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Game 'Difficulty' Is Good...But The Culture Surrounding It Sucks


Brought to you from the perspective of a 30-year-old gamer who eventually finished Sonic The Hedgehog 2 on the Game Gear.

I love a challenge and I hold to the idea that videogames should be challenging on some level, whether in terms of their narrative or gameplay design. Preferably both. My brain likes to do some work along the way, you know? For me, videogames have always been a meditative sort of hobby.

However, I also believe videogames should learn to be more adaptable as a medium.

'Difficulty' is the last bastion of classic videogame logic. A calcified - though gradually eroding - piece of design that sets a bar of expectation for player experiences, usually summarised by the words 'easy', 'normal' or 'hard'. While the concept itself isn't a bad one, the culture surrounding videogame difficulty has transformed into a load of nonsense.

There's this idea that because a game is difficult it's somehow more rewarding as an experience when players overcome its challenges. There is no evidence to support this claim as a universal truth. What I find pathetic is the notion that players who like using easier difficulty settings are inferior ("casuals"), deserving of contempt from their superior ("hardcore") counterparts.

This argument spirals into the usual divisive nonsense, where entire demographics - commonly younger audiences - are blamed if a developer chooses to make their games more accessible. There's a false sense of betrayal, of tarnishing the unspoken code of videogame design, which for some odd reason dictates that those who can't learn to play well shouldn't be playing at all.

I've completed difficult games. Easy ones, too. I'm not any more or less of a gamer because of this. There is no mystical balancing act occurring in my brain, where the experiences of tougher games are measured against those of easier games, where my IQ or sense of self worth is adjusted accordingly. I'd be a messed up individual if there was.

More importantly: I don't care how you play your games. If you want to whack all the difficulty sliders up to maximum and that's how you get the most from your gaming experiences, that's fantastic. If you happen to prefer easier difficulties or even minimal gameplay, I say go for it. Who the hell am I to argue with that?

The great thing about videogames is that we're reaching a point in game design where we get to have our cake and eat it. Difficulty levels and methods of play are becoming more flexible, more accommodating creatures within the game space.

Take some of the recent stealth-based games that have been released, for example. Invisible Inc., THIEF and Sir, You Are Being Hunted all feature detailed options players can adjust to craft their preferred gaming experiences.

I love this new approach, because it means I can play within a much more nuanced set of parameters. I'm not tied to the developer's idea of what would be 'easy', 'normal' or 'hard' for me in their game. I get to choose. And by making that choice I can have the best possible experience.

There's always room in my heart for the uncompromising, controller-breaking challenges of games like Dark Souls. I'm just not sure there's enough space for gamers who refuse to accept the idea that there can be anything else; that a game's potential 'easiness' detracts from what it has to offer everyone.

I leave you with this uplifting clip from comedian Dara Ó Briain, who manages to tackle the idea of videogame difficulty from multiple perspectives while making an audience of gamers cry with laughter.

Be aware that it's very NSFW.

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About Alex Lemcovichone of us since 4:00 PM on 09.29.2014

Who's This?
His name's Alex. He talks about stealth games until people tell him to shut up. Also, he has a magnificent forehead and a British accent.

What's He Writing?
A bit of everything on games and gaming culture, with particular emphasis on stealth games. Expect op-eds, reviews, lists and reflective blogs. Foul language and potentially NSFW (but always relevant) material is optional.

Anything Else?
Sure, he makes videos about the 'stealth genre' on YouTube, innit. Have a gander: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC88I_nv3aeJg-P46mUOPTgg