Opinion: The Difficulty Dilemma

by Liz Lanier on Jun 19, 2013 at 03:25 PM

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?