As the beta for Dark Souls II draws to a close, having doubtlessly led to many wrecked controllers, I believe the time is right for an examination of video game difficulty and how it has changed in recent years. Several interesting questions immediately arise when discussing this topic. Are games getting easier? Is this a good or bad thing? Are there different types of difficulty? Furthermore, it is worth considering what the evolution (or devolution) of difficulty in gaming says about us as gamers, or more broadly about our generation as a whole.
The bluntest of answers to the first question is yes: video games are generally easier than ever. The near-universal use of multiple lives, checkpoint systems and skipping options has made the lives of gamers much more pleasant. This is a symptom of two main factors in my opinion. First, enhanced technical abilities of consoles and PCs at developers’ fingertips have led to a popular ‘rollercoaster’ model of game, whereby players are whisked through a virtual world and shown its skin-deep beauty. Second, only a minority of gamers truly appreciate a real challenge and most consumers will want a game they can easily whiz through and perhaps trade in, therefore it’s in companies’ financial interests to keep difficulty to a minimum.
Enhanced technical abilities of consoles and PCs at developers’ fingertips have led to a popular ‘rollercoaster’ model of game.
The question that naturally follows is whether this is good or bad. Well, easiness and game quality don’t necessarily correlate. Many gamers will breeze through Grand Theft Auto V without dying a single time, but will enjoy it nonetheless because of an engaging story, brilliant writing and intriguing characters. Conversely, players will die innumerable times in a first playthrough of LIMBO (2010) but will keep going because of the intoxicating atmosphere and beautifully simplistic narrative. This suggests that other factors are in play; surrounding elements within games, level of production values and (crucially) the source of difficulty will determine how much it affects the player.
Nowadays, games that truly challenge the player and become (in)famous for this level of difficulty are largely made by independent studios or those based in Japan. Demon’s Souls was released exclusively on the PlayStation 3 in 2009 and was generally applauded for genuinely making the player consider their actions and use logic. Similarly, Super Meat Boy received critical acclaim upon its release on Xbox Live Arcade in 2010 partly due to its level of difficulty that, it was acknowledged, would not suit all consumers.
And here lies a crucial distinction between games that are difficult because of poor design and those which are hard because human error plays a large part in the gameplay. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour (2012) was panned because, despite interesting characters and great atmosphere, its reliance on Kinect sensors made it extremely tough. This differs from the latter category to which From Software’s aforementioned games subscribe. The twisted genius of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls is the level of control given to the player: one controls every sword swipe, every tiny movement and every shield block. Whilst this inevitably leads to many deaths, none of them are the game’s fault and it is this which makes you keep playing. A Western developer will never create a game with such an uncompromising, unforgiving vision as these products.
As long as storytelling remains profound and gameplay stays varied, easier games have just as much reason to inhabit the marketplace as those which test players.
Finally, what does this shift in difficulty say (if anything) about us as a generation? A cynic would point out that mindless corridor-shooting mechanics of Call of Duty and Battlefield only highlight the industry’s consumerism-driven values. As Alan Sugar loves to say, “Smell what sells.” But I believe one must look deeper. The cult following gained by JRPGs, which test the skill of the player, are a refreshing break from mass appeal of triple-A franchises, but shouldn’t be viewed as a remedy to an illness. As long as storytelling remains profound and gameplay stays varied, easier games have just as much reason to inhabit the marketplace as those which test players. In my mind, the worst case scenario would be a generation defined by either overly simplistic games that hold no merit in other areas, or games that are very difficult due to mechanical failures. We’re more or less getting the balance right, but there’s always room for improvement.