The lights are on
After hurrying home with my copy of The Last of Us and starting it up with eager anticipation, I faced a pressing question that happens nearly every time I start a new game.
What difficulty setting do I want to play?
It’s a loaded question. After all, I have never played the game; I don’t have a feel yet for how well I can play. True, I’ve played through all of the Uncharted games successfully, so chances are favorable that this newest Naughty Dog action title would pose a similar challenge.
But this game is new. It seems odd that such a question, which impacts a huge portion of your experience, is asked before you even start. Then again, it wouldn’t make any sense to ask for a difficulty setting later, would it?
I went with my standard choice of “normal.”
But I felt kind of ashamed. I mean, for someone who has been playing games since I was a little kid, shouldn’t I be experienced enough to play on the hardest difficulty setting? Isn’t that why it’s there? Am I not part of the demographic this mode was created for?
I also have this dilemma with games where the “normal” difficulty setting is actually challenging. I beat Catherine on the normal setting and enjoyed the challenge. Tricky levels kept me entertained without making me want to yank my hair out. But, I wonder if I would have enjoyed the experience the same if I had played the game on hard mode the first time around. Maybe I would I have put the controller down in frustration and never went back to it.
I would rather have a pleasant experience over bragging rights. I played God of War I, II, and III on Hero/Spartan/God instead of Titan mode because I didn’t want to break my controller in fury. Plus, nothing is more agitating than playing on the hardest difficulty and (after dying a few times) receiving a prompt to switch to an easier level.
I used to feel that the accomplishment of beating a game on the toughest setting would overshadow any frustration I experienced getting there, but more recently I’ve realized that it’s not worth it.
As a college student, with life demands other than gaming, it doesn’t seem feasible to get through titles on the hardest difficulty anymore. I have a limited amount of time that I can actually play games – even as a GI intern – and I won’t get through as many if I’m going for the most difficult option.
The truth is, it shouldn’t really matter what difficulty setting I choose because so many titles are about the journey more than the struggle. Why should it matter what I, with my personal gaming experience, choose as a difficulty setting? Some games are meant to make you cry, make you laugh, make you spend time with friends, or scare the crap out of you. And of course, some games are meant to challenge you. Ultimately, a game is meant for enjoyment.
Developers have the challenge of creating an experience that requires more skill rather than just more patience when it comes to higher difficulty. More than a few titles have the issue of not catering to a gamer looking for a challenge, but rather to one that is willing to have less health or a constant onslaught of enemies for the purpose of having the ego boost of beating a more “difficult” game. Sometimes it means playing a portion over and over until you can pass by sheer luck.
Take, for example, the previously mentioned Catherine. The title was considered too difficult by some players even on easy mode, so the developer made a secret, unlockable “very easy” mode. The hardest difficulty in Catherine is not a gameplay experience to laugh at, but not for good reasons. The bottom blocks fall faster, no undo option exists on moves made, and there are fewer items to pick up. Rather than adding a new challenge in making the player build on more complex puzzle-solving skills, the challenge is in moving faster and playing through the level multiple times until the route up is memorized.
Memorization is not the same as skill.
Playing the same level in a game repeatedly is essentially performing the task of a game tester without the pay. The creators most certainly did not have this in mind when making the game, as frustration can undeniably leave a bad taste in the player’s mouth.
Normal and easy modes lend themselves more to the first playthrough of a title. That’s a reason why more difficult modes aren’t available until games are completed, although another part of the reason is so that you have an incentive to load it up again. The developers intended for the game to be played on the normal setting the first time around, lending it an even balance of gameplay and story.
Until I find an insanely difficult mode that tests my proficiency rather than my tolerance, I’ll be sticking with normal mode.
Avoiding the temptation to play the most demanding level is a challenge in and of itself for many gamers. Instead of feeling the shame of needing to dial it back, I think the better approach is to recognize and appreciate the other trials offered in games.
If you choose to unlock the easier level, Vincent will still struggle through the same scenarios as he is pulled between Katherine and Catherine.
You still have to help Shephard through the suicide mission if you opt for an easier go in Mass Effect 2.
And the emotional impact from watching Joel and Ellie get through The Last of Us has been more of a challenge for me than any clickers can offer.
Helping your protagonist survive trials and reach the end of a journey is an accomplishment in and of itself, offering more reward than any trophy or achievement can.
What could be shameful about that?
I play for enter for entertainment and relaxtation, if I want a challenge I'll go to hard mode.
Great feature Liz!
I'll choose normal 99% of the time, because I view it as the default, most carefully balanced setting. Hard is reserved for games where the mechanics are flawless enough that death is never cheap (RE4) or the default game is mind-numbingly easy (Skyrim, Amalur).
