOBAs or Monster Hunter, and end up dropping them fast because so many have perpetuated this notion of their difficulty. Once you hear something is a certain way negatively, it becomes difficult for you to get rid of that first impression, and you can often judge your own performance or the content of the game more harshly than you would’ve in ignorance, with the chance to practice and grow.
I don’t think it’s wrong for people to be seeking inclusion- media exists to be shared, after all- but I do think that there needs to be an evaluation on whether or not the context of something being harder to access, or more oppressive than its peers, makes reasonable sense. Games can be hard, and if it’s not for you that’s sometimes okay. Video Games are made to provide a compelling and engaging experience, and just like with so many things, everyone will be looking for something different.