For the most part I play games on the Normal mode and am satisfied with it. I generally don't feel the need to bump a game up to Hard (unless the normal mode is really easy for some reason). I don't mind playing challenging games like Dark Souls and accept there is no difficulty option, but I don't feel the need to have the game alter the rules on me just to make me have a more difficult time. Games are reviewed on Normal mode for the most part and that is the mode the Dev decided to be the standard setting for people. The only game I actually will play on the higher difficulty is Devil May Cry games and some RPGs. I play for what fits my level and don't worry about the name of the setting I am on. I may have been gaming for 24 years but that doesn't mean I need to prove anything to anyone.
I've wrestled with this a little too but I've decided that there is a reason it's called "normal." It's rare that the higher difficulty settings in game don't emphasize more memorization or just more of....everything. A higher difficulty setting that means enemies can take 3+ headshots before going down is kind of dumb. A high difficulty setting that makes you emphasize efficiency (ammo, survival tactics) is another animal. In the end I just find a lot of the higher difficulties are just not balanced and are intended to be sort of masochistic. Not all games are like this. Some are rewarding and provide more of a challenge an experienced player wants but I often find that normal is best and frankly would be pretty hard for most people that haven't been playing games all their lives.
I never play on harder difficulties for two reasons: 1) I like to enjoy my games like I would enjoy wine if I were a drinker; it should be done leisurely and carefully, to allow for the full experience. You can't do that if you're sweating and gnashing your teeth desperately trying to figure out what arcane trick you must realize and then execute. 2) I am not, by any means, what you would call an expert on video games. I'd say I suck, but then again, I beat Dark Souls, so that would probably be overstating it a tad.
I usually stick to the "normal" or whatever the middle difficulty setting is. If its a game like Skyrim, for example, I stick to adept for most of the game. Spending all of my time in Skyrim on Legendary would be irritating. I did enjoy the challenge of ME3 on Insanity. It was just challenging enough without being frustrating. Well, except when dodging lasers from that reaper on Rannoch...
I've always saw Normal as the first play through. Harder settings were for possible replays.
I typically do not turn on a higher difficulty unless I feel that my skill level is too good for the current tier and I wish to improve myself even further. But sometimes even bumping up the difficulty even one level can prove to be too much. The very first platinum trophy I acquired was for Mass Effect 2, one of my favorite games of all time, and the only trophy I had to get in order to reach the platinum was to beat the game on Insanity. Having previously only played the game on Normal, completely skipping over Veteran and Hardcore and going straight into Insanity nearly threw me for a loop. I found myself dying on sections of the game where I had previously breezed through on Normal. At one point I had to turn the game off and not play it for a few days simply because the frustration and difficulty was making me angry at the game, and at myself for not feeling able to adequately play it. But I eventually picked my controller back up, kept playing, and I was treated to one of the most invigorating game endings I have ever experienced. It was a hard road to walk but in the end I was satisfied and happy with my results. I will probably never try to replay ME2 on Insanity, much less attempting ME3, but the experience helped me grow as a player.
Always start at normal. That's the par. Not all "Normal Difficulty" settings are created equal. Nothing is worse than starting on Hard and getting to the point where it becomes nigh impossible because you hadn't accounted for the normal arc of difficulty.
I always start on normal first, the second playthrough I always play on the hardest difficulty.
One difficulty I always look forward to is MGS's Extreme difficulty, european extreme or The Boss extreme doesn't matter, I pick whichever is the hardest, tons of frustrating fun.
that's why I like new game plus modes like in Arkham City. I do play Ncaa football on Heisman though and most sports game I play on the hardest difficulty.
I am constantly bringing myself down, telling myself I can't do certain things. So any time I am faced with something I typically wouldn't do, I do it. (Nothing extreme - just, you know, I'm an introvert so instead of saying no to something typically out of my comfort zone, I say yes and try to get through it the best I can.) Playing games on the hardest difficulty is something I do in relation to that. Do I get frustrated? Absolutely. But when I get through a difficult area, I feel great about it and that helps me, on a personal level, not to mention as a gamer. That is why I play games on a difficult setting. (Well, most games - some games I just suck at and don't get but don't want to miss the experience.)
Only game I remember loving the hardest difficulty on is Bioshock Infinite 1999 mode.
By what I've studied on game design, it seems the general consensus is "normal" should be what a game designer intends the game to be played at. Or rather than "should be" maybe it's a general rule of design. That way a casual gamer knows to pick easy, experienced gamer normal, and those looking for brutality hard/beyond. I haven't made any meaningful games yet so I can't speak from experience (yet) :)
Great article, I too feel the same way every time I fire up a game and see the difficulty prompt. I usually play my first run through of a game on easy, and if I end up loving it, or they give you a new game + option, I'll roll back through on hard. But I agree with the conflict of the choice - which is why I like Assasin's Creed games. They have no difficulty setting, letting you focus on the story and gameplay.
Usually pick normal for first playthrough. Hard then the hardest for second playthroughs/NG+